Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's new novel is set in the same imaginary space as Oryx and Crake but told from the point of view of a minor character in the first book and of a senior member of the religious group "Gods Gardeners," mentioned only in passing in the first book. The Year of the Flood gives a rounder, fuller view of the imaginary but plausible future that Atwood has created for us. Having read Oryx and Crake first, it was easier for me to follow, although I think it would be a less confusing read, even without knowing the basic premise from the start.

Atwood has extrapolated on climate change, genetic engineering, privatization of government functions and corporate irresponsibility and immunity, all trends we can see today, to create the distopian future of The Year of the Flood. Her two narrators are Ren, the former girlfriend of Jimmy, aka Snowman from Oryx and Crake and Toby, a senior member of God's Gardeners.

Gods Gardeners are an eco-religious communal group, growing there own food in a rooftop garden on top of one of the buildings they occupy in the middle of the urban chaos of a "plebe," the word Atwood uses to describe a city outside of the walled and gated communities where the wealthy corporate executives live, under the protection of CorpSeCorps, the Corporate Security Corps, which has become the privatized police, army, courts and prison administration of Atwood's unnamed future nation.

 In the future world Atwood has created, large corporations, many of them in the business of bio-engineering, run everything. These corporations are answerable to no one. They create and spread new diseases in order to sell the cures they have made for them. They build new creatures, combining the genetic materials of different species. Many technologies of energy efficiency are used, but were unsuccessful in reversing the trend of global warming. Solar provides the electricity for many building which are off the grid, biomass is rendered to make a petroleum substitute. Organized crime is rampant in the plebelands and regularly uses these rendering devices to dispose of bodies, or just takes their saleable organs and leaves them in a vacant lot.

Atwood goes to some length fleshing out God's Gardeners, their theology and rituals, including the words to  hymns, which end each chapter. There is a CD of these songs available through Atwood's website. One amusing aspect is their saints days. Like Roman Catholicism, Gods Gardeners structure their calendar around a list of saints. Francis of Assisi is one, but most are people like Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Jacques Cousteau.  Euell Gibbons gets a whole week.

Through the stories told by Ren and Toby, Atwood fills in the missing parts of Oryx and Crake. We learn that there is a connection between God's Gardeners and MaddAdam, the online game/eco-terrorist group and that Glenn/Crake, who formed MaddAdam and created the plague, known to the Gardeners as the Waterless Flood, was inspired by the Gardener's doomsday prophecy to create the plague and the genetically altered post-humans that he believes should inherit the Earth from us.

The end of The Year of the Flood coincides with the end of Oryx and Crake, leaving Toby, Ren, Ren's friend Amanda a couple of sociopathic criminals and a colony of blue bellied post-humans to fend for themselves.  How will society evolve from here? Is Atwood so enamored of this particular distopia that she would write a trilogy? Perhaps she means to leave it up to the reader's imagination. It would be nice to know what happens next in the lives of the well crafted characters left stranded on the beach at the end, but I think that the speculative propositions presented in the two books have been played out. Going further, to see whether traditional humans or the new blue-bellies will inherit the Earth, or perhaps the pigoons, would be a venture too far into science fiction for Margaret Atwood's taste.


  1. Having read Oryx and Crake I am not sure what to say. It means I'll probably have to read The Year of the Flood. It sounds a tiny bit like The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, but even more extreme. Margaret Atwood is a superb writer


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