Maybe it’s a coincidence that I read The Year of the Flood (2009) in a week when new reports show human-caused climate change is accelerating at a dangerous rate, but such warnings sure add punch to this book’s dystopian message. It isn’t about climate change as such. The world’s climate has changed drastically in the story, but ‘the Flood’ isn’t caused by it. It happens, however, because of the same greed and stupidity that is inhibiting action on climate change now. If you don’t believe in human-caused climate change, you will probably find this book an improbable flight of fancy. Atwood doesn’t see it like that; she says the book is fiction, ‘but the general tendencies and many of the details are alarmingly close to facts.’ And I fear she is right.
The book is set in the same time and place as her earlier novel, Oryx and Crake (2003); see my review here. While the earlier story is set in the heavily guarded and privileged Compounds where scientists and their families live and work on genetic engineering, this one is set in the pleeblands, the decaying and crime-ridden urban areas outside the Compounds. Some of the same characters appear in both novels and both explore the immediate impact of the catastrophe that has overtaken the world, and the lives of some of the characters leading up to it. The technical challenge here is to write a stand-alone book when the material relates so closely to the earlier story. For example, you know right from the start of The Year of the Flood that there has been a catastrophe, but you only know what caused it if you have read the earlier story. I don’t think this matters, as the ‘cause’ in this story isn’t really relevant; the disaster is just something that happens to people, whatever the immediate cause. But then I’ve read the earlier book.
This story is about a greenie Christian group, God’s Gardeners, who get a brief mention in Oryx and Crake. They live in the pleeblands but reject the consumerist and hedonistic culture that thrives there, and in the Compounds. Instead they try to be to be self-sufficient by growing their own food and recycling cast-off consumer goods. They respect all living things as created by God. Short sermons by Adam One, the leader of the group, and hymns from their ‘Oral Hymnbook’ are scattered throughout the story. This is carried in linked but separate narratives by two of the group, Toby – told as third person – and Ren in the first person. This is again a considerable technical challenge, especially as there are numerous time changes covering the periods before and after the catastrophe, but Atwood is a master at this sort of thing, and I found it easy enough to follow once I got a little way into the story. Toby and Ren each has her own story within the larger trope of a small number of people who survive a catastrophe but then have to battle to survive its aftermath – Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids comes to mind as an earlier version (though that is science fiction, not speculative fiction).
Atwood gives full reign to the horrible detail of the society the Gardeners live in – the gangs, the violence, the crazy quest for permanent youth and beauty. At one point Toby has to advertise a health spa. It doesn’t do gene therapy, but it does do ‘herbal elixirs, system cleansers, dermal mood lifts; vegetable nanocell injections, mildew-formula micromesh resurfacing, heavy-duty face creams, rehydrating balms. Iguana-based hue changes, microbial spot removal, flat-wart leech peels.’ What a wonderful list! Details of the Gardeners’ own practices are equally inventive. Ren, for example, has no cavities in her teeth; ‘The Gardeners were against refined sugar and were strict about brushing, though you had to use a frayed twig because they hated the idea of putting either plastic or animal bristles inside their mouths.’ Atwood’s skill makes what might seem ridiculous totally believable.
Atwood’s characteristically ironic style makes it hard to know exactly how to take the Gardeners’ religion. They believe that one day soon there will be a second flood which will overwhelm the human population of the earth. Unlike Noah’s flood, this one will be waterless, leaving the flora and fauna of the planet, which they see as just as important as humans, to recover from the desolation wreaked by humans. Adam One has many sensible things to say in his sermons, but surely some of it is a joke, as in the suggestion that Jesus called two fishermen as his first apostles, ‘to help conserve the Fish population. They were told to be fishers of men instead of being fisherman of Fish, thus neutralizing two destroyers of Fish!’ The Gardeners are right about the ‘flood’ but I think the story is open-ended in terms of otherwise endorsing their views.
I understand Margaret Atwood is writing a third book in this series. You can read more about her here. She won the 2000 Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, which I reviewed here. Oryx and Crake made the short list in 2003, but this one didn’t even make the long list in 2009. I really don’t know why, though maybe some people find it preachy – all that stuff about species extinction and extreme weather ….