What is it about the world spiralling out of control into a future of death, disease and the end of humanity as we know it that gets me all excited? Some kind of meglomaniacal obsession with destruction? A terribly pessimistic outlook on life? Some kind of God complex? I don’t know, but tell me that life as we know it is at breaking point, that the cities have become lawless, that the powers that be are all caught up in a conspiracy and that there is some weird disease or super-destructive weapon killing everyone and I will be there in my HAZMAT suit carrying a knapsack filled with practical items (and something really poetic and impractical like a first edition of a Jonathan Swift or the back catalogue of Muddy Waters – you know, there’s always room for a little art).
If we are talking distopia (“Danger, danger, world in crisis”… as the Doug Anthony All Stars used to shout out… or hang on was that Graham and the Colonel on The Late Show? I’m getting my 80s ABC comedy confuddled…) then it is fitting that the book to launch this discussion is the new novel from Canuk author extraordinaire, Margaret Atwood, who does a very fine line in distopic novels. And as I am currently writing this in an internet cafe in Canada, it is doubly fitting.
Allow me to gush: I think Margaret Atwood is the most wonderful of writers. I can’t even begin to explain how GOOD she is. Or how versatile. How thought-provoking, how point-perfect. Of course, this ain’t news to anyone. The Booker Prize panel didnt have to wait for me to say anything… (thank goodness because I’m sure they’re not one of my committed 28 readers).
The Year of the Flood is set in the same world as Oryx and Crake. You may have previously read me mentioning that I kind of forgot who Oryx was… I mean, I knew Oryx was important, it just slipped my mind she was Crake’s girlfriend. Not off to a great start but don’t let my senility get in the way of a good story, and my forgetting of this vaguely major character didn’t affect my reading of the book. In some ways I think it may have been easier to read The Flood if I hadn’t read Oryx and Crake as I was always trying to remember what had happened (all be it not very well, as proven) or what some organisation was or what a certain person had done in the other book. Again, it didn’t stop my enjoyment, but my reading wasn’t as smooth an experience, perhaps, with all these little aide memoires that I wasn’t memoiring. What would have been best for me was to have read O and C directly before Flood. If you haven’t read either, and want to, then I suggest you do that. Or at least don’t leave a few years in between the reading. But if you read Flood clean, that will work too.
So what are some of the reasons people like me enjoy reading novels that other people find terrifying, horrific, dark, nightmarish, unthinkable? It’s certainly not to read about the world and/or humanity self-combusting. There’s no pleasure in that. I think for me it’s perhaps because I worry about some of these awful things happening that I’m drawn to reading about them. I think partly these kind of extreme conditions bring out the real soul of characters and I find that idea fascinating. You examine the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ and whatever ‘fittest’ means, and the idea of survival vs living. It’s a fighting against all odds thing too. On a very different kind of level I am a sucker for a sporting movie where the underdogs come in to beat the supremos. An absolute sucker. And there’s something about that chance of redemption in distopic novels which makes me read them.
For me, following a character on a fraught journey (physical or otherwise) through a terrifying world, desperately trying to adapt, to make do, to survive, to hold on to their humanity, to discover a safe haven – and hoping they make it (whatever that means) – speaks to me as a reader. The themes in distopic novels curl around my head like smoke and reach into my soul and touch me in that soft mushy place where we are all just people; fragile, scared, looking for meaning, and all capable of so much more than we can ever realise.
So while I read these books of parallel disaster and nightmarish scenarios, it’s possibly that little twinkle of hope in them (or that I hope is in them) that makes me read these novels as much as a slightly ghoulish fascination with the evils of human civilisation and watching characters cope within them (or not). Perhaps I hold more positive beliefs in the potential of humanity than even I realise.