My second reading goal for 2011 (other than reducing my TBR) is to read an occasional novel outside my preferred crime fiction genre. And I couldn’t really complete a Canadian Book Challenge without including a title by the woman often called Canada’s Greatest Living Writer could I?
There was a time when I devoured dystopian fiction in all its forms but it’s been a while since I felt the lure of that particular sub-genre. Some years ago and almost overnight I seemed to lose all interest in allegorical tales and brand (sometimes brave) new worlds. So I somewhat surprised myself recently when I eagerly selected Margaret Atwood’s recent companion novel to 2003’s Oryx and Crake, though I admit a large part of my interest was due to the format. The best of Atwood’s prose has always bordered on poetry and poetry is, in turn, at its best when read aloud.
Atwood is not new to imagining for us civilizations gone wrong. Here, in the same setting and time frame in which Oryx and Crake takes place it is Year 25 after the vaguely described collapse of civilization due to genetic engineering gone awry (or not depending on your point of view). In the current year there has been a further cataclysmic event, called a waterless flood by the dominant religious cult in the society though in reality a kind of virulent plague, which only those who were isolated at the time have survived. Two of the survivors are Toby, a mature woman who had barricaded herself in the luxury spa in which she worked, and Ren a younger girl who happened to be in her strip-club’s isolation tank when the virus broke out.
The first two thirds of the novel consists of alternating flashbacks from Toby and Ren detailing their lives from the first year to the present day. The local governance is provided by a Corporation called Helth Wizer, an evil corporation intent on weird science and killing people who fail to follow the rules then using their body parts as the ingredients in Secret Burgers. People either live in Helth Wizer’s luxury compound, the dangerous areas outside known as the pleeblands or in the rooftop garden and surrounding buildings populated by God’s Gardeners. The Gardeners are led by the enigmatic Adam One and espouse a mixture of pop psychology, radical environmentalism and a disdain for science. The final third of the novel takes place in real-time as the few survivors of the waterless flood find each other and attempt to keep surviving.
Atwood vehemently argues she doesn’t write science fiction because any of the science in her books is possible today, though she seems comfortable with the speculative fiction label. Based on this book anyway that seems a fair call. The strongest element of the novel by far is the complex, intricate picture it presents of a world transformed by a mixture of natural events and humankind’s astonishing capacity for arrogance. The new world has its own rules, nomenclature (sometimes funny, sometimes eye-rollingly cute), detailed societal structure and scientific experimentation, particularly of the genetic splicing kind, gone mad. The beliefs espoused by God’s Gardeners are also described in a lot of detail partly through Toby and Ren’s memories (both women were members for a time) and also because each new section of the novel takes place on one of the religion’s many saint’s days and commences with a sermon and a hymn (more about the hymns later). I did get a chuckle out of the saints who were mostly heroes of modern environmental movements including Dianne Fossey, James Lovelock and Australia’s own Tim Flannnery.
Reading this novel was, for me, like reading a very detailed travel diary of someone else’s trip to an exotic place I’ve never been. Bits of it were mildly interesting, some of it was unfathomable and quite a bit of it was fairly dull. While many of the ‘big things’ in the novel are not clearly described or defined (for example you’re never sure where this is all taking place, I assume it’s somewhere in North America, possibly even Atwood’s native Canada, but I have read reviews which talk about it being in England) many of the small things are described in minute detail. Much of Toby and Ren’s reminiscences relate to chores they undertook, meals they ate, classes they took or taught and religious ceremonies they participated in. For a while these are mildly interesting but 13 hours turned out to be more than enough for me.
Other than this I felt like there wasn’t a lot of substance to the novel. The doom and gloom message about the world going to hell in a handbasket if we continue on in our destructive, consumptive ways is all very well (and highly likely to be totally true) but here it was told without subtlety and lightness of touch. Long before the end I was willing to shout “I get the point, please stop repeating yourself now and tell me about something actually happening”. I think if you’re already on the ‘green’ side of the fence you’re going to be nodding and mumbling “right on sister” all the way along and if you’re on the ‘let’s all drive SUVs and hunt panda bears for sport’ side of the fence you’ll think this is all crackpot nonsense and probably stop reading. To me it’s too blunt and preachy to really engage the undecideds if that is indeed part of Atwood’s mission.
Finally, the characters are not particularly compelling. Toby and Ren are not awful, they’re not wonderful, they’re just two ordinary people who go through a whole lot of stuff, a small portion of which is dramatically interesting, and who, like most of us, don’t have profound things to say much of the time. Imagine any random two women you know then wonder just how much of their lives and thoughts you’d want to be let into. There are some lovely moments with each of them when they have an insight into their respective plights, and there are a few vignettes of true warmth or stark beauty with other characters too. But they’re noticeable for their rarity.
Perhaps I’ve simply passed the time in my life when dystopian futures can truly engage me or perhaps I’ve become too used to narratives which tell a more plot-driven story than this more literary work. I think the writing itself was a bit more pedestrian than Atwood’s best and ultimately I thought it could have done with a good edit and a reason to finish it.
What about the audio book
Lorelei King had a lovely narrating style, barely changing her voice at all for the different characters or sections of the book though somehow making it easy to follow regardless of that. However I really could have done without the hymns. Atwood wrote the words of 14 hymns which start each section of the book and some dude put her words to the kind of music that reminded me why I hated going to church when I was a kid. If you follow the link you can hear what I mean (click on the listen button next to any of the songs and you can hear it without needing to pay and download).
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Other participants in the Canadian Book Challenge have reviewed the book and loved it a whole lot more than I did so do check out reviews at An Adventure in Reading, Bad Tempered Zombie, Jules’ Book Reviews, Reading Through Life. Though I was a little heartened to see that I am not completely alone in my feelings, the Challenge’s host John from The Book Mine Set felt a little bit similar to me, this is not Atwood at her best. Meh would sum it up nicely for me too John
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My rating 2.5/5
Narrator Lorelei King
Publisher BBC WW 
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 12 hours 52 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series Sequel/companion to Oryx and Crake
Source I bought it