September 16, 2009
The Year Of The Flood Reviews
It’s entertaining to read reviews and interviews of Margaret Atwood’s Science Fiction novels, so here’s a selection that I found about her new novel The Year Of The Flood:
In practice, most fantasy and sci-fi is woefully derivative. Margaret Atwood, however, is a writer of metaphysical wit, who can always twist our preconceptions, and a sharp observer of the female psyche. She has already given us The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most perfectly conceived and powerfully focused dystopian visions of the future ever written.
Above all, Margaret Atwood is genuinely inventive, rather than merely clever; and her quirky and satirical wit does not limit or define her. The threats and horrors are real and gripping because they are rooted in human characters. The proper study of science fiction is Man – and women, the victims and survivors.
(No mention of Science Fiction!)
Modern publishers are quick to hail a masterpiece, particularly when the work is produced by an established literary writer such as Margaret Atwood. However, it is a label better administered in retrospect than in haste. George Orwell’s 1984is a masterpiece, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a classic and The Year of the Flood is heavily indebted to both these novels.
Although it deals with important environmental issues, The Year of the Flood seems old-fashioned and simplistic in its treatise: a communal, hippy way of life versus the sinister corporations
(No mention of Science Fiction!)
The novel’s length is, in fact, its weakness. Atwood’s future is immensely detailed; perhaps too detailed. It is lush with stories, jokes, asides, anecdotes and acronyms. Everything is lavishly described, even the violence, often to the point of morbid silliness. The predominant tone is Grand Guignol feathered with camp.
The obvious comparison here is with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the great post-apocalypse novel of recent years. McCarthy’s novel was pared to the bone, at the level of the sentence and of plot. It even used only a handful of colours. Atwood’s is, by contrast, a ribboning, tendrilly, harlequin thing. If McCarthy’s book res-embles a Beckett monologue scored by John Cage, Atwood’s is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert adapted for harpsichord by Freddie Mercury.
To my mind, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can't be science fiction, which is "fiction in which things happen that are not possible today". This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
You must read this extraordinary novel and decide for yourself.