Monday, 23 April 2012

Review: Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood



The second of my ongoing exploration of post apocalypse fiction, Year of the Flood is by Margaret Atwood and depicts a much more modern apocalypse than Greybeard did.  This is fitting, the fears of the early 21st century  are very different to those of the 1960s, viruses, cults and dirty bombs have won in our imaginations whereas the idea of nuclear weapons and experiments seems almost prosaic (unless you live in Kashmir at a guess).

Atwood embraces this fact to present a world where capitalism has spun out of control, its almost cyberpunk in its intensity and in the politics she presents, and where things are fracturing at an alarming rate.  To fall through the gaps in society is to fall into a world of crime, cults and vice where nothing is safe, not even food (a chain called Secretburger makes mystery meat fast food, and its suggested that humans may be making their way into the food chain).  She creates interesting cults to show how desperate things have got but focuses on one group, God's Gardeners who are a strange church that straddle the line between scientists and believers.  Atwood manages to make their doctrines interesting and at times compelling and it's clear from the very beginning that they're preparing for an apocalypse, a "waterless flood" as its put.

The story itself concentrates on two women who have been part of the church and retraces their lives through the Gardeners' rise to power (and their slow fall from unified group to schism and ultimately violence) to the point where the apocalypse comes and its aftermath.  She approaches the stories from two different directions: Toby, a person on the edge of falling who's saved by the cult and the other character, Ren, who travels in the opposite direction, starting with the Gardeners who ends up in a sex club, albeit of the most exclusive variety.  Both take detours through the world of the corporations, which allows us to see how unreal and cut off from reality their workers are, hemmed in by 'news' (aka propaganda) and the sort of material comforts that allow people to put on their own blinders and ignore difficult questions.  There seems to be comment on civilisation here, that in being civilised we stop asking the right questions and start to filter our input in such a way as to avoid reality.  The idea that civilisation deadens us is perhaps also behind the idea of Painball, which in some ways is the most generic idea in the novel, the idea of extreme violence being used for entertainment, whilst not without historical precedences, is a staple of science fiction to the extent that it's even penetrated Young Adult books (the Hunger Games).

Returning to the world, the author presents human control of science and nature (and the hubris that comes with it): the corporations can work miracle, creating such creatures as Liobams, part sheep part lion and using pigs to grow human organs including brain cells.  At the same time one of the protagonists, when she has to go into hiding she's altered in so many ways that her appearance is utterly changed.

Interestingly the apocalypse in Year of the Flood is intentional, a new race has been prepared to inherit the Earth, this is no cock up but cover up and it's an interesting idea but to an extent I feel its the part that stretches credibility.  Even a small group would surely have been caught if they were planning an apocalypse (though that said surely a small group of terrorists would have been picked up before they could hijack several planes and crash them into significant American buildings, so perhaps I'm wrong).

All in all, a good book and one that's intelligently and compellingly written.