I have a real affection for Margaret Atwood but I have not always found her work easy to get into and, as such, feel relatively poorly read within her oeuvre. I have started The Blind Assassin three times without success but raced through The Handmaid’s Tale with it’s deeply disturbing excavation of sexual politics in a near future world stricken by sterility as plague. I know my reading habits well enough to recognise that science fiction plus a bit of sex/gender equals a novel that is entirely my bag so when The Year of the Flood appeared on my MA reading list as part of the ‘Twenty first century feminist fiction and the world in crisis’ module I cracked into it with gleeful reminiscence of the The Handmaid’s Tale (a text I’ve actually been teaching my Year 13s and of which there is a gut-wrenching film adaptation available here) and much expectation.
I had read Oryx and Crake some years ago and was vaguely aware that this was the sequel, the second novel in a trilogy. I remembered enjoying and being appropriately unnerved by Oryx and Crake (though finding it tricky to start) and struggled to recall salient plot details as it became apparent that The Year of the Flood was covering the same years preceding the devastating man-made plague from different, female perspectives and the final novel in the trilogy MaddAddam operates in a similar way, though it simultaneously continues the narrative from the end of Year. The effect of the trilogy taken together is prismic: it offers a multi-faceted story intricate in its drawings of world and character and the fun of seeing hitherto undiscovered connections between characters and storylines emerge.
In a family of scientists (both brother and father), Atwood’s interest in popular science is well known; she famously keeps a box of newspaper and magazine clippings that have directly informed her futurist fiction, it is perhaps on this basis that she has long rejected the label of science fiction in favour of ‘speculative fiction’. She has said repeatedly that everything in her novels is rooted in potentiality, a ‘what if’ approach to human evolution and this is especially true here. These texts are laced with tangible anxieties around a whole range of issues: genetic engineering, unbridled commercial power and of course the effects of climate change. In 2005 Robert Macfarlane lamented the absence of a literary response to climate change, comparing it in scale and presence to the nuclear menace that haunted the Cold War years. This trilogy must have been exactly the sort of thing that Macfarlane had in mind.
The environmental anxiety underpinning all three texts is, in The Year of the Flood, explicitly connected to female experience. The urban dystopia of the pleeblands that precedes ‘the waterless flood’ of Crake’s manmade plague is a world characterised by sexual violence. The female protagonist Toby is repeatedly raped and brutalised by the figure of Blanco before her rescue by God’s Gardeners and the scars of this trauma sit with her through Crake’s manmade plague and into the post-apocalyptic world it leaves behind. It is significant too, that in MaddAddam it is Toby’s voice who takes on the God-like role in telling stories to the innocent Crakers (genetically modified humans created by Crake to repopulate the earth), stories that are set down with real religious significance to the Crakers. This voice effectively replaces the sermonic voice of Adam One that runs through the narrative of Year, the suggestion being that, with the fall of the pre-apocalyptic patriarchal order in which female function is predominantly performative and sexual (encapsulated in the club scales and tails where women dance and perform sexual acts in elaborate, dehumanising costumes) so has the patriarchal voice fallen to be replaced by a feminine authority.
I happen to disagree with Margaret Atwood in her rejection of the term science fiction but this is only because I agree with the commonly held principal of SF as a ‘literature of ideas’ and the Oryx and Crake trilogy is most certainly that.