Recipe for a Post-Apocalyptic Novel
Apocalyptic Technology: Pick one. Any current ones could wipe us out, given the right combo of corporate, economic, and political forces. Margaret Atwood picked genetic engineering.
Protagonist: Anti-hero, to make his (usually his) salvation of humankind more literary. Atwood made three, so far, across these two books: A boy whose mother’s depression and abandonment gave him a Complex, a young woman who moved from an eco cult into pseudo-elite sex work for totally logical reasons, and an older woman who survived both her parents’ death and the deprivations of a horrifying rapist and torturer (even reviews by Noted Feminists tend not to call this dude a rapist).
Smug Scientific Genius (optional): But how optional is it, really, since the whole premise of the genre is that scientific hubris will do us in? Sometimes (I’m thinking of Butler’s xenogenesis trilogy) this role is played by an alien. In these books, he’s a lonely hacker resolved to engineer humans back to the state of animals, reversing much of what evolution gave us in terms of frontal lobe capabilities etc. Because human emotions are too painful. That sounds like a cliche when I type it, but it didn’t feel like one when I read it.
Impediment to Human Survival: Conflict, right? Something has to happen after the world has ended, because we’re too convinced of our own power as a species to really think that apocalypse is the end. In these books, there’s Blanco, that rapist/torturer/murderer/subhuman, and a few of his co-rapists. There are pigs with human brain tissue. They hold grudges and mourn their dead. There isn’t much food left.
But the biggest impediment to human survival is the potential inability of humans to override decades of programming by the corporate technocracy into creatures of pure consumption.
I recently reread these books in anticipation of Maddaddam, the final stage of the trilogy. It’s out now! Go buy it and convince the corporate masters that women-authored SF is profitable! (I mean, Atwood’s hardly a gamble for a publishing company, but you know what I mean.)
And they read better the second time. More fun, more interesting, more zazzy.
But I did not recall until I reread The Year of the Flood just how much of this world is based upon violence against women. Women are raped and tortured all over the place. Largely offscreen, so to speak, so it’s not traumatic in the way that, say, reading Push could be.
But still. Violence against women is part of the landscape both pre- and post-apocalypse. And since civil society has been usurped by the Corporate Security Corps (CorpSeCorp), which has no real interest besides profit, rapists rule fiefdoms by fear. They go unpunished.
Improbably and delightfully, risking spoilers, I’ll tell you that the women in these books rescue themselves. They help each other out. They forge bonds strong enough to outlast the rapists AND the apocalypse.
That’s the utopia buried within the dystopia.
These books also respect religion and attempt to show that science and religion are twins rather than schoolyard bullies locked in perpetual noogie-war. Unlike most SF in print and on film.
The eco-cult, God’s Gardeners, has roughly the same aim as the lonely genius attempting to re-engineer humanity: They both want to find a way for humans to coexist peacefully with the natural world and with each other. But Crake, the hacker genius, believes that such harmony would be impossible without engineering away property, romance, art, and dreams.
The Gardeners, meanwhile, learn survival skills, stockpile supplies, and build an ideology around Preservation and Restoration. They are savvier than Crake, but he controls knowledge and distribution channels while they hide from the CorpSeCorp as ideological enemies of the “state.”
He wields the power of the elite. They harness the power of the grassroots collective. Which means to their shared vision will win out?
The fun of the post-apocalyptic novel is that once you yadda yadda human society away with whatever techno-corporate-political whatever, you get to see what remains of humanity. And usually, what remains is the same junk that got us into apocalyptic trouble in the first place: love, violence, curiosity, and delusion.
I’m excited to see what Maddaddam leaves for us.