Critical Dystopia and Science Fiction in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood

Atwood’s recent self-described work of ‘speculative fiction,’ The Year of the Flood, touches upon a number of themes, but most evident in my view is the “critical dystopia” epitomized in the world Atwood has created. In Scraps of the Untamed Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, author Tom Moylan identifies the key signifiers of utopia and dystopia in modern science fiction, and suggests that since the time of Phillip K. Dick and Cyberpunk, much of modern science fiction can be defined as “critical dystopia.” Moylan suggests that “dystopian narrative is largely the product of the terrors of the twentieth century,” (xi) as authors reacted to a world increasingly fraught with exploitation, repression, state violence, war, genocide, disease, and the perils of capitalism’s new phase of monopolized production and the extension of the modern imperialist state. We are now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and such concerns remain at the heart of current fiction, though arguably with a greater emphasis on globalization and its effects on the environment.

It is therefore my intention to identify some key signifiers in Year of the Flood that establish it as a work of “critical dystopia,” and address parallels between this novel and the dystopian novels of earlier authors. In addition, this essay will address an often disputed claim about the Year of the Flood and her earlier novel based in the same universe, Oryx and Crake; that they have adopted the conventions of science fiction and practice a “genre blurring” typical of critical dystopia. Frederic Jameson suggests that dystopia has “…been the one science-fictional sub-genre in which more purely ‘literary’ writers [such as Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood herself] have felt free to indulge.” (7) It is hoped that this examination of Atwood’s work in the conventions of dystopia and science fiction will help to illustrate what is so unique and exemplary about her work.

When interviewed by The Progressive shortly after publication of The Year of the Flood, Atwood was happy to acknowledge the dystopian nature of her novel, yet was insistent that it was a work of speculative fiction, not science fiction. To provide context for this essay’s argument, Atwood’s statement was as follows:

The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen or are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things. And if you go to another planet, you get to build the whole society and you can draw blueprints and have fun with talking vegetation and other such things. The lineage of speculative fiction traces back to Jules Verne, who wrote about things that he could see coming to pass that were possible on the Earth—this wasn’t about outer space or space invasions—but things that we could actually do. (Rothschild 61)

While I understand Atwood’s reluctance to be lumped in the same category as novels dealing with extraterrestrials and interstellar travel, her statement belittles the work of many authors that identify themselves as science fiction writers but present believable alternate realities. One needs to look no further than Canada’s own Robert J. Sawyer, whose recent work has focused on the potential of quantum physics, genetics and science’s impact on faith in god as a means of altering our destiny in the near future.[1] Jameson supports my claim, positing that “Atwood can now be considered to be a science fiction writer, I’m happy to say, and this is not meant to disparage… at this moment in time, all fiction approaches science fiction, as the future, the various futures, begin to dissolve into ever more porous actuality.” (7)

Atwood’s “ancestor of science fiction,” H.G. Wells, wrote The War of the Worlds when the specter of industrialized conflict, soon realized in World War One, was beginning to haunt the human imagination. (Deresiewicz 25-26) Deresewicz also suggests that “if the twentieth century was the age of physics, it’s been said—the computer, the Bomb—then ours will be the century of biology, and Atwood draws her conclusions accordingly.” (27) Is Atwood not herself informed and motivated by the discourse of environmentalism and globalization, which suggests a looming catastrophe of global impact? Though one cannot simply pigeonhole this novel as strictly science fiction fare, Atwood clearly borrows from speculative fiction, science fiction, and dystopia in The Year of the Flood and practices a form of “genre blurring” typical of critical dystopia. Works of critical dystopia such as The Year of the Flood often intensify the practice of “genre blurring” (Moylan 196) and by self-reflexively “borrowing specific conventions from other genres,” critical dystopias transcend the perceived boundaries of dystopian form and “expand their potential for creative expression.” (Moylan 196)

According to Katarina Labudova, The Year of the Flood includes “elements of science fiction, speculative fiction, cyberpunk, alternate history, dystopia, futuristic thriller, black farce and fantasy,” (136) but arguably science fiction and dystopia trump any other literary convention the novel explores. Many readers, myself included, suggest that Atwood’s novel adopts the conventions of science fiction through her portrayal of an alternate near-future. James Gunn once stated that science fiction is “a literature set in worlds different from our own – and different in ways that invite the reader to interrogate these differences, to ask hard questions about them in terms of what they can tell us about our own world.” (Booker 13) Atwood’s novel is presenting a future of corporate control and genetic manipulation that one hopes to avoid. Her narrative encourages readers to question how to alter our path in order to achieve a sustainable future, though one hopes they would not go so far as Crake did and initiate an apocalypse. As one reviewer stated, “scientists can tell us about the extinction of species…[but] we need stories to help us make sense of these events.” (Bocking 9)

The Year of the Flood operates, in Tom Moylan’s terms, “inside the ambient zone of anti-utopian pessimism with new textual tricks,” exposing the “horror of the present moment.”(196) Atwood’s novel plays these tricks, among other ways, by appropriating the phonetic shorthand and blatant misspelling of text messages with an enthusiasm that borders on the obnoxious, until one remembers that she’s actually toned down the language of the internet at the same time as she has made it more clever, filling it with puns.  Examples of these puns are evident in the text, and offer a commentary on the corporatization of science and culture. Toby is employed at a beauty clinic called “AnooYoo,” while the brothel where Ren plies her trade is under the umbrella of a corporation called “SeksMart.” Ren also spends time in the gated compound of the “HelthWyzer,” before leaving its confines to attend college. This use of shorthand is not limited to corporations, and is evident in the products the characters use, with “Sea/H/Ear Candy” being a substitute for “mp3 player”, and the names provided for the corporation-created spliced animals, like the “Rakunk”, “Liobam” and “Mo’hair.”

We are not explicitly informed at what time this book begins, as the book follows the timeline of the God’s Gardeners, opening in year twenty-five, the year of the ‘waterless flood’ that erases most of humanity. Nonetheless, it is clear that the world presented in Atwood’s novel is very near to the present day. Her world is one devoid of the jet-packs, laser guns, and alien races that are typical of many works of science fiction. The advances proposed in the novel, such as CorpSeCorp’s spray guns, the human-hair sprouting Mo’hair sheep hybrids, and the advent of a new BlyssPlus sex-pill that promises countless orgasms, are rooted in present-day technologies and place the novel in the near future, or the present of an alternate dimension. This use of present-day tech reinforces the nature of the decaying society Atwood has created, “where governments are absent and corporations control whatever is profitable – from sex to security,” (Bocking 9) and contrasts it with past dystopian narratives that focus on the all-powerful role of the state.

However, one can see Atwood drawing inspiration from past dystopian narratives, and shows some parallels with the works of her forbearers.  According to Moylan, critical dystopias share “a deeply negative portrayal of late-twentieth-century capitalism,” (197) and Atwood is not the only author to reflect upon capitalism’s detrimental effects on the global environment. Kurt Vonnegut, who shares with Atwood a canon most recognized for his dystopian works, also turned towards making more direct commentaries on the environment and humanity’s disregard for planet earth in his later career. In Vonnegut’s final publication, A Man Without A Country, he makes the following statement:

Don’t spoil the party, but here’s the truth: We have squandered our planet’s resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one. (Vonnegut 44-45)

Atwood, writing in the voice of Toby, expresses similar sentiments in The Year of the Flood, as Toby illustrates her views on the destruction of the planet and her motivation to become part of the God’s Gardeners:

            Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss
            it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and
            so unthinkable. We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with
            such fears and keep on whistling. (Atwood 239)

Let’s turn now to some of the more evident connections of Atwood’s novel to classic works of dystopia. Just as in Orwell’s 1984, where the author distinguished the populace into the upper-class inner party, the middling outer party and the proles that comprised 85% of the population, Atwood divides the society in Year of the Flood along similar lines. Of course, Atwood’s divisions are based on science and capital rather than politics, but one can’t deny the similarity of a world in which elite scientists, protected and funded by corporations in gated compounds, are shut off from the unwashed masses that inhabit pleebland. In Year of the Flood’s world, Geniuses such as Glenn (or Crake) are shuttled off to Watson-Crick to further developments in science and become the pillars of society, while those without scientific capacity like Ren are sent to wither in arts college and accept a life of middling prosperity in the service industry (and I hope this isn’t suggestive of our own futures).

Under Aldous Huxley’s caste system in Brave New World, Glenn would emerge as an Alpha male while Ren would likely struggle to qualify as Gamma. Moving away from literature to the lens of the cinema ,thee consumption of SecretBurgers draws an interesting parallel to the overpopulated world of 1970s genre film Soylent Green, where much of the population must subsist on those namesake wafers that Charleton Heston exposes as being composed of human remains. Of course, the eco-cult of the God’s Gardeners are strongly against the consumption of such food, but one imagines that Adam One and his followers in their desperation would have not been above consuming the secret protein (explicitly stated in the novel to contain human flesh) in the name of survival.

The God’s Gardeners themselves prove to be a typical construction of modern dystopian fiction. According to Moylan, critical dystopia “adopts a militant stance that is informed and empowered by a utopian horizon that appears in the text- or at least shimmers beyond its pages.” (196)  The Gardeners are of course a radical religious group organized around ecologically based principles that reject the normality presented in the world of the corporations and the surrounding environs of pleebland. As a “low-tech, low-carbon footprint, recycle-minded commune” (Labudova 137) they are the antithesis of the dominant order represented by the corporations. Throughout the novel Adam One prophesizes the coming of the ‘waterless flood’ that will take down the dominant social order and allow a new beginning for their followers. This prophecy is not presented as an attainable one; the novel presents us events that bring down the majority of the gardeners themselves, and their utopian horizon is yet to be realized.

As well, the splintering of the gardeners and the emergence of Zeb’s MaddAddam sect then presents us with a competing vision, of non-violent resistance vis-à-vis violent radicalism. In Atwood’s universe, the schism between Adam One and Zeb can be seen to parallel the militant stance of Moylan’s critical dystopia, through their ability to take action and perpetuate genetic violence against the established order through acts of “eco-terrorism” These acts, such as re-engineering the bean weevil to destroy HappiCuppa plantations (Atwood 260) end up being blamed on the peaceful Gardeners, precipitating their destruction. Of course, in the end Adam One and the remaining Gardeners return to their Rooftop Garden to die, while the members of MaddAddam persevere. The fact that Atwood presents the radical group as the one that survives the horrors of post-flood existence is perhaps most instructive.

Margaret Atwood has published works influenced by many different literary conventions in her long and prolific career, and it is unfair to pigeonhole her as a writer of a specific genre. However, it is clear that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Atwood’s knowledge of science and her commitment to environmentalism and eco-criticism has been a major factor on her writing. As such, The Year of the Flood shows signs of both the “critical dystopia” analyzed by Moylan in Scraps of the Untamed Sky, and the conventions of science fiction in general. Atwood has no need to defend her work against claims it is “science fiction,” as her past works ensure that she will be remembered as a writer of many persuasions, and likely as Canada’s premier author of the last thirty years. Indeed, The Year of the Flood and its “genre blurring” are simply reflective of the state of humanity in the twenty-first century, as globalization dismantles our previous notions of race, class, gender and nation.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009. Print.

Bocking, Stephen. “Science Friction,” Alternatives Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3 (June 2010), pp. 8-10. Print.

Booker, M. Keith. The Science Fiction Handbook. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Deresiewicz, William. “Honey and Salt.” Nation 289.14 (2009): 25-32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Jameson, Frederic. “Then You Are Them,” London Review of Books, Vol. 31, No. 17 (September 10 2009), pp. 7-8. Web. 16 Feb 2011. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n17/fredric-jameson/then-you-are-them

Labudova, Katarina. “Power, Pain and Manipulation in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the Year of the Flood.” Brno Studies in English, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2010), pp. 134-146. Web. 15 Feb 2011. http://www.phil.muni.cz/plonedata/wkaa/BSE/BSE%202010-36-1/BSE%202010-36-1%20(135-146)%20Labudova.pdf

Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Oxford: Westview Press, 2000. Print.

Rothschild, Matthew. “Margaret Atwood.” Progressive 74/75.12/1 (2010): 61-62. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without A Country. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. Print.


[1] The works of Sawyer I am referring to are: Flashforward (Tor Books, 1999), Rollbacki (Tor Books, 2007) and Calculating God (Tor Books, 2000).

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About paulkhillier

I am technical writer with a wealth of experience in education and design. Currently, I am furthering my advanced knowledge by studying Technical Communication at Seneca College in Toronto. Producing effective, readable documents is my passion, and I take pride in producing quality work.

Posted on November 29, 2011, in English. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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