The Year of the Flood

by Margaret Atwood

448 pages | Nan A. Talese, 2009

Extinctathon Revisited
Do humans deserve a second chance?

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Interspersed in this compelling tale of the last humans’ survival in a post-apocalyptic world are dopey, goofy, frankly godawful sermons by God’s Gardeners, a nutty-crunchy, tree-hugging religious sect. Vegetarians who dress in shapeless recycled shmattes raise crops and honey bees on a squatters’ building rooftop, school their kids in the lifesaving qualities of maggots (used for both wound healing AND breakfast!), God’s Gardeners appear in stark opposition to the decrepit but fiercely materialistic world around them. They sound at times like simpletons, yet irony of ironies, they accurately predict the Waterless Flood which will capsize all humanity. And their accolates, strangely enough, turn out to be better prepared to face this future than the more sophisticated denizens of their world.

In the pre-Flood world, the rich dwell in locked compounds run by the Corporations like HelthWyzer and the poor dwell in the Pleeblands, which are run by mobs and street gangs and scratch out a living working in sex clubs, burger joints and spas for the wealthy. Women particularly fall easy prey to men who are brutal thugs, philandering Peter Pans, or madmen/fanatics – those seem to be the only choices. All live in fear of CorpSeCorps, the security force that polices the world.

While the Gardeners chant and celebrate a different Saint each day (from Rachel Carson to Sojourner Truth), the Corporation scientists, madhatter mad, take our modern-day obsessions with DNA, genetics and cloning to their logical conclusions: concocting new blended animal entities (just because they can?): liobams (lion + lamb), rakunks (rat + skunk) and wolvogs (wolf + dog), as well as a whole new breed of humans who are meek and seemingly dimwitted, but who may very well inherit our earth.

It’s a scary world out there! Atwood has covered this exact territory before in her 2003 book, Oryx and Crake and now she returns to this world, haunted as she must be by its possible inevitability. Neither a sequel nor a prequel, it’s a companion piece to the earlier work and expands our vision by focusing on the little people in this drama.

This time Atwood has us follow the story of two women, young Ren and older Toby, who meet during their brief stretch with the Gardeners and prove tough enough to make it through to the end. There are four or five other characters that are central to the story (Amanda, Zeb, Shackleton and Croze), but Ren and Toby are the ones we care about and the ones that carry the story. Toby, as a college student, becomes an instant orphan, thanks to the healthcare system which is frighteningly like our own; Ren’s the product of a broken family, an innocent who falls under the influence of a street-savvy friend, and winds up earning her living in a seedy sex club.

The book, a bit like The Time Travelers Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, plays around with chronology to the ultimate confusion of the reader. The hymns and sermons throw us off the track. They definitely disturb the mood and interrupt the flow of the novel. The tone is hard to fathom at times - how much is parody and how much sincerity? Here, for example, is an excerpt from the Gardeners’ leader, Adam One’s conversation with Toby on religion:

“The truth is. . .most people don’t care about other Species, not when times get hard. All they care about is their next meal, naturally enough: we have to eat or die. But what if God’s doing the caring? We’ve evolved to believe in gods, so this belief bias of ours must confer an evolutionary advantage. The strictly materialist view – that we’re an experiment animal protein has been doing on itself – is far too harsh and lonely for most, and leads to nihilism. That being the case, we need to push popular sentiment in a biosphere-friendly direction by pointing out the hazards of annoying God by a violation of His trust in our stewardship.”

“What you mean is, with God in the story there’s a penalty,” said Toby.

“Yes,” said Adam One. “There’s a penalty without God in the story too, needless to say. But people are less likely to credit that. If there’s a penalty, they want a penalizer. They dislike senseless catastrophe.”

So Atwood has stitched together all these sermons and woven them into her story because 1) she believes in God; 2) she believes religion is the opiate of the people and 3) she doesn’t care what you believe as long as you save the animals from extinction. It may take more than one reading to ferret out the correct answer.

At the end, this reader was shocked not by the ending of the tale, but by the real life ending featuring Atwood’s hymns; they have been put to music by one Orville Stroeber, as a visit to will have you know. And did you know it’s possible to nominate other ecological green giants to Atwood’s Hall of Fame via the same website? The future of books is in flux right before our eyes! Also surprising (not really) was the biographical tidbit that Atwood is the daughter of a forest entomologist and a nutritionist. Next up: The Nobody’s-Idea-of-a-Cookbook Cookbook showcasing recipes from the book involving fungi, creepy-crawlies, and cattail soup. The line between literature and life is getting harder to draw all the time.

The celebrated Canadian author of forty or so novels, among them The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood is still in her prime. Her speculative fiction is captivating because it is so close to our present, just a few extrapolations away; just a few ethical matters need to be disposed of first. We may laugh at the Gardeners’ simplicity, the Corporation dwellers’ addiction to plastic surgery and Mo’Hair scalp transplants, but this world is a little too close for comfort to our own. Do we laugh or do we cry? This type of dystopia has a pull on us. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood left us hanging as to the future survival of mankind, but the overriding sentiment seemed to be that we didn’t deserve to live, that our murderous impulses would always win out, that we were poor stewards of Earth’s creatures. Here, she leaves us with a singing chorus of strangers: “Now we can see the flickering of their torches, winding towards us through the darkness of the trees.” Time will tell if they are like us or not.

Janet Garber is an author, freelance journalist and native New Yorker.

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