Reviewed by Nisi Shawl
Is it possible to prevent a planet-scale ecocatastrophe? What would the consequences of preventing such an event be? Would those consequences be acceptable? Iconic Canadian author Margaret Atwood has once again written about a distressingly near future in which mass murder may be the best way to save the world.
But The Year of the Flood, which ranges through the same dystopian landscape as her acclaimed Oryx and Crake, is less a sequel to the earlier book than its complement. Two women's narratives alternate with brief sermons by the leader of "God's Gardeners," a cult blending Christianity and radical ecology that canonizes Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson. The two women, Toby and Ren, both belong to the cult: Toby takes sanctuary there from a sadistic boss, while Ren joins as a child when her mother becomes enamored of a sexy eco-guerilla. Atwood intertwines Toby's and Ren's lives with those of the previous novel's male protagonists, Crake and Snowman, before, during and after the "Waterless Flood," the engineered plague Crake unleashed to destroy civilization. The Year of the Flood unfolds simultaneously to Oryx and Crake and ends mere hours after that book's conclusion.
Retelling the events of Oryx and Crake from a woman's perspective might seem a natural step for Atwood to take. What was probably more difficult was bridging the gap between the relative privilege enjoyed by many of us (Atwood included) in the here and now and the pandemic poverty she sees looming close ahead. Crake and Snowman were products of the "compounds," wealthy enclaves of corporate managers and their families, but Toby, Ren and the rest of God's Gardeners are denizens of the "pleeblands," the chaotic, disease-ridden areas beyond those compounds' walls.
Throughout Snowman's narration of this twice-told tale he idolized the mysterious, muselike figure of Oryx, a sex worker. Ren, also a sex worker, is a much more prosaic character: Her firstperson account skims the surface of her job's unpleasant aspects, and she plays down the rapes and tortures other survivors inflict on her. Yet the mere fact that she tells her own story gives her a grounding Oryx lacked. Toby, equally as moved by the suffering around her as Crake was, works with limited tools to alleviate it. Willow bark, maggots, honey and salt are the mainstays of her pharmacopoeia -- not the superviruses Crake seeded across the globe, killing most of humanity. Still, the questions Atwood has Toby pose are in many senses the same as Crake's: How to tell friend from foe? How to respond to the threat of annihilation? What is important enough to die for? To kill for? Atwood conveys as much or more to us by framing these problems as others do by offering their solutions.
Nisi Shawl is the author of the short story collection Filter House, which won the 2008 James Tiptree Jr. Award for speculative fiction that expands the understanding of gender roles.
Books mentioned in this post