Margaret Atwood’s new dystopian future is filled with rotting carcasses, gangrenous wounds, and unspeakable violence. It’s also prodigiously imaginative and outrageously funny.
The Year of the Flood begins after a global-warming cataclysm and a rampaging epidemic (the Waterless Flood) decimates the remaining human population. Genetic engineering has run amok. Liobams, lion/sheep hybrids, gambol in the meadows but have scary canine teeth and a call that sounds like “bloar.” The gap between rich and poor has become an unbridgeable chasm, and women are little more than prostitutes.
Sexism, of course, is one of Atwood’s recurrent themes. This Canadian writer’s best-known work, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has become a classic; it posits a future of slavery for women. Cat’s Eye (1988) and The Robber Bride (1995) trenchantly explore women’s rivalries. Any of these novels would be good starting points for an Atwood novice.
The Year of the Flood takes a more radically science-fiction turn and is the second work of a trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake (2003). It happens in the same place and time, but on this go-round, Atwood focuses on different characters—God’s Gardeners, a cult of sweet-natured, New-Agey growers and healers.
The Gardeners celebrate feast days commemorating ecological heroes, such as Ewell Gibbons (of Stalking the Wild Asparagus fame). Their leader Adam One preaches peace, love, and vegetarianism. His earnest hymns to the Creator, scattered through the book, contain stanzas such as this: “We cannot always trace Your path/Through Monkey and Gorilla,/Yet all are sheltered underneath/Your Heavenly Umbrella.”
Atwood’s wit is biting. She imagines religious sects warring over trivia: the Lion Isaiahists trust that the lion will eventually lie down with the lamb, while Wolf Isaiahists picture instead the wolf and lamb snuggling together. Atwood’s arch humor amuses but sometimes also distracts. How ridiculous are the Gardeners, anyway? There are no real touchstones. She makes fun of everyone, making it unclear where our sympathies are supposed to lie.
The focus on women—Toby, a Healer, and Ren, a troubled girl in the sex industry—is familiar. But Atwood’s satiric laser shines on so many other concerns, like the environment, violence, and religious intolerance. Her brilliance dazzles, but there are so many targets, so many characters, so many jokes that we’re more blinded than enlightened.