Margaret Atwood has been writing original and provocative works of fiction for nearly a half-century. The Year of the Flood, her 63rd book, is her third work of speculative fiction. She has an uncanny ability to spin timely, very plausible and sometimes even terrifyingly prescient tales.
1985's landmark The Handmaid's Tale posited a theocracy that controls women's childbearing. Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, at the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, is narrated by a survivor of a biological disaster.
In The Year of the Flood Atwood imagines a country run by a corporate elite and policed by a corporate security force (CorpsSeCorps) trained in "Internal Rendition." Genetic engineers have invented hybrid creatures, like the liobam, a lion-lamb mix, and recreational meds such as BlyssPluss, a sex drug that promises multiple orgasms with no medical risk. These scientists are working toward the ultimate goal — immortality. Meanwhile, the balance between the human and natural worlds has gone awry, with "great dead zones" in major bodies of water and many animals passing into extinction.
Atwood is close enough to recent headlines and sophisticated scientific research to make her invented universe believable. And, she reminds us, scientists are capable of terrible, Earth-changing errors.
As The Year of the Flood opens, most of the human population has been wiped out by a fast-moving airborne plague. Toby and Ren, two women associated with a nature-embracing group called God's Gardeners, are among the few still alive. The cult's founder, Adam One, has warned of doomsday by Waterless Flood, and set up a series of food storehouses dubbed "Ararats" in anticipation of disaster.
Toby is holed up in a former spa, using her Gardener skills — gardening, foraging, using herbal medicines and, if necessary, a gun — to survive in the wilderness. Ren, a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club, has stayed alive because she's locked in quarantine while awaiting test results after a client ripped her Biofilm Bodyglove.
As Toby and Ren struggle to find others, and to fend off nightmarish predators, they tell the stories of God's Gardeners, with its Edencliff Rooftop Garden blooming in the midst of urban slums, and the increasingly repressive years leading up to the pandemic they have both survived.
There are slow-going parts — the section breaks made up of sermons by Adam One, founder of the Gardeners, and songs from "The God's Gardeners Oral Hymnbook" are difficult to decipher at first. But even here, it's hard not to chuckle at Atwood's inventive naming of saints' days (Saints Rachel Carson and Euell Gibbons, among others) and to wonder what dire events are in store as the sermons and hymns become increasingly ominous.
Atwood orchestrates her narratives into a heart-pounding, mysterious and surprisingly touching finale. She enchants us so convincingly that after her spell is over, the "real" world seems temporarily transformed. The Year of the Flood is both a warning and a gift.