Friday, October 23, 2015

Book Review: "The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood

Book Two in the MaddAddam Trilogy

Oryx and Crake (read my review here) ended with Jimmy, aka Snowman, encountering the only humans he's come across since the human race was wiped out by an epidemic he unwittingly helped deploy. Spoiler Alert - this book ends in the same place. The Year of the Flood is not a continuation of where we left off in Oryx and Crake, but rather a view of the societal collapse and epidemic from different character perspectives.

Toby is probably one of my favorite female characters in recent fiction. She's immensely strong and pragmatic. We meet Toby at the AnooYoo Spa where she's been holed up to ride out The Waterless Flood unleashed by Crake to wipe out humanity. To survive in this situation the reader knows that beyond good luck there has to be some skills involved. Toby's origin story begins to unfold, and we are taken back in time to when she was just a teenager growing up in a world that was becoming increasingly fractionalized by Corporate Compounds and steroid consumerism. Her story is heart wrenching; laced with loss and hard decisions. Yet, Toby never becomes sullen. Toby survives.

The only time I ever felt Toby's will begin to slip was when she was forced into a sexual relationship with a Pleebland Mobster by the name of Blanco. He's a vile human being running a Secret Burger franchise (guess what's in the meat! wait, don' really don't want to know), and Toby is working there to earn a wage and a free meal. Once Blanco sets his eyes on Toby there is little choice she has in the matter, for Blanco has power and muscle, and will one day wear her through and kill her.

Toby's escape from her slave-like existence comes in the form of a Green Religious Group by the name of God's Gardeners. The distraction of their protest at Secret Burger is enough to get Toby out of Blanco's hands and off the grid among the God's Gardeners. The God's Gardeners are basically devout vegetarians and dumpster divers that live disconnected from the technological world. Every day is marked with a Saint of some environmental significance, like Rachel Carson. This is how Toby tracks time after The Waterless Flood begins.

Toby's journey through the God's Gardeners and movement through their ranks to the position of Eve Six is fascinating. Atwood has managed to create an authentic feeling environmental-based religion lead by the intriguing Adam One. Among the rank of Adam's there is Zeb, an unpredictable and utterly magnetic character that is shrouded in mystery. I was attracted to Zeb as Toby, because his motives were never clear and his mind seemed completely unknowable - he lived in grey. How did he become a member of this group?

The purpose of the God's Gardeners is to exist in opposition to the unchecked consumerism, mass extinction of animals, and total greed of the human race. Every member of the Gardeners engages in the habit of gleaning, which is to say that they use found materials and repurpose them. The Gardeners grow their own food and do not eat animals. They practice survival skills and live with the ever impending Waterless Flood at their backs. Adam One knows that humanity can never sustain their current population.

Ren is the other female character we get to know in this story. Ren grew up in the God's Gardeners, but her mother swept her away to return the HelthWyzer Compound that she initially left in order to be with Zeb. Ren is ripped from the world she grew up in and her best friend Amanda. However, it is Ren's return to Compound life that begins a series of interconnections with characters from Oryx and Crake. Ren is short for Brenda, and Brenda and Jimmy were an item in High School. In fact, Ren is in love with Jimmy, and as we know from Oryx and Crake, Jimmy has some serious commitment issues. Through her relationship with Jimmy, Ren meets Glenn aka Crake.

It was interesting to see these characters connecting as children knowing full well what happens to them and the world as they grow into adults. Ren's best friend from the God's Gardeners, streetwise pleebrat Amanda, later hooks up with Jimmy while they're in college. She's the same Amanda from Oryx and Crake, an artist obsessed with creating living art installations that spell out words with some sort of organic material that rots away or is eaten by animals.

Ren is booted out of college when her father dies and her mother remarries. She turns to the upscale SecsMarket establishment Scales and Tails. She becomes a revered trapeze artist. When an over excited male customer bites Ren, she is isolated in a part of Scales and Tails until she can be cleared to return to work. This is where Ren is at when she watches The Waterless Flood wash over the club from the cameras in her safe room.

Ren is a less compelling character than Toby. Yet, this isn't the result of poor development of bad writing - it's the opposite. Ren is who she is because of who her mother was and how that shaped her as a human. So while I never liked Ren and felt that she was weak in comparison to Toby...I understood her, and I wanted her to find happiness. Her mind works like that of a child's and her narration suffers because of that, and yet it is through Ren that we are provided with a glimpse into the lives of Jimmy and Glenn before they became Snowman and Crake.

I've provided plenty of summary here, but really the journey is in the details of the world that Atwood has created. Her speculative fiction is based on science and societal practices that currently exists. What would happen if these things spun out of control; pharmaceutical companies producing products that first make you sick and then rob you of everything in order to make you better; income inequality so severe that anyone unassociated with Corpocracy lives outside of the secure Compounds and in the Pleeblands where conditions are always deteriorating and the battle to survive reduces humanity to an animalistic existence; mass extinction of animals results in the gene splicing creations of alternative animal species; food scarcity that results in fake food supplements. These are all things that speak to where we exist right now in relation to the world around us, and it's almost frightening.

Reading this trilogy will awaken you to your environment and everything happening around you. These installments are as much about the characters and the overall story as they are meant to be a commentary on where things could lead if the wrong people have too much power. The Year of the Flood expands upon the dystopian world established in Oryx and Crake. The characters are real and the world Atwood has created feels like glib depiction of our own - it's devastating and completely absorbing.

There's nothing like drawing a thing to make you really see it.
MARGARET ATWOOD, The Year of the Flood

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