Sunday, December 5, 2010

Margaret Atwood's dystopian novels


These two books blew my circuits, in the best possible way. They are very frightening and very funny and all too possible. Coincidentally, as I write these words, the Bob Dylan song "Ain't Talkin'" shuffles into play on my wife's Ipod in the next room. The bard's creepy tune of a world gone all to hell might just be a perfect soundtrack choice for the film version of these dystopian novels.

Atwood must be one of the the most intelligent human beings on the planet. In fact, these chilling works of speculative fiction bring to mind a related story from three decades earlier: Shikasta, by the wise and wonderful Doris Lessing. That book features a vast sweep of time and place; it is a biblical allegory in the guise of space fiction. Many of the characters are citizens of the distant planet Canopus, but all the action happens right here on earth, during familiar turning points and crises from the 20th Century and earlier. The Canopeans, who reincarnate among humanity through the centuries, sometimes gaining positions of influence and other times leading ordinary lives, have come to help us evolve. They hope, at least, to help us stop destroying ourselves. Perhaps I will devote another post to Lessing and Shikasta in the future, but my point is this: Margaret Atwood is much too clever to be merely human; she is undoubtedly a benevolent alien. And we best sit up and pay attention.

You will find no aliens however, or anything from another planet, in either of Atwood's most current books.  In both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, all of the bizarre conditions and creatures are products of human ingenuity, greed and delusion, in a near future society. This is Michael Pollan's nightmare culture, where genetic splices dominate the mainstream food supply; the headless chicken has been perfected, and who knows what exactly is in a Secret Burger, but they sure do taste better than a tin of soydines. Corporations and their private police forces make the rules. Public funding for infrastructure and services is only a memory of long ago. The weather is stifling. The afternoon rainstorms can be, quite literally, killer.

Atwood gives us a large cast of far from perfect, but very sympathetic characters. Most are featured in one book and also appear in the other. All are trying to make their way through this scarily plausible brave new world, and then survive in the aftermath of a fearsome, world-changing event. One of the most striking aspects of these novels is the balance of Atwood's precise, rational intelligence, which probes the weaknesses of our natures and our social structures, with her deeply empathetic sense of the way we strive to be better humans. The 'heroes' of the The Year of the Flood are members of a cult called "God's Gardeners." This group of outsiders and freaks is the conscience and soul of the future society. This seems a very revolutionary and brave approach by one of our most well-known intellectuals and feminists, to cast a spiritual movement (strict vegetarians, dedicated to a reconciliation between science and God, with saints such as Saint Rachel Carson) as the sanest part of a freaked-out, nearly destroyed world.  Atwood's other famous work of S. F., The Handmaid's Tale, shows that she is a fierce critic of repressive religious ideology; what a wonderful thing to see here that she is also a champion of the true spiritual impulse. She seems to be saying that in a culture so polluted by human hubris, people need to give up their solitary egos to develop compassion and fight injustice. Maybe God (Love) is the answer after all. Who would have guessed that a such a great thinker would portray a cult in a heroic role? Perhaps readers more familiar than I with some of Atwood's other work would not be so surprised.

I can not recommend these novels highly enough. All the above might make them seem frightening (ummm . . . they are) and brainy (yup . . . that too) but they are hilarious as well. In a laugh all the way to the end of the world kind of way. You know how the Bible says the Lion and the Lamb will lay down together in the peaceable kingdom? Well Atwood has spliced them: the Liobam. But it didn't quite work out the way God intended; you don't want to run into one of these guys in a grassy meadow. But they are apparently delicious, according to the high end customers at the Rarity restaurant chain.


  1. I just finished a class about Canada and I think that is the first time I heard about Atwood. Definitely I need to check her work out.

  2. Yes you do! Be prepared to be delighted and disturbed and entertained. And she can keep you busy for months, if not years. Thanks for visiting!