02.06.2014

After the Flood

Margaret Atwood's post-apocalyptic trilogy sees localized resistance to a dystopian future.

Bloomsbury / YouTube

In 2009, when novelist Margaret Atwood released The Year of the Flood, her highly anticipated sequel to 2003’s Oryx and Crake, theoretical interest was intense. For most readers of Oryx and Crake, its haunting story of a world depopulated by a genocidal scientist (Crake) who develops and introduces a new species of genetically-engineered man to repopulate the barren world was a narrative of a frightening and fantastic future.

But where Atwood wrote that earlier novel from a mostly patrician male perspective of scientists living and working in corporate compounds, The Year of the Flood shifted to a female-focused story of a communal eco-cult squatting in a commoners’ zone, or “pleeblands,” that survives a plague along with the experimental humanoid “Crakers.”

Atwood’s shift towards a religious, ecological, prefigurative community was jarring to many readers excited by Crake’s apocalyptic vision and skeptical of the viability of autonomous political projects.Flood fully immerses the reader in the ritual and romance of daily life in the eco-cult, God’s Gardeners: their rooftop gardens, hymns and holidays for various saints (Jane Goodall, Stephen Jay Gould), mushroom foraging, beekeeping, rooftop gardening and preparations of various stockpiles to protect and feed them in the wake of a forthcoming “waterless flood.”

Much of the novel borders on an unironic endorsement of a certain crunchy-granola vision of political organization. The genetically modified Crakers, who were engineered without traits such as violence and sexual competition, also became obsessively religious, worshipping their creator Crake and Crake’s love Oryx as gods. Atwood’s middle novel of the trilogy thus avoids an exploration of post-human possibilities and instead reinforces an atavistic need for religion and a fetish for local, organic forms of resistance.

Fredric Jameson speculates in his 2009 review whether there should be a genre differentiation between the post-apocalyptic novel of humans struggling after a catastrophe, nuclear or otherwise, and the “old-fashioned modernist dystopian” novel where society is controlled by a totalitarian ruling class: “My current feeling is that the post-catastrophe situation in reality constitutes the preparation for the emergence of Utopia itself, which, to be sure, in Atwood’s new installment we reach only by anticipation.”

The stakes of science fiction are thus set quite high, as few other literary techniques posses the speculative resources necessary to provide possible blueprints of a future society. Jameson’s “desire called utopia” places the emphasis on the genre’s ability to project an alternative (and radically egalitarian) attempt at human organization, as opposed to the dystopian novel’s often simplistic and topical critique of the bugbear du jour — like the resurgent misogynistic, militaristic, and theocratic Right in Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

So for some, Atwood’s tale of humanity obliterated, a world depopulated and then seeded with a tribe of experimental utopian humanoids, was a fresh vision of catastrophic possibility. But the introduction of the God’s Gardeners, who will have to interact with the Crakers in this new world, prioritizes a certain type of spiritual green anarchism. On this topic, Mark Fisher writes that

the principal failing of The Year Of The Flood’s anti-capitalism consists in its inability to grasp the way in which capitalism has absorbed the organic and the green . . . Organicism is the problem, and it’s not some eco-spirituality that will save the human environment (if it can be saved) but new modes of organization and management.

Fisher echoes Žižek’s critique of green capitalism, in which capitalist retailers like Starbucks and Whole Foods mollify consumers’ unease with mega-corporations by presenting themselves as proponents of a “sustainable” lifestyle. The forces of capital today have such gravity, velocity, and flexibility that many contemporary critiques of ecological destruction are deftly defanged.

The first two books in this trilogy thus opened up a window on the schism between utopian prefiguration and politics proper. At the end of The Year of the Flood, God’s Gardeners are embodying John Holloway’s autonomist exhortation to “change the world without taking power.” By finding one of Holloway’s hidden “cracks” in the system (in this case, an urban squat), this collective finds a way to avoid contamination when the deadly man-made disease starts killing billions.

Having already prefigured the demands of the post-apocalyptic world (self-sustainability, knowledge of forageable foods, and an egalitarian political structure), the Gardeners are given a chance to build utopia or something like it. The recondite revolutionaries inherit the earth.

In MaddAddam, the third novel of her trilogy, Atwood has the opportunity at last to let loose this strange new society she has carefully wound up over the previous two books. But the plot is almost immediately handcuffed once a few psychotic gladiators who survived both the murderous spectacles they competed in and the more recent genocidal plague threaten the fragile community of survivors.

The naked noble savage Crakers also traumatize the shell-shocked shards of humanity when a group of them gang rapes one of the female gardeners after noticing that she is “blue.” Engineered to mate only in a specific rutting season during which their genitals actually turn blue, the Crakers know no shame in sex, and believing they sensed a human’s sexual readiness, gladly proceed to the act.

Atwood’s post-apocalyptic imagination foregrounds the persistence of desire and procreative potential. Eros abides as competition and jealousies between the humans take on a frenzied intensity in the radically depopulated world. Add to this traditional scarcity scenario the artificially unashamed Crakers and you have a frightening biopolitical mix. Crake’s wish for a civilization sans discontents is hardly off to a successful start.

The majority of MaddAddam, however, does not take place in the post-apocalyptic now, but in a narrative that focuses on the lives of two brothers who were key figures in the foundation and splintering of the Gardeners: Adam and Zeb. Whereas The Year of the Flood enigmatically outlined these characters, we now know their life stories, their family drama, and in the telling Atwood is able to paint a more vivid picture of the world on the brink of annihilation — and perhaps directly address some of the criticisms of Flood.

Thus, instead of a Pollyannaish view of urban gardening and green self-sustainable behavior, we have Zeb’s story of working for “Bearlift,” an ecological relief program in which helicopters ship human food waste to the starving polar bears. The passage reads like a direct rebuttal to Mark Fisher’s criticism:

It lived off the good intentions of city types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving something — some rag from their primordial authentic ancestral past, a tiny shred of their collective soul dressed up in a cute bear suit. The concept was simple: the polar bears are starving because the ice is almost gone and they can’t catch seals any more, so let’s feed them our leftovers until they learn to adapt . . .  [It] sounded a note of hope, distracted folks from the real action, which was bulldozing the planet flat and grabbing anything of value.

And if the Gaia-inspired religion of God’s Gardeners presented small religious groups in too optimistic a light, enter the father of Adam and Zeb, the “Rev,” a charlatan preacher and convenient conduit for Atwood’s topical social critique:

The Rev had his very own cult. . . The Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists. . . Naturally he had a scriptural foundation for it. Matthew, Chapter 16, Verse 18: “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

It didn’t take a rocket-science genius, the Rev would say, to figure out that Peter is the Latin word for rock, and therefore the real, true meaning of ‘Peter’ refers to petroleum, or oil that comes from rock. . . The Rev could rave on about the Oleum for hours.

Complementing these environmental and religious nuances is a description of the militarization of the world that drives political resistance underground:

Old Style demonstration politics were dead. You could get back at individual targets such as the Rev using underhanded means, but any kind of public action involving crowds and sign-waving and then storefront smashing would be shot off at the knees.

Rising seas have also created abandoned cities beyond the reach of the panopticon:

Much was on offer in the Floating World . . . freedom from oversight: they believed that the internet was . . . full of peepholes . . . and they didn’t want to leave any of their virtual DNA on it . . . as the online world became more and more pre-edited and slicked up, and as even its so-called reality sites raised questions about authenticity in the minds of the viewers, the rough, unpolished physical world was taking on a mystic allure.

Atwood describes a world in which resistance takes on a geographical specificity. As the Internet becomes more and more policed and traditional public protests lose potency or are brutally crushed, an alternative tactic of rooting the movement to a specific space grows more and more attractive. There are some similarities to the site-specific tactics of Occupy Wall Street, and indeed as decentered as that movement was, its lifespan in New York City was mostly coterminous with the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park.

This is not your traditional politics of labor unions and political parties. Indeed, Atwood’s world doesn’t really describe labor unless it is taking place inside the highly protected corporate compounds where the elites research and develop, or inside strip clubs and health spas that cater to these elites. The pleeblands are outlined more as cities of slums than topographies of wage labor:

He spent the trip looking out the window at the passing scenery: gated communities like the one they’d just fled, fields of soybeans, frackware installations, windfarms, piles of gigantic truck tires, heaps of gravel, pyramids of discarded ceramic toilets. Mountains of garbage with dozens of people picking through it; pleebland shanty towns, the shacks made of discarded everything. Kids standing on the shack roofs, on the piles of garbage, on the piles of tires, waving flags make of colorful plastic bags or flying rudimentary kites . . . The odd camera drone drifted overhead.

Missing from the corporate/commoner binary is, of course, the proletariat. Beyond the scientists who genetically engineer various animals for different alimentary purposes and service employees laboring in the flesh trade there are only brief glimpses: Zeb works for Bearlift, he takes a janitorial job in one of the compounds and also becomes a bounty hacker in Brazil, which has become “the Wild West of the web,” but this work is mostly removed from the production process.

Where are the factories? Or has technology progressed to such an extreme that the need to represent more traditional forms of labor such as manufacture has been hollowed out? Whether this is a defect in the narrative or accurately reflects our near future depends on whether one sees these novels as a comprehensive or fragmented view of the future.

But what this means for Atwood’s anti-capitalism is profound, as her “revolutionaries” are not necessarily linked to the labor process at all. They are either the members of covert autonomous groupings located in self-sufficient spaces, or the elite insiders who decide to take matters into their own hands and betray the corporate compounds. As Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have shown, an individual on the inside can cause massive damage by simply divulging classified documents. Although these leakers are a far cry from a rogue research scientist wiping out 99 percent of humanity and replacing it with a new species of modified humans, as technological change has advanced exponentially, the potential for an insider to exploit her positional leverage continues to grow.

The other notorious anti-establishment action of the past five years is, of course, the 2011 Occupy movement, whose localized encampments, emphasis on proximity and process, and decentered structures had more than a little in common with Atwood’s God’s Gardeners. What should we make of this fictional world in which workers’ self-organization is invisible? In which radical change stems from violent technological powers and amorphous assemblages of discontents rather than strike actions and traditional protests? Is this our future?

Not only have most party formations dissolved into ineffective sects, but the refoundation of some sort of party project would have to contend with a near-total surveillance state, militarized policing tactics, and paranoid government infiltration. Perhaps this is the same as it ever was, but add the fact that the nature of work has been destabilized and eroded by decades of unfettered capital, and the prospects for some sort of return to traditional “revolutionary” politics appears distant indeed.

Atwood seems to intuit this and her emphasis on prefigurative forms of resistance only seems like a natural response to an overweening corporate dystopia. When the dream of revolutionary transformations seems so distant, why not at least have a taste of utopia in this world rather than toil amidst a rotten society and its artificial politics? Or does the workplace nevertheless remain the fundamental space of struggle, although now too removed or amorphous for us to recognize and rejuvenate its logic?

And what does it mean if Atwood transforms revolutionary praxis from labor activism into sabotage from the elite workers coupled with a strategy of refusal by an eclectic grouping of transients — two tactics we have recently witnessed in our own American society? The apocalypse that inhabits so much of our contemporary imagination is a signifier that the revolution and its classical preconditions are perhaps too difficult to dream.

Atwood’s style is often so intimate that she weaves an illusion that the current focus is the whole. But with each additional novel in this trilogy an entirely new topos appears that was previously absent. As one would be foolish to judge the validity of Balzac’s panoramic vision from Gobseck alone, Atwood’s gradual process has allowed her to slowly lay out the warp and the weft of her tapestry.

Near the end of MaddAddam the view widens once again and what has been foregrounded retreats slightly as additional information is revealed. But such has been Atwood’s method since she decided to expand the world of Oryx and Crake. Utopia isn’t easy; it’s an uneven process, a becoming. One can only hope that, like Balzac, Atwood continues to push the narrative geographically, temporally, deeply into the utopian unknown.