The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, the Second Best Reading Challenge, and the Apocalypse Now! Reading Challenge.
Method of the world's destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist's bioengineered supervirus.
This book is part of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, and it runs concurrently to Oryx and Crake, which I read and reviewed earlier this year. As others have observed, it suffers by comparison, but that's probably not fair. If it were taken entirely on its own it would have been mind-blowing, but because we already know so much of the story from Oryx and Crake it's merely awesome.
This read to me a lot like what would happen if you crossed Stephen King's The Running Man and The Stand with The Island of Dr. Moreau, except with female protagonists; a younger woman named Ren (who tells us her story in the first person) and an older woman named Toby (who tells us her story in the third person personal,) who at one point were both part of a religious group called God's Gardeners. A third protagonist, whose voice emerges as sermons that separate the chapters, is Adam One, the leader of the God's Gardeners sect that these women are (or were) a part of. It's basically their story of how they survive. While the absurdities of life and the raw humanity of the characters will remind a King reader of his style, Atwood differs considerably from King in her tone. King's characters are like people under way-too-bright lights; their flaws are glaring and jarring. Atwood portrays her characters' flaws as intentional shadows and shading that make the whole more beautiful, like a well-constructed painting. Though there is some pretty bald-faced evil in this book, and some really nasty people who do terrible things; yet Atwood somehow succeeds in making you pity them a little too.
Readers who were fans of Oryx and Crake will be entertained by the many ways in which the lives of Crake and Jimmy (Snowman) intertwine in and out of the lives of the protagonists of this novel, and they might also appreciate how many of the mysteries of the first novel are explained in this, the second. Or they might regard it, as one reviewer put it, as "someone turning on the lights after a really good ghost story." Honestly I don't think that's a bad metaphor, but I don't see it as a bad thing. It really is like that. Oryx and Crake was horrific and bleak. The Year of the Flood restores our hope that humanity just might make it despite itself.
I think one of the most interesting things about this book was the depth of culture that was created for the God's Gardeners. Part Humanistic Christian, part Neo-Pagan, part New Age hippie and part Earthseed, the God's Gardeners hold to a theology in which ecology and the natural cycles of life and death, plus the Earth and all its creatures, are sacred. They remind me of the more dedicated spiritual ecologist types that used to shop at my metaphysical store, and I myself know many of the nearly-lost skills that this sect, obviously regarded as quaint weirdos until a splinter cell dabbled in eco-terrorism, teach. I love that they have made people who were, or are, champions of ecology, peace, and peaceful courage into saints; among them Gandhi, Dian Fossey, David Suzuki, Karen Silkwood, and Terry Fox, to give a few examples who stuck out for me because they are heroes of mine.
She even wrote hymns for the Gardeners based on Anglican and United Church hymns. What's fun is that I found myself thinking, "These are actually pretty cool. With a little adjustment they would work for Pagan rituals. I should find out which hymns they were based on and write some music for them." Turns out I don't have to, because someone else did, in a CD called "The Hymns of God's Gardeners," which you can buy on Amazon or listen to on YouTube. And Atwood invited anyone to freely use them for "amateur devotional or environmental purposes" in her Afterword. Thank you, Ms. Atwood; expect this Canadian witch to take you up on it.
I have three - no, four - complaints, all of them minor and none of them a deal-breaker. The first is that I would really like to read just one post-apocalyptic story in which the women do not get raped. This is becoming so much a part of post-apocalyptic literature that I think men are going to start planning on it as part of their preparations. "Okay, we have to stockpile canned food, water, ammunition, and women for the harem." Listen; all men do not turn into roving rapists as soon as disaster strikes. And while I'm on this subject, it seems to me that Ms. Atwood doesn't like men very much. Almost every male in all three of the books by her I've read thus far have been mostly jerks. I like the way she ultimately resolved it, though. I'm not telling you; that would be a spoiler. ;)
So those two complaints are related. The other two complaints involve reactions to the novel. The Globe and Mail is quoted on the front of The Year of the Flood, calling it "A work of fearless imagination." Which implies that it's totally original and one-of-a-kind. It's not. It's great, don't get me wrong! I'm definitely a fan and I think I'm going to make a point of reading everything Atwood has ever written now because I love the way she writes, but nothing Atwood has done in this novel is anything that hasn't appeared in science fiction before. Genetic engineering, dystopias, post-apocalyptic disaster scenarios, weird creatures, new forms of humanity, strange religious sects, eco-terrorists, climate disasters and evil, all-controlling corporations that run everything while humanity indifferently just tries to keep its head down instead of stopping it; none of this is new. It's all been done before. The key here is just that Atwood does it really well!
Which leads me to my final complaint. Once again, Atwood does not want to admit that this is science fiction. I watched an interview with her on YouTube about this book, and what she said this time was that she didn't want to be accused of false advertising. She didn't want people to think there were going to be "Martians and galaxies" because there aren't.
What is her damage?! As if that's all science fiction has ever been! I think she just doesn't want to admit that it's science fiction because then she might have to admit that her work is not the "fearlessly imaginative" creation that all these reviewers who sneer at science fiction but wouldn't know it if it bit them in the face think that it is.
Well, she may not want to call it science fiction, but we know it when we see it. Personally, I think she ought to be awarded the Nebula for Best Author and the Hugo for Best Novel. It would be fun to watch her squirm, figuring out how to maintain her ultra-literary reputation without alienating 75% of her readers.
Okay; but aside from how angry that personally makes me, this is a beautifully rendered world, rendered in even more detail, with compelling characters and a gripping story and liquid prose that kept me turning pages until there were no more pages to turn. I loved it, and I can't wait to read the final chapter, MaddAddam.
View all my reviews
49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives
Canadian Paganism has a style all its own. Have a look at events, issues, celebrations, people, trends and events north of the border from the eyes of a Canadian Wiccan and Witch.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
It grieves me deeply to learn of the death of Carrie Fisher, whose humour, cleverness and bravery have been an inspiration in my life. Carrie Fisher's legacy includes bravely sharing some of the most intimate details of her lowest points, from her struggles with drug addiction and bipolar disorder to the objectification that she was subjected to as an actress, to nasty, petty remarks from an entitled media whom, it seems, were angry that she didn't just stay perfect in her gold bikini forever and had the audacity to get old. She faced it all with courage and a cynical and sarcastic wit that I, who have had some considerable struggles in my life, find both inspiring and smugly satisfying. She was an accomplished writer, penning memoirs, script band-aids, and her bestselling novel Postcards from the Edge, which was later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley McLaine. But of course, she remains best known for her portrayal of Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars Saga, and this is, of course, why I know about her....
A Quest for Canada is a series of articles that will appear in both my Witches & Pagans column 49 Degrees and my Patheos blog Between the Shadows on an alternating schedule between the two blogs. Links will be provided in both blogs.
It was the perfect moment....
Quest for Canada is a new series of articles that will appear alternately in both my Witches & Pagans column 49 Degrees and my Patheos blog Between the Shadows. It will be published once a week in an alternating schedule between the two blogs. Links will be provided in both blogs.
I believe in new gods as well as old gods. When you invest spiritual and emotional energy into a concept, it acquires its own egregore; and when enough people do it for long enough, it develops a very powerful egregore. Most of my readers will have heard of Lady Liberty, or the American Dream. Simon and Garfunkle wrote a beautiful song about searching for the spirit of America, which was remembered recently in a political campaign ad. I, as a Canadian, went in search of the spirit of my own country, Canada....
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months challenge, the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction challengeand the Vernon Library Summer Reading challenge. I was going to read this for the Apocalypse Now! Challenge, but the world was not destroyed and therefore, it does not qualify.
I loved this book. I loved everything about it! I have encountered some of Nalo Hopkinson’s short fiction before and was intrigued, but this novel received a lot of awards and a lot of critical acclaim, and was her first explosion on the scene. One of those awards was the Aurora Award, which is Canada’s tribute to our science fiction and fantasy writers, so naturally I was honour-bound to read it eventually anyway, but what a pleasure!
In this novel of magical realism, which takes place in a dystopian Toronto that has been abandoned by the Canadian and Ontario governments after an economic collapse, Ti-Jeanne has just recently left the father of her baby to live with her grandmother because he is a drug addict who has gotten mixed up with the local organized crime syndicate who runs the inner city, called the Posse, and she realizes that as much as she loves him, he’s no good for her and less good for the baby. There is no police force in operation in the urban remains, none of the city’s infrastructure is supported, and economy has gone back to bartering and growing what one can in the remains of the city’s many iconic parks, so there is little consequence for participating in crime and the Posse has a free rein in the city. The leader of the Posse, Rudy, has made a deal with a shady hospital to provide a human heart for a transplant to the Premier of the Province (for you Americans, that’s like the state governor.) Rudy has learned that Tony, the father of Ti-Jeanne’s baby, has been skimming off the top of the drugs he has been selling for Rudy to support his own habit, and has blackmailed him into fetching the heart from one of the local urban residents – by force. Tony was once a nurse before his habit got him fired.
What makes this scenario really interesting is that Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother, Gros-Jeanne (yes, for those of you who speak French, the names are deliberately symbolic) is a Caribbean immigrant who is a priestess of a Caribbean Afro-Diasporic tradition. The Afro-Diasporic traditions are syncretic faiths such as Voodoo and Santeria; Gros-Jeanne never specifies her tradition and actually says that they are all essentially the same. This turns the sordid scenario into an epic spirit quest in the Caribbean spiritual tradition, taking place partially in the physical world and partially in the spirit world. Much of the magic, until near the end of the book, might only be happening in the minds of the characters, and best of all, the Voodoo is real. I am a Wiccan priestess and have had the opportunity to learn just enough about Voodoo from practitioners that I have met to recognize the rituals, the symbolism, the magical practices and the spirits themselves.
The overall effect is an exercise in surrealism, told with a masterful hand. The language is simple but the characters and the story are deep. I don’t dare tell you anymore for risk of spoiling the story. I will say that I loved everything about it, from the story itself, to the mythic themes of Caribbean culture that were mined to create the story structure, to the evocative descriptions, to the use of modern iconic places to create a sense of realism, to the theme, which, ultimately, is a complex examination of what “family” actually is. I find myself beaming with Canadian pride in Nalo Hopkinson, and I highly recommend this novel to pretty much anyone.
View all my reviews
Tonight Canada had a moment kind of like the moon landing or Woodstock or JFK's assassination. Years from now we'll be telling our grandchildren where we were when we watched The Tragically Hip's farewell concert.
Yeah, you probably don't even know who they are, do you? At the most you're scratching your heads and muttering, "Yeah, that's some Canadian band, right?" Yeah, okay, you're right, and you're horribly wrong too. For about thirty years the Hip has been writing Canada's soundtrack for life. We often wondered why they never seemed to catch anywhere outside of our big-but-small country, especially since they would fill every stadium to standing room only when they played in any major Canadian city. But now we know the answer. It's because they're as Canadian as mounties, beavers and inukshuks; as Montreal steak and poutine; as curling and lacrosse and hockey. Probably it's just that no one else but us could fully appreciate them....
In the ancient days of the world, when all was still mostly froth and chaos, there lived two great Kings. The Oak King was the ruler of the places that were light, and the Holly King ruled the places that were dark. At first They feared one another; for the Holly King was the master of the places that the Oak King dared not go, and the Oak King was the master of the places that the Holly King dared not go. What secrets might the other be keeping? But the Goddess of the Moon and Stars knew Them both, and She bade Them to go to one another. “You’ll like Him!” She told each of Them with the twinkle of the stars in Her deep dark eyes. “You’ll see!”
So They agreed to meet at the border of Twilight, where light and dark meet. The Goddess guided Them to the meeting place with the twinkles of Her eyes, and then She tactfully withdrew....