The name Margaret Atwood strikes terror into the hearts of many science fiction fans. Her adamant statements that she does not write science fiction, basically because she thinks it’s a bit rubbish, has given her many enemies. Which is a shame, because she does write excellent science fiction. Or speculative fiction. Or whatever you want to call it.
Two women are struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic future. Toby, an older woman, is surviving in a spa for the rich, where she worked before the virus came and killed everyone. Ren is a young girl trying desperately to survive the streets. And as these two womens’ stores unfold, their past and futures intertwine, and a world in pain is slowly brought into focus.
While this is not a direct sequel to Oryx and Crake, it is a spiritual one. The two novels are actually happening contemporaneously, so while the two women of Flood are trying to sort their lives out, Jimmy and Glen from Oryx are also messing around. I hadn’t read Oryx and Crake for a long time, so I had to brush up on what was going. Not that this was needed at all, since the two novels can be read in isolation, but I do think they work better as one big work, with similar themes and ideas. Obviously.
And what of those themes? It’s weird to see the combination of science and religion that has been mashed up to create the beliefs of the God’s Gardeners, though as the novel progresses, it seems to make more and more sense. Going back to the roots of Christianity, I suppose, and taking creationism to such a level that one believes the sciences of the natural world can be married with a divine being. Not my bag, alas, but it’s a fascinating concept.
Also interesting is this positioning of the group outside the mainstream – we see and hear of so many doomsday cults, to have this one as a fringe group is interesting. Obviously, at some level, we should identify with this group – they are the ones who are trying to get back to the natural world, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. This trope has been done to death in post-apocalyptic fiction, but by having these people as a fringe group – a group that eventually resorts to terrorism – is a nice twist. Speaking of this future, it’s good to see Atwood not repeating herself too much in her descriptions of this post-apocalyptic future. It was done in Oryx and Crake (and, if we’re honest, every other post-apocalyptic novel in existence), so there was no need for her to go into any great depth. Which she doesn’t.
Having two main characters gives us two different perspectives of this weird group. Toby, having been introduced to the group later in life, is far more cynical and wary of the group’s actions, and though it takes a while for her to find true faith with these people, eventually, she comes to terms with the life she is now leading. Ren, on the other hand, was a Gardener from an early age, and it wasn’t until later that she left the group, as many teenagers are want to do.
Once again, Atwood’s world building is top-notch. Creating a world where meat seems to carry so much weight (and other over-processed food products, too) is not easy to do, but Atwood manages to make eating meat seem gross, and a little unnatural. Granted, the meat in this novel is very unnatural, and not at all what we might enjoy, but to convince a lover of steak like myself that meat is bad is no mean feat. Ren’s life also gives us insight into things like the class structure of this society, with teenage gangs running amok through the city with seemingly little control. We also are allowed a glimpse into one of the privileged Compounds, where rich people live. To see the differences between these two kinds of worlds is interesting, and Atwood does not disappoint. There are a lot of details in this novel, allowing us to see the bigger picture.
Is Margaret Atwood a good writer? Yes. Is she a good science fiction writer? Yes. Her background in “real” literature allows her to create characters and situations which are unique to the science fiction world, and allows a more mainstream audience a glimpse into the genre. Which is a good thing, particularly since Atwood does what all good science fiction writers do – show us a world that may seem unfamiliar, but still tell us something about the human condition. And while Atwood’s environmental message may seem heavyhanded at times, it’s still good to hear.