Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Margaret Atwood and the End of the World

Does the world end in fire, or ice? Does it end in zombies? No – try plague. Messy at first, but when the vultures are done, you’ll start to notice small improvements – birdsong, for instance, in the absence of highway traffic.

Margaret Atwood shies away from “Science Fiction” as a brand. When discussing Oryx and Crake, her 2003 novel about the end of our species, she prefers the term “speculative fiction” – this isn’t hyperspace, she’s said, this is here, and now. This is barely more than present-tense.

In Year of the Flood, Atwood revisits the near-future established in Oryx and Crake, and reminds us that when it comes to the end of days, we should set our sights a little higher than in-jokes involving eating brains. We should consider, for instance, our species, and ask ourselves: wouldn’t the birds, plants and trees be much better without us?

Atwood has a reputation for heavy-handed allegories of the near-future. While The Handmaiden’s Tale is a staple of third-wave feminist reading lists, many (myself included) find its vision of a Christianized, misogynistic military state a bit too steeped in vitriol. The sense of outrage and mission made Handmaiden’s Tale a powerful statement, but a flimsy novel.

Some of the same complaints were leveled against Oryx and Crake. The novel was too preachy, some critics said, favoring coy anti-corporate, environmentalist rants over rounded characters. It wasn’t Checkov, for sure: Jimmy, sole survivor of a sweeping hemorrhagic plague, seems more like a study in Crusoe than an original creation. Still, he’s at least sympathetic, and the Oryx and Crake’s real accomplishment is a world freshly greened by man’s absence – Earth moves in, breaking up highways with weeds, scaling skyscrapers with vines and letting genetically spliced predators multiply in the wild, creating an ecology hostile to fleshy, technocratic man. When Jimmy wakes in the tree where he sleeps, the world he encounters is an Eden, all the better for humanity’s absence:

“On the eastern horizon there’s a grayish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that color still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.”

Year of the Flood exists parallel to Oryx and Crake. It fleshes out the universe unexplored by the 2003 novel, which took place primarily in the walled-off compounds that sheltered corporation executives from the chaos of the “pleeblands.” Flood opens with a scene reminiscent of Crake, in which a woman named Toby wakes in the pre-dawn to tend her rooftop garden. Once again, we get a sense that the world ended for the better:

“There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there’s no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier? Toby has no idea.”

Toby is an ex-God’s Gardener, a vegan cult that mixes Christian mysticism with extreme environmentalism. They saw passing reference in Oryx and Crake, but Flood concerns them almost exclusively. While the practiced Atwood critic will wince, expecting more barely-concealed allegorical indictment, Flood will surprise them. The Gardeners are dreamers, with all the good intentions and obvious lunacy of a radical fringe – Atwood makes no attempt to conceal that. She lets herself poke fun at her merry little composters, breaking up chapters with Gardener hymns and sermons dedicated to decomposition, harvest, and the mighty mole. The light touch keeps the narrative moving as it approaches the days of the plague – or, as the Gardeners call it in prophesy, The Waterless Flood.

As in Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s imagination is as abundant and vivid as the flora that retake the cities. The world of Flood is filled with more original detail than any tale of post-apocalyptia in recent memory. The Gardeners squat in a derelict building. They haul buckets of dirt to their rooftop gardens; they steal the dregs of wine bottles to manufacture vinegar. As it becomes obvious, the Gardener leaders are all ex-Corps – closet idealists who left their lucrative corporate jobs and dropped off the grid.

Flood is a book with an intricate, nimble plot. Not to diminish the original, but it makes Oryx and Crake seem like a sense-of-place study, lovingly establishing the universe that would be put to use in the following novel. And that’s okay – in fact, it’s satisfying to watch Atwood get her hands dirty with the kind of plotting acrobatics characteristic of (gasp!) science fiction.

This is the best we’ve seen from her since Blind Assassin; perhaps ever. As an English major, some part of me is suspicious of the sheer joy with which I read Year of the Flood – and I loved every page with much, much joy, particularly relishing the reappearance of some old faces. After a few deep breaths, I surrendered myself to having fun. I can only imagine Atwood did the same when she hung up the polemics and, like Adam, started naming the animals in the strange, wonderful world of Year Of The Flood.