Into the Sci-fi Ghetto with Margaret Atwood

My first and only prior foray into the work of Margaret Atwood was in high school when I was made to read Cat’s Eye.  I hated it passionately.  I was unable then – and I still retain this “problem” as a reader – to separate liking the characters from liking the book.  The most poetic, well-crafted literature in the world will find itself being hurled across the room in my house if I can’t stand the characters, and Atwood’s limp, weak-minded “heroine” Elaine Risley earned nothing but my scorn.  I couldn’t bring myself to give Atwood a second chance for almost 15 years.

The Year of the Flood seemed to me to be a good safe re-entry into Atwood’s work.  After all, I do love speculative genres when well-written, and I have a special place in my heart for post-apocalyptic and survivalist stories.  The book had been getting excellent reviews elsewhere and so I could also hope for a good read, regardless of genre.  I was mildly put off by Atwood’s insistence that she isn’t writing science fiction (a preposterous claim well debunked by Ursula le Guin) but I resolved to give her the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know if I succeeded.  I’m torn now on this book.  On the one hand, I enjoyed it.  It was quaint, a page-turner and satisfied my bizzare craving for apocalypse scenarios.  If it had been written by a denizen of the sci-fi ghetto I’d probably be writing raves right now.  But on the other hand I’d been led to beleive by reviewers and Atwood herself that this book represented something else, some higher, more literate thing than mere science fiction.  The New Yorker has likened Atwood’s “speculation” to Orwell’s offerings, and Year of the Flood was long-listed for the Giller (though, perhaps tellingly, failed to be shortlisted for any of Canada’s big literary awards).

What it certainly isn’t is anything special.  As literary fiction it is a mediocre-to-decent work.  On the whole it feels rushed, as if nobody bothered to do a thorough edit.  Ren describes Toby with effectively the same analogy twice in the first sixty pages:

“You wouldn’t think it would be Toby … but if you’re drowning, a soft squishy thing is no good  to hold on to.  You need something more solid.”

“…we trusted Toby more: you’d trust a rock more than a cake.”

Early in the book Ren and Toby speak of each other in nearly whistful tones, as if they’ve played a great part in each others’ lives.  Yet when their mutual history finally collides at the AnooYoo Spa, we are told they barely interact and Ren, ultimately, leaves within a few months.  I found myself repeatedly faced with similar questions about the characters’ relationships (what was up with Toby and Zeb?  Or Amanda and Jimmy?  Glen and anyone?  Mordis?) and the root of my confusion is ultimately Atwood’s haphazard character-building.  Names and positions fail to pupate into fully-formed characters and so they phone in their parts in the story like  high school thesbians who only barely learned their own lines.  Even the two main characters fail to fully gel.  Toby was the more successful of the two protagonists: Ren was a half-believable sketch whose early opinions made less and less sense the more you knew about her.

I also found what other reviewers referred to as “clever” to be quaint at best and more often, lame.  Her future is populated with genetic “splices”, creatures created by man and released accidentally or intentionally into the wild.  These critters are invariably called by a spliced name – rakunks, (raccoon/skunks), liobams (lion/lams) or wolvogs (wolf/dogs).  She makes easy double entendres of the corporate overlords like CorpSeCorpse (get it?  CORPSE?) and SeksMart (you know, like SEX) and Saints of most of our twentieth-century Greenies, which frankly seems to overestimate the long-term impact of people like Terry Fox.

Oddly the novel’s “roughness” is discounted as some kind of virtue by Jeanette Winterson’s New York Times review.  Apparently “The flaws in “The Year of the Flood” are part of the pleasure…” – I beg to differ.  But this is par for the course with Atwood reviews I am learning.  The woman can do no wrong, which brings me to my next complaint.

If Year of the Flood isn’t a wonderful literary novel, is it at least good science fiction? Sure, it’s not bad.  Nothing special.  Science fiction motifs have been used to address Atwood’s themes already, from  child abuse (Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber) to religious cults of sustainability (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash) to mega-corporate control (Shadowrun, anybody?)  But Atwood’s reviewers don’t seem to have any experience or history with science fiction, so they speak of her most mundane tropes as if they’re stunningly innovative insights.

This, I think, is what drove me the most crazy about the book.  How can so many reviewers get off calling her “prophetic” for a book that simply re-treads the same material science fiction writers have been working with for the last fifteen years?  She surely treads it well enough, but prophetic?  Seriously?  It’s insulting to the smart, clever, funny and literary science fiction writers out there who don’t have Atwood’s golden glow.  Most of all I’m disappointed at Atwood herself, who rather than acknowledging the fine tradition of eco-speculation she is joining, acts as if she has invented the wheel.

So it’s a pretty good book.  I guess.  Shame about the pretentions, because they pretty much ruined it for me.

4 Responses to Into the Sci-fi Ghetto with Margaret Atwood

  1. lady_findel says:

    Reading your review of this book reminds me of another of Atwood’s books: Oryx and Crake. I haven’t read this one yet, but your description of the book and the crittes makes me assume that these are set in the same world and probably the same time. I had to read Oryx and Crake for an English class a few years ago, and although my recollection is a bit hazy, I did like it back then. It did suffer from the same ‘faults’ as this one, except for the characters which were fleshed out very well.

    • Charlotte says:

      I didn’t read Oryx and Crake, but I now think I would have been better “prepared” for Year of the Flood if I had. I think she glossed over a lot of the characters and relationships because she’d already covered them in O&C.

      That said – if a reading of Oryx and Crake was necessary to really get into Year of the Flood, they should have called it Book Two of the Crakonomicon or something. 😉

  2. rpriske says:

    It is a syou say… Atwood tricks readers into reading science fiction by ‘pretending’ it is ‘real’ literature… as ridiculou sa premise that is from beginning to end.

    She then writes interesting, but hardly ground-breaking ideas, to people who have not yet been exposed to them because of the SF/fantasy/genre stigma.

    As an aside, while not a big Atwood fan I alos liked Oryx and Crake. It was a satisfying read.

  3. Kate says:

    I did like both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood – apparently there is going to be a third book in the “Madaddam Trilogy”. And about the naming of the Corporations – I heard her interviewed, and apparently part of it was to avoid using any trademarked names – ie change the spelling and you won’t get sued!

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