Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood is an apocalyptic dystopia set a few decades in the future. It’s a loose sequel to Oryx and Crake, which first introduced Atwood-readers to an overheated, germ-infested world overrun with sinister genetically-modified creatures. People live either in luxurious sealed compounds run by bio-medical corporations, or in the seething pleeblands beyond the fences. Life is very grim: die on the street and you might end up in tomorrow’s burgers. When a killer virus arrives to clear out the general mess we follow two women trying to survive in the wreckage, Toby, a tough survivalist type, and Ren, an oddly childlike sex-worker.

The action is face-paced since there are plenty of murderous criminals hanging on to life somehow, and Toby’s pragmatism and humanity had me rooting for her throughout. Even so, The Year of the Flood does not match Oryx and Crake’s shocking vision and narrative thump. Perhaps this is because Atwood seems to be having just a little too much fun with her apocalypse. As in Oryx, there’s a riot of detail here, including a bestiary of GM hybrids such as pigoons (pig-human splices bred for organ harvesting), wolvogs (which look like friendly dogs but are unremittingly ferocious) and chickinobs (like a cabbage-chicken splice). But credibility is strained by the story’s excessive coincidences. Too many characters survive the virus that was supposed to wipe out the human race, and they’re all too closely connected to each other and to the events of the first novel. Picture the suffocated and desolate end of the world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; The Year of the Flood is the opposite – death comes in viral proliferation and finally, it’s all a bit much.

I recommend Oryx and Crake with great enthusiasm and Atwood is one of my favourite novelists, even if this latest isn't her best. As you’d expect, Atwood gives us great female leads, but I felt the book was unbalanced by its own playfulness.

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