Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

The Flood

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thefloodAn unknown narrator reminisces about their life in “the earthly city”, a life that preceded – we assume – some catastrophic flood. Where is the earthly city? What is the earthly city? We aren’t told. Instead our narrator immediately disappears and we are introduced to a range of characters from the city. First there is May, a widow, who is reflecting on the soap opera of her family life. Specifically, she is thinking about her daughter:

Yet the choices Shirley made had set the cat among the pigeons. She liked black men. Elroy was black.
Sometimes May felt Shirley had wrecked their lives, because Dirk, May’s son, was still in prison for killing Winston, Elroy’s brother. His own sister’s brother-in-law.(p.12)

Then there is Lottie, “a rich woman”, who owns Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (which is actually in the Columbus Museum of Art) and believes it perfectly captures her nature. She is indolently lounging in her bed, reflecting on her sleeping husband:

And in certain respects, certain private respects, where Lottie had always had high standards, Harold was very – satisfactory. He satisfied here, every time.(p.15)

May’s quote is frank, Lottie’s is coy but both display an irritating pedantry on Gee’s part. Warning flags are raised. Finally there is Bruno, a Christian fundamentalist. Unlike May or Lottie there is not even an attempt to make him a real person, instead his Travis Bickell-style yearning for a cleansing rain to wash away the decadence of the city establish him as the mouth piece for discussing religion and an obvious conduit for later action. This is obviously going to be a book with a lot of Themes.

The narrative has floated across the city, briefly alighting on these people before moving on. The next chapter opens with more of the same. This time it is Shirley herself, a welcomingly rounded presence, who also demonstrates that Gee is occasionally capable of great lines such as when Shirley’s babysitter is described as being “at the sullen epicentre of her teens” (p.20). Unfortunately we then move on to Dirk, every bit as much a pitiful cipher as Bruno. We discover that the murder was a queer-bashing with more than a hint of suppressed attraction:

…but then the man played with himself, in the dark, and Dirk had to kill him to save himself from the red raw hunger that came upon him.(p.25)

Gee ratchets up the soap opera quotient and continues to chalk up more items in the Themes column: Race, Religion, Redemption, Repression. Also note the use of the word “coloured”. Within pages we have “darkies” and “half-caste”. We might not know where the earthy city is but we now know when; Gee appears to be stuck in the Seventies. (There is something cringeworthy about her treatment of race in general with her stereotypically Black names and embarrassing attempts at slang.)

Then we move on to Faith, mother of Shirley’s babysitter. Are you keeping up? It is at this point that Gee reveals her hand: she is writing a satire. Until now, all her characters – except Shirley – have tended to the functional and schematic; Faith is such a caricature bitch that we realise this was all warm up. This is hammered home by the next two characters.

Firstly there is Delorice, sister of Elroy and Winston and rising star of the publishing industry. This means we are forced to sit in on a painfully contrived decision meeting regarding a book called A Breast In Winter, “an upbeat rural cancer saga”. It becomes evident that subtlety is not one of Gee’s concerns. Secondly, there is Mr Bliss, president of the earthly city, who has a habit of peppering his sentences with an imploring “guys” and is currently planning a pre-emptive strike against a neighbouring city. Hmm, who on Earth could President Bliss be based on?

Christ almighty, this is tiresome stuff. Only 42 pages into the novel, I was in need of reassurance so I went on the internet. The Flood was published in 2004. It was preceded by The White Family (2002) which appears to be the story of May, Shirley and Dirk. Her third novel was Light Years (1985) which appears to be the story of Lottie. Both appear to be set in our world. Rather than reassuring me, I was starting to fear that The Flood was an unholy mash-up of everything Gee had ever written filtered through the Guardian’s comment section.

To make matters worse, you can easily see a much better novel hidden away inside The Flood. Once the book has had a chance to bed in, Shirley and Lottie (if not the other characters) start to develop and take on some of the texture of the real world. Similarly there are moments where Gee perfectly captures the affect she is seeking:

Yet twenty minutes later Gerda was in the water, the clear blue water with its minnows of sunlight, warm as happiness, swimming, swimming, and Davey, on the other side of the pool, cleaved powerfully, blindly through his programme, and Lorna stood on the side and watched them, wishing that she had learned to swim, wishing that she were young again, understanding and forgiving Gerda, and all the knots of passion and pain were dissolved in the moment, and floated away.(p.171)

These moments are few and far between though. More often the are crowded out by ghastly artistic decisions, a convoluted and contrived web of serendipity, baldly re-stated back story, leaden “mediations” on Themes, characters who are relentlessly over-share in the most banal terms and dialogue that clearly issues form the author’s mouth rather than those of the characters. As I’ve hint, there are also far too many characters and most are used merely as props to be wheeled out as appropriate.

Then there is Gee’s use of the fantastic. This mainly consists of over using the definitive article when it comes to naming areas of the city (the Gardens, the Institute, the Towers) and slightly altering the names of countries (Turko, Malai, Anaturia). When Lottie goes to the opera (just called the Royal Opera, naturally) to see Madama Butterfly we are treated to the following exchange:

Pinkerton told the American ambassador about his plan to take a temporary bride from the imaginary country of Japan.
Davey, on Delorice’s other side, told her in a whisper, “America is really Hesperica, of course”
“That’s obvious,” she hissed back. (p.147)

Is this supposed to clever? Or witty? It is neither. So America becomes Hesperica, New York, appallingly, becomes New Work and the earthly city itself is clearly an alternative world version of London. Gee also makes some cowardly decisions to de-fang her satire; the names of political parties are conspicuous by their absence and the newspapers all have joke names like the Daily Bread. But this is an alternative world where everything else stays the same; as well as Hopper and Puccini, Gee proves her street cred (ho ho) by mentioning Jamiroquai and Coldplay. The major religions are all the same and in one typically clumsy scene May is corrected for referring to a Pakistani man as an Indian. Presumably Gee was so caught up by her Theme that she forgot she was meant to pointlessly shuffle the letters of each country. On the other hand, All of which poses the question, why isn’t The Flood set in our world?

At this point, I feel the need to talk about The Year Of The Flood, although it feels faintly disrespectful to compare a writer like Gee to one like Margaret Atwood. Both novels want to have their cake and eat it in similar ways; the straddle realism and farce and use the fantastic as a cloak for refusing to commit to either. I am a huge admirer of Atwood but I found her most recent novel absolutely infuriating for its combination of stellar prose and silly satire. A compendium of my complaints follows:

Atwood’s worldbuilding in all its awesome weakness… geographical incongruity and bloody silly set-dressing… Atwood has upended all her ideas onto the page and left them bunched together there… alas, although Atwood has now started in on the puns, she is unfortunately only warming up and has many more to come… sometimes it is hard to tell which are worse, the puns (implants for bimbos equal “Bimplants”) or just the ugly assaults on proper spelling (a spa called “AnooYou”)… a blush of childlike naivete.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes aim at our world whilst remaining true to its own world, The Year Of The Flood buys into the idea that science fiction is essentially a satirical rather than speculative genre. It is a mistaken belief but one that is relatively common amongst non-genre SF writers (the dabblers, as Iain M Banks would put it). Incoherence is not an issue because the writer is deliberately presenting an exaggerated version of our world. Unfortunately this often means that the complexity of reality is traded in for cartoonish approximations.

All of my complaints about The Year Of The Flood could equally apply to The Flood but Maggie Gee does at least have the excuse that she isn’t actually writing science fiction. She certainly has in the past – The Ice People (1999) is set in a dystopian future where the world is in the grip of another ice age – and a skim of the synopsis of this novel convinced me she had again. This assumption was wrong; rather it is a fable, a form that allows even greater scope for incoherence and is a refuge for lazy writers. Shouldn’t I just be able to accept The Flood as a fairytale where coherence is immaterial? I’m afraid I can’t; I find it too close to our world to allow it to function in this way. Personally, I find its incoherence an affront, a fundamental lack of respect for the reader.

The other issue is that Margaret Atwood has the get-out-of-jail-free card of being Margaret Atwood whereas Gee is not so blessed. So much of The Flood is just outright bad, that there is precious little left to enjoy, even if you are inclined to accept that Gee’s world is not meant to make sense.

She saves one last unpleasantly nonsensical surprise for the end. As signalled from the beginning the flood does indeed come, taking the form of a vast tsunami caused by an asteroid hitting Earth. The city is destroyed… and everyone turns up in Kew Gardens. Because Kew Gardens is heaven? Or the book was all a dream? Or Gee likes hanging out at Kew? The narrator of the introductory section – Gee herself? – never returns and we are left to draw our own conclusions. It is a magnificently complacent ending to a magnificently complacent book.

Written by Martin

23 May 2011 at 13:42

Posted in books, sf

Tagged with ,

17 Responses

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  1. What’s your argument for your claim that Year of the Flood, “buys into the idea that science fiction is essentially a satirical rather than speculative genre”?

    What do you say to the alternative claim that science fiction has no such “essence”? (And so Year of the Flood is at most buying into the idea that science fiction can be satirical.) Surely the genre is big enough to include different approaches, so that some science fiction novels are satirical, some build worlds, and some do other things?

    If you think that science fiction can’t be satirical, can’t “straddle realism and farce”, what can you say about The Futurological Congress? The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Yellow Blue Tibia?

    Gareth Rees

    23 May 2011 at 14:06

  2. What do you say to the alternative claim that science fiction has no such “essence”?

    I can’t really conceive of science fiction as anything other than essentially speculative. But that doesn’t mean I think it can’t be satirical as well.

    It seems to me that science fiction and the majority of what we like to call mainstream fiction are both concerned with realism. I might even use the word “essence” again. One is engaged in speculative realism whilst the other is actual mimesis but they are both essentially realist. Satire occupies a seperate non-realist sphere which could spring from either.

    I’m not sure everyone believes this though. I think for some writers all fantastika is a branch of satire. Hence my claim that The Year of the Flood “buys into the idea that science fiction is essentially a satirical rather than speculative genre”? For example, I do not think Atwood would have included an element of satire as broad as Painball in one of her non-SF novels. I don’t think she sees any conflict between this implausibility and the attempted realistic extrapolation elsewhere in the novel. This is what I mean by straddling realism and farce.

    I’ve not read the other two books mentioned but a work like The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy certainly doesn’t “straddle realism and farce”, it fully commits to the latter. Neither The Year Of The Flood or The Flood make that commitment, they flirt with satire but discard it when it suits them. I think they believe they are able to do so precisely because they are writing fantastika.

    Martin

    23 May 2011 at 14:35

  3. Now I would really like to see your take on Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.

    I got to ask him a question about his feelings vis a vis genre at a reading and I was left curiously unsatisfied: on the one hand, he seemed very enthusiastic about his previous genre reading, on the other hand he had just disparaged the whole idea of science fiction as a bit ludicrous and nerdy. (Which perhaps parallels his own attitude towards himself and his book?)

    The book sounds to be firmly in the satire camp but also a bit more elegant than this or maybe just more firmly committed to doing it well. Any chance you’ll be taking a look at it?

    Casey Samulski

    23 May 2011 at 20:44

  4. It’s clear to me that there is such a thing as futuristic satire: late Atwood, Ben Elton’s STARK, Paul Theroux’s O-ZONE — a lot of the mainstreap types Banks just went off at, actually — most of Vonnegut, David Marusek, lots of Adam Roberts. But I wouldn’t call it science fiction, even when its publishers and practitioners do. It’s not trying to be science fiction, so it’s not surprising it doesn’t partake of science fiction’s putatively essential speculativity.

    David Moles

    23 May 2011 at 23:32

  5. Casey: Now I would really like to see your take on Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.

    I have read it but since it was submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award I’m afraid I can’t tell you what I think about it. I can say I didn’t think it was one of the six best SF novels of 2010.

    David: It’s clear to me that there is such a thing as futuristic satire… But I wouldn’t call it science fiction

    It is interesting you mention O-Zone since it is pretty much held up as the exemplar of “dabbling” (though I question how many fans have actually read it). I do think the fact these writers are operating in a fundamentally different register explains a lot about the culture clash between genre and non-genre SF.

    I think the idea that some of those writers shouldn’t be identified as writing SF “even when its publishers and practitioners do” needs a bit more unpacking but it is definitely something I need to think more about.

    Martin

    24 May 2011 at 08:52

  6. There’s acres of satire in the SF canon, and the nature of SF does indeed lend itself to satire (by, obviously, highlighting or exaggerating some aspect of today). I suspect that the speculative act is inherently satirical: extrapolating and then commenting on one’s extrapolation leads one very close to satire. I did some work on satire for my MA and I’m pretty sure there are critics who classify “speculative fiction” as a variety of Menippean satire (it was a while ago and I don’t recall names, hence my caution here).

    It’s worth separating the idea of satire and farce, though: satires aren’t always hilarious snort-coke-through-your nose gagfests – 1984 is a satire of a sort, eg, as is A Handmaid’s Tale.

    When I reviewed Super Sad True Love Story (I thought it was great) I explored the idea that “SF” represents three things. First, a bunch of aesthetic choices of the spaceships and robots variety; second, a certain type of story that is inherent in these choices (but not always pursued), something similar to a philosophical problen, the pure “spec fic” story; and third, a bunch of cultural expectations built around a community (fandom, eg, or the “conversation” definition of genre, and also the “which shelf in the bookshop?” definition).

    I’d say that “the idea that some of those writers shouldn’t be identified as writing SF” privileges one of the above three definitions over the others (in this case, the philosophical enquiry). I think these are all perfectly valid definitions in their own way, but I don’t think any one of them is the One True defnition. (Also, the nature of creative arts mean that individual works can have feet in more than one camp.)

    It’s probably useful to readers to understand what they’re getting, and it would certainly help non-genre literate types to find books within the genre that they like, but SF for me is a pretty broad church. I’m happy to call include Star Wars, Greg Egan and Super Sad True Love Story under that broad definition.

    Patrick H

    24 May 2011 at 10:28

  7. Man, I seem to have completely lost the art of being pithy.

    Patrick H

    24 May 2011 at 10:49

  8. I knew I was forgetting something! Yes, Menippean satire needs to be mentioned and I obviously don’t know enough about satire as a genre. I promised myself I would look into this following Paul Kincaid’s post on Adam Roberts as a Menippean (also discussed in my review of Arslan). But I didn’t.

    So it seems like perhaps my problem with The Year Of The Flood is not that it is a mix of science fiction and satire but that it is a rather jagged mix of Menippean and Juvenalian satire.

    (Patrick’s review of Super Sad Love Story is here.)

    Martin

    24 May 2011 at 10:57

  9. As a coincidental aside, I see that Gary S has won the Wodehouse prioze for teh funnee:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/24/pg-wodehouse-prize-gary-shteyngart

    Patrick H

    24 May 2011 at 14:34

  10. Oh well, if we’re doing coincidental asides, I just read a review of Ali Smith’s latest which says: “… the funny visions of the future written in the past feel like satirical sci-fi, in the Kurt Vonnegut mould.”

    Niall

    24 May 2011 at 15:01

  11. Patrick: Beating another novel that seems to blend science fiction and satire.

    Niall: Ooh, new Ali Smith!

    Martin

    24 May 2011 at 15:37

  12. Martin: I think the idea that some of those writers shouldn’t be identified as writing SF “even when its publishers and practitioners do” needs a bit more unpacking…

    Probably. But substitute, e.g., “slipstream” for “SF” and see how you think it fits. :)

    David Moles

    24 May 2011 at 17:52

  13. Patrick, your second point really intrigued me but I’m not sure I understood what you were getting at there. Can you elaborate that? Or point me in the direction of your review if it does the job?

    Casey Samulski

    24 May 2011 at 20:59

  14. Hi Casey, the genre point is expanded in the review linked by Martin six posts above this one… or is it seven posts? Oh, look, here it is, although I don’t know how to do the linky thing: http://www.zone-sf.com/wordworks/supersad.html

    Patrick H

    25 May 2011 at 12:03

  15. I missed that. Thank you!

    Casey Samulski

    25 May 2011 at 18:54

  16. [...] The Flood by Maggie Gee [...]

  17. […] couple of years ago I reviewed The Flood by Maggie Gee. It isn’t a very good book and one of the main ways in which it isn’t very good is in […]


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