The deepest pessimism

August 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

My review of Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Year of the Flood (just out in trade paper), is online at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. A taste:

In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, Atwood asserts that Wells referred to his tales as “scientific romances,” but only because the specific generic classification science fiction had yet to be coined. About Doctor Moreau, Atwood writes:

There are several interpretations of the term “science.” If it implies the known and the possible, then Wells’s scientific romances are by no means scientific: he paid little attention to such boundaries. As Jules Verne remarked with displeasure, “Il invente!” (“He makes it up!”). The “science” part of these tales is embedded instead in a world-view that derived from Wells’s study of Darwinian principles under Huxley, and has to do with the grand concern that engrossed him throughout his career: the nature of man. This too may account for his veering between extreme Utopianism (if man is the result of evolution, not of Divine creation, surely he can evolve yet further?) and the deepest pessimism (if man derived from the animals and is akin to them, rather than to the angels, surely he might slide back the way he came?). The Island of Doctor Moreau belongs to the debit side of the Wellsian account book.

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood also belong to the debit side of the account book, in that they chronicle the latter days of a species – homo sapiens – that seems hell-bent on returning to a pre-evolutionary state along a road that is ironically paved by our own ingenuity: we are involved in the wholesale pursuit of the very technologies that will serve as the instruments of our destruction. Although The Year of the Flood is ultimately a more hopeful book than its predecessor, there is nevertheless a strain of “the deepest pessimism” running through it.

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