In the Year of the Flood (2009), by Margaret Atwood


After about thirty very dull pages, I said to myself (not quite sure why at the moment) that doubtless we live in an era of technology. Is it too obvious? Has it come to hide in plain sight? Sometimes it seems so.

Maybe one reason is that naturally people in the entertainment media try to hide the technology they use. You see the program images but the supporting technology is unseen: Dr. House can’t trip over cables with his bum leg, and it’d be an anticlimax for the special investigators in NCIS to be run over by a huge mobile camera. (Don’t say it.)

Ditto corporations and governments unless it suits them to make the technology public–parading missiles, for instance–or they cannot avoid displaying the details of the technology in which both angels and devils live, for example, during federal investigations of airliner crashes.

Sometimes high tech seems, since “Come in, Houston,” almost to have taken mainly to lurking about; maybe it’s been offended by focus groups and teleplay writers and gone sulking and pouting.

But, of course, quite a few people think about technology unhappily. So, and given my memory is frail, I then recalled that Margaret Atwood, evidently one of them, has lived for at least a spell in a country setting in Canada–PBS once showed her with her partner, Graeme Gibson, in such a setting, and that it seemed suitable because there appeared to be a great somber seriousness present in that pair amidst the trees and bushes (doubtless far from any evil metropolis) and unseen birds and vegetables and livestock in yonder fields. You definitely sensed there could be lots of handmade things around. The nearest major technology might well have been power lines and, maybe a field or two away, cars on a highway.

That impression, if accurate, may be compatible, I thought, with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction about Homo sapiens as destined soon for a blasted, regressive wretchedness, with her fiction accusing the technology of our time. She’s a rural alarmist appalled by what’s happening far away in the wired madding crowd, I’d say, and she’s right that she’s better said to be writing “speculative fiction” than “science fiction.” The Year of the Flood and its earlier companion piece, Oryx and Crake, are, I think, vengeful imaginary tourist trips to Bad Cities, cities wherein there are Bad Corporations and Bad Governments (you have to believe it’s NYC and DC and that the Bad Organizations are the most formidable US Blue Chips, though this is only a strong hunch since Atwood doesn’t Call Names specifically).

But the thing is, in The Year of the Flood, the technology has pretty much come to a halt in the all-too-familiar stage setting of debris and detritus in the metropolis ruined by a pandemic. Almost nothing works anymore. And good riddance! We’re all back to improvising tools from materials in deserted buildings, parts of stalled cars and the rest of the inert rust. Serves many of us right.

After a few pages, you see that the speculative Atwood’s dystopia might be thought of as life in Advanced Cave-Person Times.

Gender is, of course, crucial in Atwood. Nearly all the guys in the ruined streets are something like the guys in beer commercials or the guys with head-to-toe Halloween tattoos fighting in mixed martial arts cages. If they are entrepreneurs, they own chains of fast food grease pits serving burgers made from you don’t wanna know (and this isn’t supposed to be funny!). These guys generally are Nazis toward women, but women kick ’em where it hurts most!

However, an acceptable group comes on scene called God’s Gardeners, too mild for Burning Man but moving in that direction whilst presently doing beekeeping and mushroom-growing and who are (Atwood says) reminiscent of William Blake although I think it’s Francis of Assisi’s younger brother, Buddy, the one who was a little funny in the head and didn’t go to a regular school (and about whom I am the only historian to know and report).

Women, though, are comparatively good. A lot better, in fact. They’re like the volunteers cleaning trash off the beaches you see on the Ten O’clock News. (You don’t see them throwing lamps at home later that evening. [I know, this is terrible, but what’s a poor opinion-person to do these days? Talk about a predicament! You’re damned if you don’t and damned mean if you do (say anything)!].)

Well, friendship is what counts in Margaret Atwood’s speculative world. It won’t pull anyone through the disaster–bye-bye Homo sapiens–but it’s the Best Thing.

Beekeeping may be the most estimable profession.

Margaret Atwood has been mentioned with Huxley and Orwell. But I think Aldous especially wouldn’t have been interested in Burning Man Lite but would have been fascinated with today’s technology even though he might well have had mixed feelings about it.

If you want to see an alarming drama which is only now possible because of magnificent technology by which we can finally obtain a god’s-eye view from pole-to-pole of Earth and a microscopic view as well of its life and especially the alarming trends thereto, see David Attenborough’s great nature documentary, Planet Earth. I’d certainly take it over Atwood. It’s the difference between San Francisco and Fresno.

Dark clouds hover out there, certainly. But The End speculated about by Atwood is terribly boringly, predictably and self-righteously something that might appear, with now the explosions leading up to it shown, on PPV.