Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood: An Essay on Fiction and Revolution

Book cover: The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood ends where  her Oryx and Crake ends.  The characters who inhabit each novel follow different paths to arrive in the same place. Through their journeys Atwood attacks  science as well as religion, or rather  the uses of both. But that is tantamount to saying, she only attacks the Inquisition’s methods of torture; she doesn’t think there is anything essentially wrong.  That is not what is going on here. There is something essentially wrong with a science that commodifies all manner of genetic modifications and creates diseases to reap profits.  In the society of Atwood’s characters, there is nothing to believe in except commodities.  The main characters of Flood, Toby and Ren, survive the catastrophic flood in bastions of the new commodification: Ren is locked inside a sex for hire palace, while Toby is the sole survivor in the cosmetic makeover corporation “A Noo Yoo.”

The “flood” is metaphorical;  by the time of these novels, actual floods are unlikely.  It doesn’t rain enough.  The protagonists of the new novel, Gods Gardeners, are a kind of scientist/Christian cult. In their hierarchy of responsibility, the more responsible are called “Adams” and “Eves” — the leader is known as Adam one.  We come to know each of their original names (Pilar is Eve 6; when she dies, Toby is invited to become an Eve and take over Pilar’s special division of labor).  So Atwood is setting the scene and the players as a group which sees itself as in some sense reorganizing the earth’s population, perhaps literally regenerating it.  Taking its cue from the ark of Noah (and the numerous myths from which that one sprang), the vision of Gods Gardeners is that a waterless flood will envelop the earth. Some biological catastrophe, though they do not know from where it will come.  It is a catastrophe borne of human unwillingness to accept our relationship to the rest of the natural world. Perhaps it is a perversion of science; perhaps it is its logical extension.  Perhaps it is the logical extension of the old time religion as well.

What Atwood is doing follows the tradition of other writers of great speculative fiction — she abhors the “science fiction” label, which she reserves to writers that rely on extraterrestrials, other planets and galaxies, space travel, etc.  Others have mentioned that  her mentors have emphasized that there is nothing new in the novel, that writers re-form what they have read and heard before into their own voices.  So it is not surprising we find elements that we can trace directly back to Orwell and others, whether dystopian or utopian.  The well tempered technique of the writer dissatisfied with the present takes the world as we find it and projects what we see into the future to imagine a world either that we want or that we oppose.  The best of these novels merely extend the trends that they find in contemporary society.  That is, they seize on the objective reality that they find.

In a social scientist’s terms, they tease out from all the experiential information the kernel of what they are living through.  We can call that the content of our times.

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson

I am not saying, here, that Atwood has conducted a scientific investigation of our reality and said, this is the crux of the matter.  I frankly don’t know. But her background certainly is suggestive.  According to a Guardian profile (April 26, 2003), her father was an entomologist who expected her to enter the sciences as a career (she admits to having done very well in biology in school).  Her brother Harold is a zoologist.  And she herself claims to read biology for pleasure: “Her interests are broad: ‘Pop science – usually life sciences – is my casual reading,’ she laughs; ‘I don’t have to review it or have an opinion, I can just read it for fun.'” And clearly she and her partner Graeme Gibson share a passion for their relation to nature. Both are Green Party members.  Atwood’s web site offers favorite links that are distinctly ecological, with an emphasis on extinctions. She says that “speculative fiction” differs from science fiction in that the latter deals with what might some day exist; speculative fiction takes as its subject matter what it finds at hand. We recognize a lot of our world in the experiences of her characters of this pair of novels.

Here is what Gibson says, in an interview published in the Toronto Star after the publication of his Bedside Book of Beasts:

The Book of Beasts is a logical follow-up to The Bedside Book of Birds, and Gibson spent four years creating it. In the course of that work, he has clarified feelings and thoughts that have been percolating for a lifetime.

“What has happened to us since we became civilized?” he asks. “Well, a relatively small number of people live well in relative security. But most humans have become like ants, huddled together fearfully without any security.”

And what has happened to our perception of animals? Well, many of them have been turned into cartoon characters.

And the more predatory ones, like tigers, lions, falcons, coyotes, hawks, bears and eagles, have had their identities co-opted for naming sports teams. According to Gibson, “We’ve lost our sense of belonging and our reverence for nature.”

What we call civilization is a really a form of becoming domestic and tame, he explains – and in his view, that’s not a good change. (Martin Knelman, Dec. 16, 2009)

Atwood looks at our civilized society and finds it much as Gibson describes above.  She looks at the motive force in this developing society, and finds it in what might be called the scientific industrial complex.  There is little sense, in this novel, of some external dangerous force (nations at war, for example).  (She also, by the way, reads extensively in military history).  In these novels, external forces are other corporations (there is a reference to corporations based in other countries stealing the brains from “our” corporations). The battles seem to be between corporations, economic entities, each with their own military/security forces. The major question facing society, from the point of view of the corporations, is the realization of profit (how can they make goods that sell; how can they find places to sell goods); from the point of view of the ants in society, the very immediate view of survival; from the point of view of the visionaries in society, how to reconstruct a social system that recognizes the advances of scientific understanding and the necessity of cooperative living.

The visionaries in Flood are Gods Gardeners.  In Oryx and Crake, we only hear about them in news reports and in gossip.  What we hear is encoded in symbol.  Jimmy’s mother, for example, is said to have run off to Gods Gardeners, and we are to conclude that that is the case.  In The Year of the Flood, however, the Gardeners take center stage, the action revolves around them, their recruitment, their attempts to recreate the new world within the old, their preparation for the flood that they expect will wipe away (at least most of) humanity.  The Gardeners profess non violence.  That is their creed.  Yet for Atwood’s characters, their consciousness depends on the material conditions they experience.  The Gardener cult is not monolithic.  We can recognize the ambiguity of life in contemporary utopians, the pressures that change their outlooks or that bring opportunists into the fold. When Toby becoms Eve 6 after Pilar dies,  she is reluctant. She has never fully converted to the Gardener creed, but Adam one is satisfied. Not that he believes she is a convert.  He recognizes the imperfection of conversion.  Zeb, one of the Adams who is trusted by Adam one but is also openly defiant (deviant), winds up leading a splinter group from the Gardeners.  He is dissatisfied with the wait and see and non-violently prepare credo. The council of Adams and Eves maintain a hidden lap top computer despite their prohibition against computers for the “lay” persons.  This is a pure society which knows it must compromise with the existing forces in order to survive.

Atwood describes two ideological responses to the anticipated flood in The Year of the Flood.  These parallel her descriptions of the response from within the superstructure in Oryx and Crake.  (There is of course the continued drive for all possible profit before the catastrophe arrives, coming from the corporations and their private militaries that we come to know more intimately in The Year of the Flood).   Crake however places himself in a very ambiguous position.  He is a brilliant researcher whom the head hunters in his corporation need to protect from being snatched away; and they need to give him what he wants to pursue his own research goals.  He uses the gene splicing techniques that have produced a bestiary resembling our cartoon views of animals (see the Gibson quote above).  He creates  a new human-like species that seems to have wiped out aggression, emphasized cooperation, and he’s made these organisms immune to diseases fostered by the corporations.  He entrusts their care to his boyhood friend Jimmy — the surviving “Snowman” of Oryx and Crake. For Atwood, living in the bowels of the corporate culture only allows two “solutions”:  eat, drink, be merry on the way to destruction;  or use science to transcend the destructive impulse with a superspecies that will survive.

The Gardeners have a different ethic and preserving/expanding that ethic makes up the bulk of the plot in Flood. Therefore, in these two novels we find two parallel discussions of the world contemporary to the characters of the story line.  In these novels we can recognize enough of our own situation to see how these stories are projections of our world.  And in these novels we find a world that is changing, independently of the wills of any one person or group of people.  The solution to the problem posed by this changing world depends on understanding that change.  The end of both novels leaves the characters in a predicament that makes it unclear about whether or how they will resolve this contradiction. But one thing is clear: no one can resolve the contradiction of the new world by using the methods of the old.

I think this far, I am not going far beyond Atwood’s own thinking, though that is always a dangerous proposition when talking about a work of fiction.  But now I want to depart from explicating Atwood.  I want to say something about how  Crake and Flood can help us look at our own society, and not speculatively. How the readers grasp the concepts and make those concepts their own.  I want to be more concrete about what I think this work of imagination says about who we actually are today.

First of all, Crake and Flood have very specific applications to the idea of revolution.  There are “revolutionaries” in both  novels.  But what actually is the revolution?  In my view, the revolution is the change taking place in the base of society,  that is to say, the economy.  What is revolutionizing Atwood’s world is the same thing revolutionizing ours.  Atwood describes biological revolutionary techniques;  in our world that is also obvious, but more fundamentally, even to the biological, is the electronic revolution.  Gene splicing would not be possible without the advances in electronic technology which lead every day to more rapid information about genomes, and the electronic technology which makes the splicing actually possible.  For her world as for ours that technology creates a massive unemployment.  Her world is congruent with ours, where there is less a “reserve army of labor” waiting for another job, as it used to be known, but instead a permanent mass of the unemployed. Can those removed from  the system, disengaged from the capitalist system but without a place to go, bring something new to the content of our time? Doesn’t this help us with the idea of “realization” that we are experiencing.

This is a revolution where the revolutionaries are not consciously forming its direction.

The Gardeners, Crake, Zeb and the corporate masters who control the Corporation Security Corps (CorpSeCorps in one of the many puns that litter this novel) all need to form the direction of the revolution.  In real life, corporations need to find a way to retain  private property as commodity production becomes more problematic (realization); the Gardeners need to find a way to promote cooperative resistance to the corporations as fascist control intensifies and before the flood destroys everyone. What seems clear from the novel is that Atwood doesn’t want to give us any formulaic answers, because there aren’t any.  The books help us to understand the ambiguity of our own situation.  If it is up to the survivors of Atwood’s flood to figure out how to survive in ambiguous and terrible circumstances, the same is true for us. But not simply on a subjective we can have what we want.  The Gardeners, Zebs’s splinter group, Crake’s revolution from “above” all have in common  a different partial view of what is actually happening.  At the end of the novels, we have the partial solutions of each confronting each other, kind of what we see in our own society as well.

Rather than reading this pair of novels as continuations of the themes developed in H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell,  I’d suggest reading these are parallel’s to Octavia Butler’s parable novels.  This is because the earlier novelists, also engaged in speculative or science fiction, had to seize what they had at hand to project to the future.  But what if we are facing a qualitatively different situation?  Atwood and Butler both recognize the ecological catastrophe;  both premise some kind of religious awakening that is in line both with science and philosophy;  each one has a different vision of where the dystopia will go.   Butler died before she could give us an insight into the further direction she saw her characters going.  Atwood has, however promised us a sequel. While I am anxious to see what path she takes us on, I am even more anxious that we use these imaginative insights to chart the direction of our own revolutionary process.

Lew Rosenbaum, January 2010.

Suggested reading: An extensive review essay (Oryx and Crake) in The Guardian from 2003:


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