Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood

Well, darn it. Now I'm going to have to read Oryx & Crake: not that I didn't want to, but Margaret Atwood's been an unwitting victim of my West Coast anti-Ontario prejudice, even though I regularly recommend that people read Wilderness Tips, and even though I've enjoyed everything by her that I've ever read. I'm busy. I'm not going to read stuff unless I've got time and energy for it, unless the book club makes me do it, and The Year of the Flood was impressive enough that I've got to find the energy for Oryx & Crake as well.

Since others raised the question when the novel first came out that Atwood was writing these two novels, I had to do the customary mulling over of whether it's still science fiction when a "literary author" writes it, or if it remains "literature." (And I don't use scare quotes often, so take them seriously!)

It's set in the future, with technologies that we're developing now but that aren't here yet, and it's got plenty of the traditional hallmarks associated with dystopian sci-fi: huge corporations, the faceless and anonymous powerful, ethical blind spots, intense personal conflict between characters representing competing worldviews, and so on. Environmentalism has been part of the science fiction universe since before there was environmentalism, too, so even there Atwood's representation of pre- and post-apocalyptic environmentalism shouldn't be seen as new. So it's sci-fi, and we should move on to talk about the book.

Except that really, The Year of the Flood is a sci-fi novel that didn't get received that way when it appeared, and a novel that's not received as sci-fi isn't genuinely sci-fi. If you talk about Fight Club, you're really not in Fight Club; if you're not treated like a genre-fiction pariah by literary reviewers, you're not a sci-fi novelist. You could write a novel about robots failing in their attempt to regrow humans, now extinct, from the DNA of Leonard Nimoy and Jeri Ryan, on a satellite right where the Earth had been until its destruction by the Vogons, but if newspaper book reviewers want to talk about it, it's not sci-fi. That's especially true if said reviewers think of the novel as anything other than sci-fi, and The Year of the Flood got too much attention.

Yes, yes, I realize that the purchasing and borrowing audience for science fiction is huge, and that in most countries, more people read science fiction than mainstream literary fiction. Not the point. Science fiction is outsider literature: financially successful publishers, employed and remunerated authors, glossy covers and decent copywriting, but there's no place for it at the mainstream table.

But is this really an issue?

Atwood's novel offers a rich, complicated look at apocalypse--before, during and after--in a society that looks not unlike where ours might be in a few decades. Some things should be understood metaphorically rather than actually (transgenic sheep bred for organ transplants, rather than bred for hair transplants), but otherwise this imagined alternative future kind of fits. The blend of religion and science among God's Gardeners is brilliant, really, and her hymns are shockingly believable (and good, too). Some characters are a little cartoony, but society has done that to them. As I watched the uncivil unrest occur in Vancouver last night--which I refuse to call a "hockey riot"--some scenes from this book came to mind, particularly of Toby looking out from her refuge and wondering what kind of world she was going to be left with. In other words, it's the kind of book where the futurist dystopia leaves you differently equipped to face the world you're already facing, and that's a very good sign.

It's a powerful book, The Year of the Flood, well worth reading slowly and carefully, or racing through a couple of times if that's your preference. Whether you're a sci-fi reader, or a reader of Real Fiction, there's something here for you, and either way, you should read some books more often read by the opposing side. When the apocalypse comes, we'll want a common language by which to know each other.


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