Then You Are Them
- BuyThe Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, 434 pp, £18.99, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 7475 8516 9
Who will recount the pleasures of dystopia? The pity and fear of tragedy – pity for the other, fear for myself – does not seem very appropriate to a form which is collective, and in which spectator and tragic protagonist are in some sense one and the same. For the most part, dystopia has been a vehicle for political statements of some kind: sermons against overpopulation, big corporations, totalitarianism, consumerism, patriarchy, not to speak of money itself. Not coincidentally, it has also been the one science-fictional sub-genre in which more purely ‘literary’ writers have felt free to indulge: Huxley, Orwell, even the Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid’s Tale. And not unpredictably, the results of these efforts have been as amateurish as analogous experiments in the realm of the detective or crime story (from Dostoevsky to Nabokov, if you like), but including a message or thesis.[*] So-called mass cultural genres, in other words, have rules and standards as rigorous and professional as the more noble forms.
But Atwood can now be considered to be a science-fiction writer, I’m happy to say, and this is not meant to disparage. In any case it might be argued (but not here) that at this moment of time, all fiction approaches science fiction, as the future, the various futures, begin to dissolve into ever more porous actuality: and the end of the world seems to approach more rapidly than the unified world market itself.
Oryx and Crake was a brilliant tour de force, in which two dystopias and a utopia were ingeniously intertwined. What may now surprise us is that Atwood has decided to go on living in that universe, which, however, did not have a to-be-continued sign attached to it. The wonderful cliffhanger of the earlier novel is thereby somewhat spoiled (we need a technical term for this inverted in medias res, as though Robinson Crusoe broke off with the footprint). But perhaps we do not pick the world, which, on the contrary, picks us. Or perhaps, as the protagonists of Oryx were males, it seemed only fair to write a sequel for the female characters. The Year of the Flood is neither sequel nor prequel, but rather both at once, in what might better be called a parallel narrative, where the godlike figures of the first book (the figures who became gods, let us rather say) are reduced to secondary roles and walk-on parts. Religion is still very much in question in the new novel, but it is a different kind of religion, as we shall see.
All the characters and their stories are thereby diminished, but this is no weakness: it results from an enlargement of narrative perspectives to include the deep space of institutions and collectivities, and a rather different kind of historicity from that projected by the individual fable of the first version. Here we are more clearly able to perceive the breakdown of modern capitalist society into the various private contractors to whom social needs are outsourced, and behind them the enormous corporations that have replaced all the traditional forms of government. (‘The Compounds were where the Corps people lived – all those scientists and business people Adam One said were destroying old Species and making new ones and ruining the world.’) Here also we glimpse the forms of resistance aroused by the devolution in which what we still consider social and technological progress consists – they range from the survival of the most sadistic to the banding together of small groups and the formation of new religions or, more ominously, to what is called ‘bioform resistance’. Food and sex are obviously the most immediate needs: they are supplied by SecretBurgers, into which all available protein matter is dumped, and AnooYoo spas, accompanied by hosts of dreary fly-by-night dollar stores, whose multiplicity scarcely arouses the free-market exhilaration of the cyberpunk visions of the world to come. A faceless power centre is embodied in the CorpSeCorps, which, as in medieval society (and quite unlike Orwell’s universal surveillance), keeps tabs only on what it needs to know and does not hesitate to organise para-political goon squads when necessary; anything more destructively criminal can then be dealt with in the Painball facilities, in which teams of convicts are organised to kill each other off. The well-being of the elite is assured by the HelthWyzer institutes, of which the reader has already heard something in Oryx, along with various scientific think-tanks that have, among other things, devised new species to supply human replacement organs, such as the memorable pigoons. Oryx gave us the view of this system from the inside and as it were from above, even though there really does seem to be no oligarchic ruling elite nor any totalitarian party or dictatorship on the old-fashioned modernist dystopian model; The Year of the Flood gives us the view from below – always, as we well know, the most reliable vantage point from which to gauge and map a society.
A second dystopia then sets in with the Flood – the Waterless Flood, as this lethal plague is characterised in the sequel. Readers of Oryx know that it is man-made, but like the original, it fulfils its purpose, namely to cleanse the world of the toxic garbage of human society, leaving the few survivors (mostly people trapped in inaccessible and thereby uncontaminated spaces) to start something new. It is an interesting theoretical question whether to distinguish this generic version – Apocalypse or the end-of-the-world story, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and the post-nuclear landscapes – from the densely inhabited dystopias of various kinds of which these books have also given us a sample. My current feeling is that the post-catastrophe situation in reality constitutes the preparation for the emergence of Utopia itself, which, to be sure, in Atwood’s new instalment we reach only by anticipation (of which I will speak in a moment). The originality of Oryx was to have offered the glimpse of its creation: literally, out of the test tube of the mad scientist who, from sheer loathing of human nature as it currently is, invents a tribe of noble savages perfect in every way (the ‘made-on-purpose people’ as someone calls them), physically, biologically, in their social relationships as well as in their existential experience – save that, inasmuch as they have few enough problems to solve, their conceptual equipment has not had to develop commensurately. We do not have to be so sceptical and disabused of the Rousseau revival inaugurated by Lévi-Strauss and so many others in the 1950s and 1960s to find this tribal vision altogether ironic. Its future must remain as open a question as that of the survivors themselves, and it is another interesting formal and generic question whether Utopia (or dystopia either, for that matter) could have any ending or closure in the sense of the old Aristotelian narrative – any closure save that of absolute destruction and death, that is.
Perhaps it will also be retorted that our noble savages here do have another defect, a most significant one indeed: they believe in God; or rather they believe in a god, the eponymous Crake himself, their maker (as well as their lawgiver), who now enjoys the authority of Lycurgus, namely of the dead. We’re not supposed, at least since Freud, to believe that this kind of confidence in a Big Other is a satisfactory foundation for either collective or individual existence. But Atwood has another kind of religion up her sleeve, and it is perhaps the most stimulating new feature of The Year of the Flood.
Religion is of course right now a hot theoretical topic, what with all kinds of violent postmodern fundamentalisms and even the left revival of St Paul as a theorist of cultural revolution; but it is a tricky topic as well, since even to call it ‘religion’ is to reify it and confirm its status as a non-secular phenomenon. The concept is thereby booby-trapped and you have implicitly acknowledged ‘belief’ in the throes of an effort to deny such a thing in the first place. But if you call it something else, ideology, say, or ritual, or existential illusion, you at once lose its curious specificity. Meanwhile, any emphasis on the invention of specific religions by individuals, the necessarily ‘made-on-purpose’ features of these pretentiously redefined ‘belief systems’, also at once reduces them to something like home-made furniture, and demands a supplement in the form of deep time, ancient cultural custom, or revelation itself – so that the representation of a new religion like that, here, of Atwood’s Gardeners, is itself a delicate matter.
And so it is a pleasure to report that this one, with its prophets, its sermons, its taboos and even its Hymnbook, wears astonishingly well: ecological, communitarian, cunningly organised in decentralised units, each with its ‘Ararat’ of supplies stashed away against the inevitable Waterless Flood of plagues to come and police repression as well, and despite its regressive primitivism utilising computerised information and informers strategically planted among the elites. Functional hierarchy (the Adams and the Eves) is here made palatable by co-operative egalitarianism and a serene acceptance of the frailties of human nature. Even Adam One, whose sermons are a model of biopolitical saintliness, is also admirably Machiavellian in the tactics of group survival. Perhaps the Hymnbook deserves independent publication:
The Creatures need no lesson books,
For God instructs their Minds and Souls:
The sunlight hums to every Bee,
The moist clay whispers to the Mole.
Regressive it all is, however (and it is always helpful to wonder what politics today could possibly be otherwise). Here for example is this Utopia’s dystopian vision of history:
According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.
The Fall was ongoing, but its trajectory led ever downward.
Is this religion not itself ideology?
And is this book not the expression of an ideological doctrine? In a post-feminist age, whose great writers (Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Christa Wolf) are not women writers but just writers, Atwood does not easily fit some category labelled feminist: The Robber Bride, whose male figures are mostly not even violent but simply inept (the masculine ‘masquerade’, said Lacan, borrowing the concept from Helene Deutsch and adapting it to ‘masculinity’ and machismo, is mostly ridiculous), positions the very centre of evil in a woman. Is Atwood then some kind of ecologist? But Nature, in her work, goes all the way back to her 1972 novel Surfacing, with its terrifying Deleuzian devenir-animal. Yet there is a category into which she squarely fits and without which she cannot fully be understood, a category of which at least 300 million English-speakers generally need to be reminded: she is a Canadian, and no little of her imaginative power comes from her privileged position above the border of the lower 48. The Fall is not properly grasped unless it is understood to be a fall into Americanism, as the magnificent rant from Surfacing reminds us:
It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, my head said, they’re still Americans, they’re what’s in store for us, what we are turning into. They spread themselves like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells and the cells change from inside and the ones that have the disease can’t tell the difference. Like the Late Show sci-fi movies, creatures from outer space, body snatchers injecting themselves into you, dispossessing your brain, their eyes blank eggshells behind the dark glasses. If you look like them and talk like them and think like them then you are them.
When the narrator was little, the idea of evil was Hitler; but in the world of grown-up violence and Nature, a more sickening metaphysics begins to develop: ‘The trouble some people have being German, I thought, I have being human … then I realised it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both.’ It is a disease you can observe: ‘Second hand American was spreading over him in patches, like mange or lichen. He was infested, garbled, and I couldn’t help him: it would take such time to heal, unearth him, scrape down to where he was true.’ But ‘American’ is also technology, mechanisation, mass production: ‘The machine is gradual, it takes a little of you at a time, it leaves the shell. It was all right as long as they stuck to dead things, the dead can defend themselves, to be half dead is worse. They did it to each other also, without knowing.’
This then is the world of Atwood’s dystopia, for which, in this global near future, the term American is no longer necessary. Its colours have a loathsome pastel quality, like drugstores; its bunny suits and fluffy fabrics reflect the bad taste of infantile mass production; the bloody physical violence is that of cartoons rather than Hitler. If there is aesthetic pleasure here, it is that of a syrupy nausea that repeats on you; so that the end of the world has some of the cleansing, bracing effect of sand and waste landscape, of the seashore. But it is still better to think of it in Adam One’s reassuring words:
What a cause for rejoicing is this rearranged world in which we find ourselves! True, there is a certain – let us not say disappointment. The debris left by the Waterless Flood, like that left by any receding flood, is not attractive. It will take time for our longed-for Eden to appear, my Friends.
But how privileged we are to witness these first precious moments of Rebirth!
[*] The mark of the amateur here is topicality, among other things: in Flood, the reference to ‘the Wall they’re building to keep the Tex refugees out’, or the list of saints’ names – ‘Saint E.F. Schumacher, Saint Jane Jacobs … Saint Stephen Jay Gould of the Jurassic Shales’ etc. Perhaps Atwood’s SF apprenticeship comes with The Blind Assassin (2000).