End of the world novels seem thicker on the ground than they were when Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, to which this novel is a companion piece, featuring some of the same characters, seven years ago. Even that was a sign that literary writers were moving away from using science fiction to tackle social issues (as Atwood did in The Handmaid’s Tale) to addressing environmental ones. Atwood’s intent to deal with both global catastrophe and religion is made clear in her title, The Year of the Flood. In the novel she presents us with two main narratives, Toby’s and Ren’s. Both, at some point, find themselves part of the cult religion, God’s Gardeners. Their stories initially alternate, and finally unite, interspersed with speeches from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, and hymns from their hymnbook, which Atwood has had set to music and performed.
Both stories are told post-apocalypse, but tell of events leading up to the ‘flood’ as well as the aftermath. This allows Atwood to present us with a vivid picture of the pre-catastrophe world, a distorted version of our own, where rich and poor are literally divided, the rich living in walled compounds owned by corporations and protected by their private police force, the CorpSeCorp – the abbreviation of corporation and security neatly creating the word ‘corpse’. This is just one example of Atwood’s playfulness with language, from the crossbred animals like rakunks and liobams to the phonetic corporations like ANooYoo and HelthWyzer. My favourite is perhaps the name for those who live in the slums, the pleebrats, with its connotations of plebeian, rats, mallrats and brats.
This world is an unpleasant place for just about everyone. Even in the compounds, life is far from safe: any attempt to rebel against the Corporation may well end in an unfortunate ‘accident’, and scientists are frequently kidnapped by rival power blocks. Outside the compounds it is dog eat dog, as Toby’s back story makes clear. Desperately short of money, she ends up working at Secretburger (so called because what they put in the burgers is a secret), and soon finds herself the manager’s sex slave, shortly after he has murdered the last one:
“She’d been Blanco’s one-and-only for less than two weeks but it felt like years. His view was that a woman with an ass as skinny as Toby’s should consider herself in luck if any man wanted to stick his hole-hammer into her.”
Atwood shows the particular dangers for women in this society. After leaving the Gardeners, Ren finds work as a dancer and prostitute; Amanda uses sex to gain favours; and, after the Flood, women are seen by some as possessions to be used and traded. The polarisation, however, is not simply between rich and poor, but between the intellect and the animal. In the compounds science is used to satisfy every human whim, the only aim being to make a profit. People are remade, animals are spliced together, and immortality is the ultimate goal. Outside people live from hand to mouth, eating whatever is available, in thrall to the strongest and most violent.
God’s Gardeners are Atwood’s alternative. Like many religions they believe in an approaching apocalypse, but they prepare for it by creating stores of food, and by teaching the skills that people will need to survive afterwards. Many of their ideas come from the environmental movement: not eating meat; having very few possessions; re-using and recycling everything. One of their central aims is to unite what we know from science with religion. We see this in Adam One’s first speech:
“Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology.”
We also see the intention in their hymns, for example in ‘My Body is My Earthly Ark’:
“It’s builded firm of genes and cells,
And neurons without number;
My Ark enfolds the million years
That Adam spent in slumber.”
Atwood’s decision to have the hymns set to music and performed has led to suggestions that this religion is something she takes seriously outside of the world of the novel. Her presentation, however, is hardly uncritical. The numerous saint’s days, named after varied and fallible historical figures, come to seem slightly ridiculous. The Gardeners themselves are involved in the movement for a number of reasons, not all of them sincere, Toby and Ren included (Toby is there initially for protection, Ren because her mother has joined). The Gardeners who survive to the end both eat meat and use violence to protect themselves. It has to be said, though, that their survival shows their preparedness and their responses are often the most logical.
Like all of Atwood’s fiction, The Year of the Flood is a page-turner, at times as tense as a thriller, and illuminated with bursts of imagination. At no point did I find myself preferring one narrative to the other, as often happens in novels with alternating stories. Coincidence, however, plays too large a part, with characters reappearing at a rate that stretches credulity. Blanco, in particular, becomes a pantomime villain brought on whenever the audience requires something to boo at. Other characters meet up years apart more frequently than is likely, even for a novel. The conclusion is weakened by this as the only resolution we are granted is the coming together of a number of the novel’s characters to make a new community. The rather arbitrary finish perhaps reflects its synthesis with Oryx and Crake, but is not entirely satisfying when considered alone. Still, it’s more enjoyable and more interesting than most novels.