Monday 16 July 2018

Going to hell in a hi-tech handcart

The Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, £18.99 hardback)

The marvellous writer Margaret Atwood is some kind of -- I was going to say "national treasure" in her native Canada but that won't cover it. Global treasure? Planetary treasure? She's certainly a rare talent: a spectacularly gifted novelist but also an award-winning poet from her early 20s (Atwood is now almost 70), an essayist, playwright, commentator, critic, writer of children's books. She's done it all, and wonderfully, she continues to do it. Her latest work of fiction, The Year of the Flood -- her 13th novel-- is thought-provoking, beautifully constructed, and rich with the imaginative flourishes for which she's rightly famous. While not quite on a par with her "great" works such as Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale or The Blind Assassin, it's a hugely entertaining and satisfying read.

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Year of the Flood is a sort of companion piece to the 2004 novel Oryx and Crake, itself a riveting, thrilling slice of dystopian science fiction (though Atwood prefers the term "speculative fiction"). That story ended with, well, the end of the world, as the idealistic but unhinged genius Crake unleashes a virus which virtually wipes out the global population thus clearing the way for his genetically engineered "new humans" to live peaceful, better lives.

This book begins some weeks or months after that man-made cataclysm -- the waterless "flood" of the title.

Two women have survived: 40-something Toby, holed up in the high-end spa where she worked; and Ren, a young exotic dancer at a bizarre sex-club called Scales and Tails.

Then we move back in time, learning what led these women to where they are now and how they among billions lived through the flood, fleshing out their lives and characters and inner motivations. They had known each other once when they both lived with the God's Gardeners; a radical eco-cult which turned its back on GM foods, consumerism, and the terrifying corporations which more-or-less rule this world. This, I suppose, makes The Year of the Flood not so much a sequel to Oryx and Crake, as an alternative perspective through which to view the story.

Some of the people from that first novel reappear including its main character Jimmy (AKA Snowman), his ex-girlfriend Amanda, the apocalyptic Crake, Ren herself. And many of the disturbing, weird, and often hilarious products and concepts of Atwood's marvellously imagined near-future also make an appearance: the murderous CorpSeCorp private army, the "pleeblands" or compounds in which dwell the miserable mass of mankind, the genetically spliced abominations like "rakunks" and "bobkittens"; the vile foods like "ChickieNobs" and "Secretburgers" (the secret is you don't know what in God's name you're eating).

This is a world going to hell in a high-powered, precision-engineered handcart: violent, toxic, unstable. Profit is God, people are just pieces of meat (sometimes literally), the environment is ruined and the planet is on the verge of immolation, both literal and metaphorical. Written in Atwood's customary elegant prose, and with her customary generous helpings of dry, sarcastic wit, it's both a moral fable and a futuristic thriller.

The sense of impending doom is almost palpable; danger lurks around every rotting, crumbling corner. This is the brave new world swamped in death and acid.

If The Year of the Flood has a message, it's this: the earth cannot survive our rapaciousness, greed, nihilism and stupidity. Either we will destroy it or we will destroy ourselves first.

The book's triumph is that it makes you wonder, would the second actually be so bad, in the greater scheme of things? As moral lessons go, it's an old one but a good one. At the risk of sounding disrespectful, the same could be said for Margaret Atwood.

Irish Independent

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