29 June 2009

Margaret Atwood - Year of the Flood

Have you read Oryx & Crake yet? Well you have until September 22 to pull your head out of your ass and digest it. And while you're at it start taking survival courses because, if civilization continues to head in its current direction, we'll all be needing them. Atwood's near future feels a lot like the one whose soundtrack was written by GodspeedYou!BlackEmperor.

The coasts have drowned, deserts have expanded, urban zones have devolved into ghettoized brownfields and the upper echelons of society dwell in fear behind the heavily-surveiled walls of scattered corporate compounds. Governments are no longer relevant, if they even exist. Here, in the compounds, the brains work towards creating a plasticized, genetically-altered "utopia". To anyone who has read Oryx & Crake this landscape and the horror of the book's finale
is all too familiar.

While Jimmy and Glenn (of O&C notoriety) play out their destinies in the compounds, out in the "pleeblands"—the decimated, near-anarchic urban wastes—the tales within the Year of the Flood are being fleshed out. They reveal, over the course of twenty-five years, the first-person accounts of several people affiliated to various degrees with God's Gardeners, a religious sect whose leader, Adam One, has perfected a sort of squatter-punk synthesis of deep ecology and gnostic christianity. The gardeners are trying to preserve an unadulterated human relationship with nature and its mysteries, however misguided it may at first appear, though they may be the last hope when the technological world collapses.

Margaret Atwood, being Margaret Atwood, is going to make you think and at the same time make you incredibly uncomfortable with your own beliefs. Think religion is a sham and a waste of human energy? Prepare to loathe Adam One for his blatant hippie charlatanism whilst agreeing with some of the more radical tenets of the gardeners and the revelations of their theology. As an atheist who makes solid attempts to live in an ecologically-sound manner, this all gave me fits.

Fits are all well and good, but what about the causes of this near-future societal and natural collapse? Humans are clearly to blame, but not necessarily for the reasons so many would argue presently. Sure, warnings about climate change went unheeded as did those of overreliance on technological innovation to solve human problems. The main culprit of our problems has been an inexhaustible hubris; that we think we can outsmart and manipulate nature as we study its ways. There is clearly value in learning, studying and admiring nature and its processes, but it's when we begin to think we can control for an outcome we desire that the hydra appears.

Just as today too many people have an uncomfortable—if not downright hostile—attitude towards the presence of chaos in nature, Atwood's future of the "waterless flood" (which is better understood if you're already familiar with Oryx & Crake) is a security nightmare on account of this obsessive-compulsive disorder, much like if the first world suddenly plunged into the third. Frankly, the scenarios outlined here don't seem that far-fetched because there's no reason why it won't happen. Do-gooder organizations are constantly trying to plan for this type of future, but this future cannot be planned for and that is THE problem to which humanity has to acclimitize.

The easiest thing to do, of which I'm certainly guilty, is to laugh and shrug off the corny pseudo-religio-environmental spiritualists because most of their philosophies are half-baked and specious. However, as is clear with God's Gardeners there is merit in such philosophies (hence a major reason why religions are still around) because they allow people to act even when they don't fully understand why they're acting. If this makes sense then it should be clear why I was having fits and yet loving this book at the same time.

I'm not sure the last time I felt so completely intellectually challenged by a book that, simultaneously, so fully entertained me. There is constant action—often with disgustingly violent outcomes—and the ending never gives itself away, suspense building until the finale. This "review" does so little justice to a book that I hope receives major plaudits when it hits shelves. We were lucky enough to get an advance copy at work and I took my time reading it because I didn't really want it to end. I just read Oryx & Crake a few months ago and that blew me away. Now this arrives as a sort of companion volume. I'm not sure how they're going to market it, but it stands alone as a novel and there doesn't seem to be any indication that it will be marketed in connection with O&C.

So mark your calendars for September 22. I have to stop rambling because this will just get more and more disjointed if I continue. Margaret Atwood, you are an absolute genius. The type of genius that crushes my spirit by writing the best goddamn book (fiction or poetry) possible that, yet, inspires me to wrack my brain for something 1/10 as worthwhile and hope it means something to someone. Bravo. Again.

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