Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood doesn't think she writes science fiction. Ursula K Le Guin would like to disagree

Ursula K Le Guin , The Guardian, Saturday 29 August 2009
To my mind, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire.
But Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction.
In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can't be science fiction, which is "fiction in which things happen that are not possible today". This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
So, then, the novel begins in Year 25, the Year of the Flood, without explanation of what era it is the 25th year of, and for a while without explanation of the word "Flood". We will gather that it was a Dry Flood, and that the term refers to the extinction of - apparently - all but a very few members of the human species by a nameless epidemic. The nature and symptoms of the disease, aside from coughing, are undescribed. One needs no description of such events when they are part of history or the reader's experience; a reference to "the Black Plague" or "the swine flu" is enough. But here, failure to describe the nature of the illness and the days of its worst virulence leaves the epidemic an abstraction, novelistically weightless. Perhaps on the principle that since everything in her novel is possible and may have already happened so the reader is familiar with it, the author doles out useful information sparingly. I sometimes felt that I was undergoing, and failing, a test of my cleverness at guessing from hints, reading between lines and recognising allusions to an earlier novel.
Read the full Ursula le Guin article here.

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