Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

[Note: I "read" this as an audio book, if that matters to you.]

I'm always a little leery of books that are prequels, but since this was by the always solid Margaret Atwood, I was hopeful that things would turn out a bit better for me.

Sure, given Oryx and Crake's ending, a sequel would make more sense than a prequel, but I had faith that there was a reason behind going back and telling the story from a different angle. Unfortunately, this book verified my reasons for disliking prequels as a rule, and is the first Atwood book I've read that left me feeling less interested in reading more by this usually strong author.

Oryx and Crake was the story of a dystopian technocratic future and, indirectly, the story of one man's obsession to change that future, based on problems in his past. The Year of the Flood is about a group of people who may or may not have influenced that man's thinking, teaching peaceful resistance to the power structure but really working to undermine it step by step.

As with Oryx and Crake, however, there is a distance placed between the reader and the action, as we once again get the information from a source anywhere from one to several steps removed. This time, the narration is a dual one, with a smattering of sermons (more on this later) by the religious leader, Adam One.

Toby is a woman whose life went to hell in this technocratic society, as the powers that be slowly take away everything she's ever had. She finds the Gardeners, the group who, as it happens, may have influenced Crake's mad schemes. Soon Toby is finding a part of herself she never knew existed--one that may in fact save her life. Alternating narration from a different perspective is Ren, a young women who grows up as a Gardener, then must make her way in what they refer to as the exfernal world. Dumb luck saves her life, but for how long?

As these two women tell their stories, both about the way in which their life changes over time, both for good and bad, they sometimes give differing perspectives on the same situations. This is one of the high points of the book. Atwood shows how perspective can make all the difference. The trouble is that she pushes it too far, having Ren end up meeting most of the folks from Oryx and Crake, in ways that eventually stretch credulity to the breaking point. Ren and her friends end up so involved in the life of Jimmy (Snowman) it's almost comical. Unfortunately, Atwood falls victim to the problem of a prequel--she's trying to make things fit too neatly, and it ends up looking like a frame job.

Unfortunately, this also takes away from the uniqueness of the world created in Oryx and Crake. As we learn more details about this future world, it become less novel, less alien, and less interesting as a character. Giving all the details on the corruption of the new government drags things out of the world of wonder and more into our own sad world. The longer the book progresses, even as things get more like a science fiction novel, the less this feels like an innovative commentary and more like any number of movie plots. That was extremely disappointing to me.

There's also the problem that the Gardeners and Adam One sound entirely too much like they are echoing those of Atwood herself. The sermons are clunky, do not add much to the text, and end with a plea about how humanity is/was destroying the earth, depending on if you're reading it as the opinion essay it is or the fictional account it's supposed to be. I'm sympathetic to Atwood's ideals and I appreciate the better use of resources that the Gardeners espouse. The ideology bogs down the text, however, and makes this novel a lot less than it could have been.

This doesn't mean it's all bad. There are still some new elements of this world that I really like, and the characters are more engaging. Toby starts off as a stock character, but she grows into a real force who finally takes control of her own life, after spending so much time as a pawn. Ren loses herself as time goes on, finding that her personality is one that gloms on to others. Zeb, Shackleton, Crozier, Nuala, Rebeca, and the other members of the Gardeners are likable people who we want to see live despite this terrible new world. Another flaw in the book is that it seems Atwood can't kill anyone off, which is a shame because when she does end the life of a character in Year of the Flood, I was profoundly moved.

Year of the Flood ends on yet another oddly placed cliffhanger, which is a shame because I'm not sure I'm all that interested in reading more. Overall there were just too many moments where things fit nicely into place, a sign of plotting gone overboard. Toby and Ren just have to be in all the right places for this book to work, and that takes away from its sense of plausibility. (Is asking a science fiction book to be plausible unreasonable? Maybe. However, when you're asking me to accept things that are not possible in my world, I do ask that you take the time to keep the usual circumstances of life within the bounds of reason.)

Combined with the often heavy-handed condemnation of a world moving in a direction Atwood doesn't like, Year of the Flood just didn't grab me the way that Oryx and Crake did. I am intrigued enough to read the next book when it comes out, but I won't be in as much hurry this time as I was after finishing the first book in this series. There's no need to flood the bookstore or library to grab this one, and there's definitely better Atwood out there for those looking to check out her writing.

1 comment:

  1. I understood that this book was more of a companion book to Oryx and Crake than a prequel, but I've only read The Year of the Flood not the first book. I liked Flood and thought the sermons and singing were funny and goofy, just like the sect. Atwood is an amazing writer and I enjoyed this book on audiobooks, too.