The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Once again, Atwood demonstrates her incredible command of language as well as her abilities with speculative fiction with The Year of the Flood, a not-quite-sequel to Oryx and Crake (and presumably a not-quite-prequel to MaddAddam, which comes out in September). They’re all based in the same destroyed Earth, and some characters overlap, but the stories could potentially be read as stand-alone pieces.
The Year of the Flood follows two survivors of “The Waterless Flood,” a global pandemic that has wiped out most, if not all, of humanity. The two women, Ren and Toby, independently survive with luck, flexibility to circumstance, and their shared background in God’s Gardeners, an environmentalist cult that had predicted some kind of human-ending “flood” and preached that their believers would be the ones to populate and tend the “new Eden” to come.
Not only is The Year of the Flood an intriguing story, it also is a warning: about caring for our environment, treating our food sources with respect, the dangers of the growth of megacorps and the privatization of public entities, genetic modification, experimentation divorcing from ethics, and the divide between rich and poor. (All that, and probably a bit more, really is in this book. If you are a huge fan of processed chicken and cutting down trees, this really isn’t the book for you–or is, if you don’t mind changing your habits.)
Atwood’s extensive research shines when it comes to God’s Gardeners. Rather than traditional saints, the Gardeners have environmentalists, famous and lesser-known, as their totems. Atwood, through Gardener leader Adam One, creates sermons dedicated to some of these environmentalist saints, weaving the events of the novel in with the history of the real-world environmentalists. She even includes hymns written for these holy days–and you can buy the CD on her website.
She has also clearly done research on plant-based remedies, beekeeping (I wonder if she and Neil Gaiman bond over that?), general plant care, and endangered species. (Side note: I sort of hope the twisted-but-awesome “Extinctathon” game she included in the book becomes real some day, though I hope far fewer real animals get added to the list).
Her world-building is nothing short of epic…but that made the problems I saw all the more jarring.
These kinds of “seriously?!” moments are rife in this book, and that’s unfortunate, because it really detracts from the larger messages. You really just want to shake Ren and get her to move on already. The phrase “other fish in the sea” seems applicable.
This book might also be challenging for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. For some reason, no one is allowed to have a happy, loving relationship or sex life. I don’t know if that was an intentional message, or some kind of subtext seeping in (I’m looking at you, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Penelopiad, and Oryx and Crake) but it’s awful. Maybe in this future, all relationships are horrible, but that’s a bit hard to believe.
Additionally, the depictions of violence against women and repeated explicit and implied rape makes this book challenging in ways beyond the story.
This is a fantastically well-written book, but it is by no means easy. I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake, but some parts of this book just detracted a bit too much for me, and I didn’t enjoy it as much, though I’m still glad I read it. This isn’t exactly a light summer read, but you’ll come out better informed and more thoughtful for your efforts.