Thursday, August 19, 2010

Apocalptica Atwoodia

Apocalyptic dystopias have always excited me since I was a pimply teenager. You know, there's a boy and you're the only girl left on the whole planet and after  he's saved you from the zombies who used to be human and are now seeping green blood and scooping up their eyeballs if they run too fast, you both get to break into houses full of dead people to take the non-perishables they will never need, and live in the bedroom section of David Jones so you can start working on creating a new, much better human race ... Don't tell me you've never gone there.

I'm on a bit of a run of apocalyptic novels at the moment; Cormac McCarthy's The Road, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and now that wild witch of past and future Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. Like Ursula le Guin's work, Atwood's futuristic novels tend to be an uncomfortably close study of our own society. Our dysfunctional mores continue just as they are today, until humans are facing extinction and still they want to kill and rape each other and everything else.

Call it survivalism, call it nihilism ... in the end the vegans are eating the gene-spliced purple goats, despite their rigid moral structure. There is still beach plastic and out to sea stand the twelve story monuments to the stupid beachside real estate deals of the early twenty-first century. Here, I nod my head, knowing and righteous. See, I knew that would happen.

This sentiment is the honey trap. Righteousness. In some ways, The Year of the Flood smells of hand clapper righteousness. The story centres on a subculture called God's Gardeners, who requisition empty buildings to live in and build their rooftop gardens. They are practising vegans, abhor using all animal products and their unofficial leader Adam One gives sermons throughout the book about humility in the face of nature, how to conserve in a rapacious society and ultimately how to survive his predicted Waterless Flood.

About three quarters through the tale (and this is not a spoiler) you begin to realise that God's Gardeners, or at least Adam One, have got it all going on. After all the sermonising, hymn singing and bad clothes, they saved themselves by reducing one's carbon footprint, paying attention to which brand of coffee was destroying the habitats of song birds, protecting the world's bees from disease and not caving in to the corporations.

Interesting, I thought, that Margaret Atwood auctioned the names of some of her characters for charity. I've not heard of this before. The kick-ass Amanda Payne, a bit of a Lisbeth Salander, was also in another of Atwood's novels, Oryx and Crake. Her name was auctioned and the proceeds went to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Rebecca Eckler's name in the book was auctioned for Walrus Magazine Canada.

And the moral of the story? Sometimes I wonder if Atwood is cackling away while she bubbles and boils up these yarns. She cooks up some pretty nasty stuff with her genome theories. But the smoke alarms are going off everywhere anyway - sinister pharmacutical corporations and beauty spas with names like HelthWyser and AnooYoo, who pamper, reassure and beautify while the pollinators become extinct and women's lives become worth only their dollar value, the supreme arrogance of farming creatures for meat, humanity's innate but unnatural ability to fiddle, distracted by the next sparkly thing, ignoring all the warnings of the flood.

Regular readers of A WineDark Sea may be happy to know that this book and your (kind and slightly alarmed) comments have spurred me to stay off the fags and dump the Champix. But the book has also taken me back to a space I inhabited years ago and would like to return to. I identified with the God's Gardeners; vegetarian, honey bee-loving, clothes and toy-making, tree people. Somewhere along the line, somehow, I got my own head stuck in my twenty-first century arse and ...  um I'm unsure how to continue with this analogy. But - Go God's Gardeners. Yeah.

Image by Renee Nault, for the LA Times article on Margaret Atwood.


  1. Only natural to hunger for the return of that earlier youthful vision and crave utopia in the midst of the madness we all find ourselves in. I didn't want to live long enough to see what I am seeing now ST and find it difficult to stay sane amidst the unfolding predictable drama. My only hope is that the whole mess will continue to fascinate me like some wild sick scientific experiment so I can maintain some distance.

    You, I and many others are right though- we KNEW it would end like this....and I don't think I will live long enough to see the new beginning.

  2. ah, my favorite kind of story. i was just thinking about dystopias today, in fact, and pretty randomly. perhaps i was psychicly intuned to blogger. uh oh, that's not a sign of the apocalypse, is it?