I love dystopias, me. Post-apocalyptic scenarios with society reduced to ragged bands of survivors struggling to scratch out an existence, bring ’em on I say: The Day Of The Triffids, John Christopher’s The Death Of Grass, Terry Nation’s Survivors, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it just seems to work for me every time. I’m also very fond of Margaret Atwood, so when she started writing novels roughly in this genre a few years ago I was bound to start salivating.
The Year Of The Flood is a follow-up to Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx And Crake, in that it is set in the same projected future and location, when genetic meddling instigated by big corporations has unleashed a pandemic (the flood of the title) that has virtually destroyed humanity. A big difference between these books and my pet disaster tales listed above is that much, and in the newer book’s case, most, of the action takes place before the apocalyptic event, not after. This doesn’t mean that we’re presented with a sudden shift from order to chaos, however: society has already devolved into a fenced-off and privileged scientific elite and a messed-up bulk of humanity, living in urban sprawl, for whom life has lost its meaning and values. The earlier novel had its focus inside the scientific compound and described the circumstances of the disaster – in contrast The Year Of The Flood is reported from the point of view of two of the outsiders, one of whom has found refuge in a cod-religious community that has found a relatively safe site at the top of a tall building, and the other of whom is forced to work as a dancer in a seedy bar by some deeply unappealing gangsters. Both manage to survive the pandemic, but find that it’s just the nature of their hazardous environment that has changed, not its deadliness.
Alongside the deft renderings of all this misery and desolation The Year Of The Flood also contains much black comedy and vivid wit, and a lot of the pleasure of the book is in the inventive and savage satires of a consumer society gone mad. The names of the many leisure companies, pursuits and products are brilliantly credible (HelthWyzer, ANooYoo, Painball, SecretBurgers) and the environment is rich in baroque detail, such as the genetically-spliced hybrid animals that have been created for man’s convenience but have now become predatory. While certain aspects of the basic scenario may be familiar there’s an abundance of bold and imaginative ideas here (the inter-chapter sermons given by the leader of the God’s Gardeners cult are particularly fine).
Atwood often interleaves two or more parallel timelines in her novels and she does the same here, cutting back and forth between before and after the flood. This means that it may take you a chapter or two to sort out what’s happening when, but the technique does work well to break up the narrative. Certainly, once I got going with this book I found it compulsive reading and finished it in a handful of sessions. Hope she writes another one soon.