[4 October 2009]
Warning: possible plot spoilers for those readers who haven’t read Oryx and Crake.
You know those bumper stickers that read If You Aren’t Outraged, You Aren’t Paying Attention? After reading The Year of the Flood, you’ll want a bumper sticker reading If You Aren’t Terrified, You Aren’t Paying Attention. In this companion volume to 2003’s Dystopian Oryx and Crake, we are taken outside the sealed, immaculate corporate Compounds where biologists are cooking up animal hybrids, lethal drugs, and, ultimately, a “perfected” human race to the Pleeblands, where kill or be killed is the modus operandi. If today’s gated suburban “cities”, with their cardkey access and entrance guardhouses equal the not-so-future corporate Compounds, then the Pleeblands are the inner cities, where the CorpSeCorps police force range from corrupt to murderous, gangs and religious cults do battle, and scarcity is a given.
Atwood has always been mistress of “speculative fiction”, a future none too distant: consider 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale: a precipitously dropping birth rate causes the government to impose a repressive society, first noticed when the narrator goes to use her cash card, then an unknown object in the real world, and it is refused. Even now, nearly every time I swipe my debit card through a computerized machine, I remember that nameless narrator and the day her card was refused in a store, when all women’s cash cards were shut down and taken from them.
It is impossible to write about The Year of the Flood without invoking Oryx and Crake. If you haven’t read Oryx and Crake, I highly recommend doing so before Year of the Flood. While Year of the Flood can stand alone, you will benefit—or double your terror—by reading them sequentially.
In both The Year of the Flood and Crake, rampant human greed has brought the Earth to a precipitous state. The weather is wrong; there is too much rain, or too little, it no longer snows, the heat is blistering. Humans have done so much damage to the earth that the massive species die-offs happening this moment, in real time, have escalated to the point of involuntary vegetarianism: real animal protein is as rare, expensive, and illicit as Beluga Caviar.
Inside the Compounds, chickens have evolved into Chickie Nobs, a headless, brainless hybrid sort of chicken; soy has replaced all dairy and meats, as in SoyYummie Ice Cream and Soyburgers. Happicuppa Beans have pushed all other coffee growers violently out of business; real liquor and actual fruit have the cachet of foie gras. The Secretburger chain advertises real meat in its burgers, the secret being what the actual meat is; in pure Atwood style, it is revoltingly revealed.
The Year of the Flood revisits many of Oryx and Crake‘s characters: Crake, then still Glenn, Jimmy, even a brief glimpse of Oryx herself, viewed rather acidly through another woman’s eyes. The sweetly oblivious Crakers appear. So does MaddAdam, he of the Extinctathon game Glenn and Jimmy played as bored teenagers in the HelthWyzer Compounds. But The Year of the Flood returns to familiar Atwood territory in one respect: once again, we hear from the women. There is Amanda, an artist and former lover of Jimmy’s, Ren, one of Jimmy’s high school sweethearts and a dear friend of Amanda’s, and Toby, who is older than the other narrators.
The Year of the Flood begins where Oryx and Crake leaves off. A massive plague, wrought by Crake via BlyssPluss pills, has left few survivors, trapped and isolated, unsure whether they are alone. The scene is postapocalyptic, The Stand after the Superflu. (And have you, fellow reader, gotten your flu shot yet?) Pigoons, enormous, malicious beasts sporting human neocortex tissue, and in some cases, multiple human organs intended for harvest, roam the streets seeking food. Their intelligence, strength, and willingness to eat anything makes them dangerous. So too the wolvogs, who appear to be cuddly canine housepets and are anything but. Bobkittens, Liobams, and sheep called Mo’Hairs also wander freely. The skies are filled with vultures.
In this milieu, Toby, stranded at an AnooYoo Spa, surveys the wreckage from a rooftop, hoarding a shrinking cache of food and trying not to go mad. In the nearby sex club Scales and Tales, Ren, a dancer, remains locked in the Sticky Zone, awaiting decontamination after her protective bodyskin is torn by an enthusiastic customer. All is well until Mordis, the club manager, is killed in the mayhem following the plague’s breakout. He dies just outside the locked door of the Sticky Zone, the door code dying with him.
Ren knows Amanda has survived: the two manage brief cellphone contact, but then nothing. Ren surveys her fridge, her steroid enhanced Joltbars, the Chickie Nobs, the water. If she rations, she’ll have enough for a few weeks. Outside her locked room, the club’s music pounds on an endless loop to an audience of decaying bodies.
Before the Plague, all three women belonged to the Gardeners, a religious group excoriating the consumption of animal flesh. Instead they grow mushrooms and cultivate rooftop gardens, where they coax turnips, squash, and radishes into flourishing. They don dull hemp garments, collect wild roots like burdock and wild greens, cultivate bees, and instruct their children in gleaning, wild survival, sewing, mental arithmetic, holistic healing, and beekeeping. The Gardeners can heal a wound with maggots, soothe with honey and poppy extract, or kill an enemy with amanita. They eschew writing in favor of rote memorization, for, as Atwood wryly notes, “ ...reading someone else’s secret words does give you power over them”.
While the Gardeners pretend equality, there is a hierarchy, comprised of numbered Adams and Eves. Adam One, the leader, is mild mannered yet amazingly all-knowing. It is he who leads the group through the Gardener’s Hymnbook, 14 progressively more depressing hymns that open each chapter: hymns to the earth, to nature, to God. There are countless Saints Days, honoring saints Dian Fossey, Euell Gibbons, Al Gore, Farley Mowat, Julian of Norwich. While it may be amusing in the reading here, both the songs and the Saints Days carry the terrible sadness of irretrievable loss. For the Gardeners, while not crazed doomongers, are certain the end is near: a “waterless flood” coming. As the novel progresses, we learn where their certainty comes from. The revelation is not a comforting one.
Mirroring reality, events in the book worsen rapidly. The Gardeners attract unwanted attention from both the CorpSeCorps and a monster named Blanco, a man who did time in the notorious Painballers prison, a place where survivors emerge with uncontrollable killer instincts. Toby is moved to AnooYoo, while Ren and Amanda are forced apart, yet always maintain contact.
When the waterless flood arrives, the carnage is horrifying precisely because it is so easy to envision, particularly after Hurricane Katrina, which Atwood reworks here as a Texas flood. The ending brings little closure (Atwood is at work on a third novel about this society), but is, for all its horror, faintly heartening: humanity’s capacity to love prevails amidst the carnage. Yet it’s still easy to close The Year of the Flood feeling hopeless.
In a 22 September 2009 New York Times article, Atwood admits to scaring even herself. But she suggests an alternative to hopelessness: choose one place to make changes. Take up one environmental cause. That is possible. And not so overwhelming. But if you aren’t terrified, you aren’t paying attention.