The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Long time ago, some time in the 90’s I presume, the literary science fiction magazine I subscribed to, used to run a series of editorials titled something like “The Return of Feudalism”. They were all written by a Polish expat who has found gainful employment in American silicon valley and became fascinated by the American corporate culture and it’s impact on the society. One of the leading themes that spurred this series of editorials was the culture shock he experienced when he left the safe, sterile marble halls of his corporate campus, the beautiful corporate owned suburban gated community (with it’s manicured lawns and the immaculately clean shopping mall on it’s outskirts) and accidentally got lost in the “bad part of the town”. He saw all the rundown houses, homeless living on the street, gang tags spray painted on every available surface, garbage, filth and disarray. All of that existing only a short drive away from his place of employment. Granted, this is not particularly shocking since wealth such display of wealth disparity can be found in every nation. Still, it inspired him to write a series of articles in which he theorized of what would happen if you allowed this gap between the rich and the poor to grow unchecked over many, many decades.

In his articles he crafted a vision of fictional, alternate near future America in which corporations corrupt and supplant the government and the middle class dissolves under economic pressure. He envisioned the former superpower becoming something akin to a fractured jumble of quarreling corporate micro-nations. He compared it to medieval Europe, with corporate compounds in the role of the heavily defended castles and city-states. Safe harbors, cultural and intellectual centers, places of law and order – defended by private armies of corporate mercenaries. In between there would be lawless pleeblands populated by illiterate peasants living in perpetual poverty. There would be highway men, roving gangs of bandits pillaging local villages, disease, death and poverty. I remember being fascinated by the idea of a global superpower turning into a pseudo-feudal fiefdom as a function of it’s own economic success. At the time I thought it was a very interesting work of speculative fiction without being overtly concerned by political message it may or may not have carried. To me it was more of a Mad Max type scenario – with nuclear apocalypse replaced by gradual process of deregulation, corporate greed and class struggle.

Much, much later I have stumbled upon Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake and was overjoyed to discover that she built it around a very similar set of concepts. Middle class is gone, and forgotten. The lucky minority of citizens are in thrall to mega-corporations. In exchange for their services they get to live in clean, safe heavily defended corporate compounds. They shop at corporate owned malls, they attend attend corporate schools and universities, and watch TV networks produced by their corporate overlords. They live their entire lives in these pristine clean, orderly enclosed microcosms. When they need to travel to other compounds they take hermetically sealed bullet trains with six inch thick bullet proof glass windows a detachment of corp security soldiers in full combat gear and machine gun turrets on the roof.

Outside the compounds there is only chaos. All governing bodies have collapsed, so the only law enforcement are corporate security teams (who usually only intervene in cases affecting their employer) or local gangs. People’s lives are short, violent and full of hardship. Fewer and fewer people are able to get jobs from the mega-corps because they are becoming more and more self-contained breeding their own work-force (from floor sweepers to high paid scientists). Most live in extreme poverty. Without governmental oversight corporations are running rampant, dumping, polluting and destroying both human communities as well as natural reserves with reckless abandon. Environmental collapse is imminent. So is a revolt of downtrodden, increasingly more illiterate masses who grow jealous of the corporate wealth.

I never wrote a review for this book, because I read it before I even had this blog. It has been a while, but I still remember it rather fondly even though I did not really buy into it’s message central message about evils of unregulated capitalism and dangers of unbridled science. I actually kinda liked the high science technocracy of the corps, which valued scientists and engineers above all else, and wasn’t a big fan of the environmentalists who were seeking to fix the world’s problems by rebooting the human race. But it did have an engaging story and interesting characters.

When I found out that Margaret Atwood wrote a sequel I immediately picked it up without even reading the little plot summary on the back. I was sort of intrigued how a sequel would work, considering the rather pessimistic, though poignant ending of Oryx and Crake. Well, it turns out that The Year of the Flood is not an actual sequel, but rather a parallel retelling of the same story. It’s kinda like when Orson Scott Card decided that he needs more money so he re-told Ender’s Game from the perspective of a different character.

Book Cover

Let me put it another way – The Year of the Flood is a bit like watching Back to the Future 2. When Marty goes back to 1955 to recover the sports almanac we get to re-experience bunch of scenes from the first movies, and we get to see things that happened before and after them when the hero was not around. That’s how I felt when reading the book.

The novel starts fine, attempting to re-tell the story from the perspective of poverty stricken pleeblanders struggling for survival in the lawless wastelands outside the corporate compounds. It introduces a number of interesting characters, and a cooky religious sect of vegetarian environmentalists who takes them in, and provides them with a safe harbor against local gang violence. So far so good. But as the plot progresses Atwood has to bend herself backwards in order to get the stories of these characters to intersect with the events from the former book. Cue in a barrage of contrived plot devices and unlikely events that explain how a given character was in a specific place at a specific time to make it all work. It seems like the whole thing might have been much, much better if Atwood did not have to work within the framework of her own story.

So I guess this is a lesson. If you are a writer, and you are tempted to re-tell one of your popular stories from a different point of view, just don’t. If you are a reader, tempted to buy such retelling, don’t. I assure you that you will be disappointed.

Although I must admit that Atwood does one thing very well – she writes great female characters. The only thing I really liked in The Year of the Flood was Toby who could be a case study in how to write strong female characters. This is one of the things that a lot of writers get subtly wrong. Whenever there is to be a “strong female character” in the story, chances are that the writer will veer in one of the two extreme directions. You will either end up with sexy action chick (who is more or less a titillating eye candy) or fierce, asexual and almost masculine career lady (which is what happens when the character is written as if she was a man). Granted, writing compelling female characters without being sexist, clishe or patronizing is something incredibly difficult. I think Atwood pulls it of quite well. Toby is strong, driven and capable without ever sacrificing her femininity. At times she is vulnerabilities and insecurities but she never becomes a damsel in distress. She can be sexual without being sexualized or without fawning over some guy.

So that’s The Year of the Flood. A bit contrived, and forced retelling of a much better story Atwood already written few years ago. Environmentalist, anti-corporate preaching is cranked all the way up to 11, but I guess that sort of goes with the territory seeing how most of the action of the book takes place inside of a “green” religious cult. There is no new message, and new revelations other than rater too-convenient happy ending. Not great, but it does have compelling female characters. I would recommend reading Oryx and Crake instead.

For the record, this review is not meant to be political. I have tried to stay clear from making any statements current political issues or liberal vs conservative agendas and just talk about the concepts and ideas in the novel. Atwood’s book can be considered politically charged, but I choose not to do so – I view it as a work of fiction, talking about a post-apocalyptic dystopia and nothing else. I do understand that some of these themes may be a hot button topic for some readers more than the others but let’s not try to bicker about which side of the isle is in the right and talk about it as what it is – a SF novel.
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8 Responses to The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

  1. Andrew Zimmerman Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Despite all major political outlets screaming liberal propaganda against my country I keep in mind the simple fact that the US people and corporations actually donate more money to the poor than any government program ever invented in the world. And that is a fact not taught by people who come here and want to bitch about people who choose to not take advantage of our already socialized education system.

    What better but to carry an individual from cradle to grave? Even then it wouldn’t be good enough for our socialized, institutionalized, educated and wonderful news democrats.

    I have a strong sensation our Polish friend has been brainwashed

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Andrew Zimmerman:

    Just to clarify, I wasn’t really making any political statements here. I choose to read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood as works of SF that explore certain dystopian “what if” scenario – namely breakdown of traditional government, and ascendancy of a corporate feudalism. To me this is just an interesting scenario – I can’t help it, I like dystopian settings for some reason. I like books that explore the human condition after the fall of civilization as we know it. This is just one of many potential scenarios that tickle my imagination. The fact that it politically aligns with certain liberal value sets is besides the point entirely.

    Sometimes you just have to turn off your political value meter and enjoy the work of fiction for what it is. Hell, the fact that I enjoyed Heinlein’s Starship Troopers does not mean I agree in the pseudo-fascist ideology he based his space faring society around.

    Granted, I can sort of see how someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum could read these two Atwood’s books and rage. I recently found out that Dan Simmons wrote sort of an opposite of this – a post apocalyptic dystopia in which he blames the downfall of the country on liberal progressives and I was a bit off-put by that. But again – perhaps I will check it out, and read it with my political-bullshit-meater turned off just to see how the other side views things. :)

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  3. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Heinlein was a libertarian; he didn’t mean for Starship Troopers to be a fascist apology. That said, I do agree with you, Luke, that one should be able to enjoy an interesting story told from an opposing point of view without getting upset at the opposing point of view.

    These ‘corporations are evil’ stories are so common that it’s basically a trope, however. It’s like reading a story about the dangers of scientific hubris. In fact, a lot of the time, they’re the same story. (case in point: Resident Evil) I tend to think that they are usually a bit simplistic in how they portray the threats that super large corporations pose to democracy and ironically the free market. There’s so much that can be said and so many authors have this cartoonish understanding of how business works.

    That said, corporate dystopias tend to be beat your standard pseudo-marxist, totalitarian state dystopia.

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  4. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Oh, with regard to the strong female characters…

    So many of them are so bad because so many of them are written by men. It’s hard to write for someone to whom you can’t relate. Men just don’t have the right upbringings or glands to appreciate problems from the perspective of women. (It goes in the other direction as well, just read Frankenstein and tell me is Dr Frankenstein doesn’t seem strangely effeminate…)

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Yep, I agree. And for the record, I abhor the stories about danger of scientific hubris. :)

    I guess the redeeming quality of Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood is that the apocalypse and human extinction event at the end of both books is brought about not by the corporate greed, but by the zealotry of the enviro-nuts who are convinced human species needs to be rebooted in order to save the planet from environmental collapse. She is not demonizing just corporations – religious groups and environmental extremists are also painted in unfavorable light.

    I really think that the world depicted in these books could have pulled out of the nose dive if they were given enough time. The corps were more or less on a fast track for singularity event which would likely help to resolve a lot of the inequality issues.

    As for female characters – I think part of it is the “Smurfette Principle”. Most entertainment targeted at young boys follows a similar pattern. You will have a large cast of characters, nearly all of which are male. All of them have defining characteristics – there is the smart one, the strong one, the vain one, the funny one, etc… And then there is the token female, whose defining characteristic is that she is a girl and she does girly stuff. “Girl” is her personality trait.

    I see this all over – cartoon series, movies, muppet shows, books, comics, etc.. Most of us grow up without ever having positive fictional female role models we could look up to, because women in the media we consume hardly ever have personalities, and are almost always relegated to sidekick/background character roles. We get so used to this, that we don’t actually notice this is a problem until someone points it out to us.

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  6. kalex CANADA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I’ve always been attracted to retellings of stories I knew and loved, and always been disappointed by them, too. Ever since I watched the Simpsons episode “Trilogy of Error”, which was the only time I’ve seen the different perspective concept done right.

    Any experience with novels that have pulled this off?

    P.S. I’m a fan of these avatars.

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  7. My all-time-favorite book “Azrael” by Wolfgang Hohlbein (a german mainstream-author, who writes an astonishing amount of crappy, repetitive books, but every once in a while there is on really great amongst them) got not just nearly repeated in its part 2, its meaning got even turned around from mind control via drugs towards something about angels that could be called. It gave my favorite book a completely different meaning.

    That doesn’t even mean that i think of Azrael 2 as a bad book, but it ruined the storry of both.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ kalex:

    I can’t think of any novel that got this right, unless it was done as a parody.

    @ Dr, Azrael Tod:

    Oh wow… That’s harsh. There is nothing worse than a book which gets ruined by it’s own author who is hell bent on reconning everything into something retarded.

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