The Short Version: In a not-too-distant future, a massive plague has wiped out most of the population. A young woman named Ren escaped through an accidental quarantine at a strip club and another woman, Toby, has managed to hole up in a run-down spa – but time is running out for the both of them and they’ll have to decide whether or not to venture forth very soon. How they got here – and how they are related to Snowman, Crake, MaddAddaam, and God’s Gardeners – will all be revealed…
The Review: You know how sometimes an artist you like releases a single and you’re like “well, that’s weird” but then you hear it on the album and it makes more sense in context? Oryx and Crake makes a whole lot more sense when taken in context with The Year of the Flood. My opinion of the earlier book is raised by this one – but also, my thought early on during the reading of this book that perhaps it was the story that should’ve come first is rebutted by the time we get to the end. The odd, sometimes uncomfortable clunkiness of O&C is revealed to simply be one angle of the story – and it’s because Jimmy and Glenn are awkward dudes. Yes, Oryx is treated as a sort of male fantasy… because, essentially, for these two guys, she is. Hearing the story of the pre-plague (pre-Flood) future from the point of view of two women rounds out the story and retroactively makes the awkwardness of the first book an affect instead of an effect.
I should’ve known that, of course, because Atwood is a terrifically skilled writer. I noticed it in that first book, with the inventiveness that went into the creation of this future – but in this book, I found myself really noticing the language and the joy she takes in the writing. One of my favorite moments, one that made me laugh even though it’s nothing outright humorous was this:
“She must have supposed they exchanged information chemically, like trees. But no, nothing so vegetable: they sat around a table like any other conclave…”
That “nothing so vegetable” made me immediately see Ms. Atwood’s author photo wink at me, as though allowing me to laugh. The reader feels comfortable in Ms. Atwood’s hands, because there is a sense that she is in total control. Everything is being taken care of. And the story will find its way, if you just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Of course, the ride (as such) is a bit fitful here. The book is split into roughly two halves: the third-person narration from Toby and the first person narration from Ren. There are also introductions in the form of sermons from Adam One at the top of each section of the book, so I guess there are really three voices – although Adam’s does not feel so much like a part of the present-tense narrative conversation as it does a dredged-up anthropological recording of some kind, giving us a little more context. Anyway, the two women essentially narrate one chapter that steps us forward in time post-plague (this being the titular year and the Flood being this “Waterless Flood” that was predicted to come wipe out humanity) before recounting several chapters worth of history. As such, we spend much of our time in the past-tense action of the novel’s story – not at all dissimilar to the structure of Oryx and Crake. But now that the reader knows the world and has been introduced to immediately-memorable concepts like the pleeblands and the genetically modified animals like pigoons and rakunks, we don’t need to spend any time being reintroduced. Instead, Atwood just shows it to us from a different perspective and, in so doing, expands our knowledge of this future world greatly instead of retreading the same ground. I didn’t mind spending so much time in the past, even if the engine of the story didn’t drive as fiercely, because it was just damned enjoyable to read. If anything, a little more focus on character-and-story (over idea-and-story) in this book is what made it instantly more successful than its precursor.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The only knock against this novel, really, is that it’s such a middle novel. Yes, it develops and explains and explores many of the things introduced so vaguely in Oryx and Crake – and it does such a great job and keeping us hooked in those things, where that book sometimes faltered – but we only progress a few steps beyond the end of that first novel, chronologically. And there is a great question as to just what the hell happens next. Of course, that is, I suppose, the sign of a terrific middle installment: you’re just dying for the completing volume.
But the writing is wonderful and the ideas remain not only potent but urgent. It’s the sign of good speculative fiction when it makes you think outside the frame of the novel. Sometimes that’s thoughts of going to the stars – other times, it’s thoughts about just what our society is going to become…