The end of the world is very in right now. Along with zombies, apocalyptic tales are enjoying another heyday. But iconic Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood isn’t a trend follower; her first foray into speculative fiction was 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Her newest book, The Year of the Flood, a companion book to her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, explores the same late 21st-century dystopia as the earlier work.
In Oryx and Crake, a plague has swept over the Earth, apparently killing off all people but one: Snowman. Though he lives alone, Snowman is surrounded by genetic hybrid humanoids called Crakers, after their creator. The world he’s left with is also populated by the spliced animals constructed by scientists: rakunks (raccoon-skunks), wolvogs (wolves and dogs) and the frightening pigoons (pigs with human brain tissue). It is an Earth unfamiliar to us but, as the book makes clear, entirely of our own making.
The Year of the Flood takes place in much of the same time, moving its focus from scientists to a group called God’s Gardeners. The novel's temporal setting shifts constantly, some of it occurring after the great catastrophe (predicted by the Gardeners as an event called “the Flood”) and much of it in the already bruised world of the before.
Though headquartered in the middle of a city’s ghetto, known as the pleeblands, the Gardeners seek to return to living from the earth, cultivating their food, swearing off showers and eating no animals. Rather than just a social movement, theirs is a church, one replete with hymns, which are included in the book.
What saves them from appearing completely nutty—as the list of Don’ts is exhausting and possibly superfluous—is the fact that they’re onto something. The world of the mid- to late-2000s is drained, though few want to admit it. Common animals such as bears have become extinct, the air is nearly unbreathable and the ozone has burned away, requiring people to cover up completely when going outside for fear of burning to death. And yet, suburbs and malls still exist. Governments have given way to corporations, the biggest being CorpSeCorps (the name is indicative of Atwood’s love of wordplay; she was toying with dumbed-down misspellings long before text messaging). These corporations run everything, and it’s in their interest to stomp out groups like the Gardeners, whose mantra of non-consumerism is antithetical to their bottom line.
The novel is told through three narrative strands: the sermons of Adam One, leader of God’s Gardeners; Toby, one of the group’s “Eve”s, stuck in the AnooYoo Spa after the Flood; and Ren, who as a young girl was raised by the Gardeners. Though the prose styling of Adam One’s invocations gets a bit weary, they inform the action, balancing some of the horror with introspection.
The strongest parts belong to Ren and Toby, two women who have chosen very different ways to survive their lives, which were rough even before the apocalypse. Like all of Atwood’s novels, power issues between men and women are a major element. In The Year of the Flood, the worst predators aren’t the pigoons.
Unlike in Oryx and Crake, the main characters are, if not always understandable, infinitely more likable. They fail, however, to earn as much empathy as Offred, the protagonist in Atwood’s best-known dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. This is an important point. Tale was a novel of the thoughts and feelings of one woman negotiating a changed world in which she had become a breeding machine. Both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, on the other hand, are concerned more with the look and causes of the new, ruined world, and less about the people left in it.
The Year of the Flood is a message novel. It wants us to be aware that we will find excuses for the terrible, exploitative choices we make right until the end. The moral, though, is usually secondary to Atwood’s joy in creating the landscape of an imagined future. Read both books, Oryx and Crake first. Then, trade in your regular coffee for shade-grown, swear off all meat and seriously question the role corporations play in our lives. Or not. We probably won’t ruin things seriously until the 2100s anyway.