Hey look, this sci-fi book passes the Bechdel test

This is my review of The Year of the Flood, the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

A decade (and a half, maybe) ago, an aunt of mine read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was the peak of the Harry Potter craze, and people were speculating wildly about the next book- whichever number it was- and queuing up outside bookstores at 6 a.m. to grab their copies. My aunt wanted to know what made this series like catnip for teenagers. Her verdict: It was overly detailed, and filled with Chekhov’s guns, thus providing endless fodder for analysis. The magic was also made less ‘ridiculous’ and, well, fantastic, because there were prosaic details too. For every mention of a Goblin-run bank, there was also a reasonable- sounding currency conversion.

I liked Oryx and Crake for basically the same reasons. It was science fiction with a human touch, a supervillain origin story with high school nerds- the combination was promising. Yes, there were genetically modified animals running around, but some of them were failed beta tests. I had to get more of this universe!

Similar to O&C, The Year of the Flood is also written from two points of view. This time, the protagonists are two women, Toby and Ren. They are both former members of a religious cult called God’s Gardeners, and by pure luck have survived the deadly epidemic that Crake unleashed. The book reveals their backstories, and what life is like for ordinary citizens amidst all the bioterrorism.

The most enjoyable parts of the book were the scenes in God’s Gardeners, a group that preaches vegetarianism and the need to stop harming God’s creatures. It was interesting to me how very reasonable the cult was- there was no brainwashing, and they provided security to non-believers, as long as they were productive and cooperative. Sometimes, support systems can be born from a shared questionable belief; too often, it’s the other way round.

The parts I liked the least were basically everything else; the story is tangential to the main plot of O&C, and barely reveals any new details. Ren dated Jimmy briefly whilst at college. She still carries a torch for him, but this has no bearing on any events. Essentially, this is like the Director’s Cut of the original plot- interesting scenes, but just for the true enthusiasts.

Margaret Atwood also wrote the modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale, about a modern Puritan society that strips women of fundamental rights. True to her role as a feminist icon, Atwood makes sure that Toby and Ren’s experiences are strongly coloured by their sexuality. They are motivated by love and wounded by gendered insults; many of their trials are related to sexual abuse. There is no overt feminism or man-bashing, something I was very glad of. These days, I find that political correctness is often brought to the attention of readers explicitly by self-satisfied authors (“Look look, this Sci-Fi book passes the Bechdel test!”)

I will definitely be reading Maddaddam (Book#3 in this trilogy), but perhaps with less enthusiasm. 2.5/5. Recommended only if you really enjoyed Oryx and Crake.

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