A meditation on completing “The Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood.
“I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.”
- Genesis 6:7 ( http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0106.htm#7
It's been out for a bit, but it's been a while since I've sat down and read for pleasure. Oddly, I think the last thing I read was “Oryx and Crake”, of which “The Year of the Flood” appears to be a complete retelling of the same story from a different perspective. What do you call this? It is told out of order, having elements in the story which may predate the former work, and it ends perhaps a few days after the end of the previous book. It's not a sequel or prequel, so what do you call it? Co-quel? And, like the debate between “old” Coke and Classic Coke, is the retelling, the update, the same book, a new book, or what?
In thinking about what I would write when I completed the book, I decided to turn to an older diluvian story, and found the passage quoted above best relayed my thinking on her story. I think, perhaps, after finishing her earlier book, she felt that she needed to repent what she had created. I had read the earlier book over holiday break, about nine months ago, and while at the time I had simply written “I recommend this book” in my journal, I have not recorded any other thoughts on it. It is a breathtakingly pessimistic book with regard to humanity- the story is told more-or-less entirely from the perspective of what appears to be the last (human) alive. Perhaps when she wrote this, she felt put upon from many reviewers and critics who saw her version of our future as too depressing, too bleak and irredeemable. In writing this, she perhaps gets a second chance at telling the story, an epic do-over.
In “Year of the Flood”, she's retelling the story from the perspective of “God's Gardeners”, who presumably due to their refusal to partake in consuming the Chickienobs, and Secretburgers, and BlyssPluss pills, therefore (like Noah in the eyes of God) have found grace and favor in the eyes of Atwood. God's Gardeners are ultimately torn apart by a wholly human schism between those who are content to wait for the Flood, however long it may tarry, and those who then turn to take action, and remake the earth in their own image. The dramatic tension of the novel rests almost entirely on what you know from the previous book- you know the flood is coming, and you know who has caused it. But, will this group survive it?
It would seem obvious, simply by the fact that Atwood is selling CD's of the God's Gardener's Hymns and encourages their use for not-for-profit wider distribution, that Atwood has sided with the Gardeners herself. But, I am not so sure of this, and hope that those who might lean this way see a troubling moral reflection when they use works like hers to consider more carefully their own souls. I think that the passage I quote above from the Bible represents some of the same very troubling moral questions in and of itself. If God is good, why would He repent? Can a perfect being make mistakes? Many might challenge this interpretation of the passage, insisting that if mankind has free will, God can regret having done a good and right thing because of the second hand, the follow-on, consequences. But in that respect, if God is all-knowing, how can He not know the consequences in advance and not commit the error that needs repenting in the first place? You could argue that the nascent good which has merely sprouted in the first five chapters of the Bible is threatened to be drowned out by evil, and in turn God uses the earth itself to prune the garden, drown out the evil, and improve the chances of the generations after Noah. ...But, not successfully eradicating- since Ham seems to muck it up for his generations mere sentences later.
Atwood faces, also, a classic dilemma. Given knowledge, what constitutes a good use of it? I think where she is at her most interesting in this book, it is where her characters are most troubled by the severe moral decisions they undertake. And yet, the characters who effect the greatest plot change (including Crake, who only has the briefest of cameos in this book) are not forced to undergo the same soul searching here. Perhaps this is her point- that evil is choices unreflected upon. She herself is seeming to argue (through the gardeners) that there is little difference between good and evil, since both can have unintended consequences, and both can be seen in the light of a greater good. For her, death is a tragedy, but in the end the plants are fertilized and the animals have carrion, so what harm?
I find her “resolution” unsatisfying. As such, I find “Year of the Flood” unsatisfying. The universe that she creates is a rich and teeming one, with so much left unexplored. She creates hundreds of splinter religions, like the “Isaiahists” who consider the “Liobam”, a engineered blend of lion and lamb, their sacred animal. She seems to dismiss the idea of engineered animal protein as more ethically sound, even though there are characters in her novel who have plainly laid out the argument that without a brain, the “suffering” of animals ceases to be a justification for vegetarianism. If the difference between good and evil is that good has meditated, and thought it through, there's lots of room for thinking it thorough and coming up with disparate, conflicting answers.
And, if there's not a single right answer, arguing that we might be approaching the wrong answer (and that the cure is Gardenerism) despite the fact that there are many (arguably) greater minds than Atwood who are working on the changes in science and technology that will enable such a future, and who have (debatably) thought longer and harder about these things than her, is hubris. Atwood is at her best when defining what shouldn't be: if the reader resists blind head-nodding along with the Gardeners, then this work is more successful than I think. I deeply fear, though, the people who chant along.
There's good reason that Atwood's “Handmaid's Tale” is standard fare in high school summer reading lists. Her work is there to make you think: not to fear, but to avoid going down the easy path which leads to such societies. I believe that “Oryx and Crake” does that too. But her latest work seems to force that train off the rails- don't think of your own solution, just say no to the Chickienobs.