Year of the Flood: On the Edge

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Year of the Flood by Margaret AtwoodThe Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

[In our “The Edge of the Universe” column we review authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

It is well documented that SFF readers love trilogies, prequel trilogies, tetralogies, and “cycles.” Some authors describe settings, but SFF authors “build” worlds and universes. For many SFF readers, the standard of a well-built world is whether or not it warrants a series.

In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood tells the story of Crake, a brilliant scientist who decides to save Earth by wiping out humanity, including himself, and replacing it with a new species of beings. To say the least, Crake’s is a bold solution, but does this world deserve to be expanded?

Yes.

Except, Atwood prefers not to call it a “sequel.” Don’t call it a “prequel,” either. Year of the Flood is a companion novel. It might seem like nitpicking, but Year of the Flood takes place simultaneously with the events of Oryx and Crake through the eyes of new characters. Regardless of what you call it, Year of the Flood does a fine job of coloring in the world that Atwood sketched in Oryx and Crake. The Earth is falling apart and only God’s Gardeners seem to care.

God’s Gardeners grow their own food on rooftops, strive to live beneath the notice of governments and corporations, and they teach their children a great deal about ecology and the Bible. Many of the Gardeners, particularly the members of the leading council of Adams and Eves, are former doctors and scientists that refused to lend their expertise to corporate interests that harm the environment. In our world of “New Atheists,” it might seem unlikely for naturalists to join a cult, but in Year of the Flood, they join in droves.

Atwood is often praised for her sharp wit, which may well be at its sharpest when the Gardeners attempt to unite scientific knowledge, the dogma of the Gardeners, and Biblical stories. The Gardeners believe that God created people to be vegetarians. However, the Gardener children find it troubling that people have teeth capable of tearing meat. Consequently, the Adams and Eves look for a Biblical story or verse that can resolve this potential contradiction. Why do scientists bother with all of this? Many of the Gardeners are scientists that believe that religion survived because it offered evolutionary advantages. Consequently, the Gardeners feel that the best way to save the earth is to incorporate religious teachings into their worldview. For example, many of their saints are naturalists.

The Gardeners strive to be benevolent, but not all of their members are able to live up to the pacifist’s ideal. Eventually, Adam 7, or “Mad Adam” starts a splinter group called “MaddAddam.” These dissidents seek to break apart the infrastructure that allows corporations to destroy the environment. Among other things, MaddAddam engineers organisms that eat asphalt and car tires.

One member of this splinter group is Crake, a brilliant scientist who determines that the most efficient way to save the earth is to eliminate and replace human beings. As the Gardeners would say, Crake engineered a “waterless flood.” Moments that illustrate Crake’s motives are not the focus of Year of the Flood, but Atwood fans will enjoy tracking the interplay between the two novels.

Oryx and Crake offered allegorical warnings about how our decisions are taking humanity to hell in a hand basket, and Year of the Flood’s warnings feel just as fiery. Coffee corporations are robbing wildlife of their natural habitat. Health corporations infect their low-level employees with diseases so they can test experimental drugs on them, all the while collecting the insurance money for the treatment. The gap between the rich and the poor seems insurmountable and the rich live in isolated compounds, willfully oblivious to the suffering of the earth and the poor around them. It’s almost enough to make one want to join a cult centered on compassion, living in harmony with the earth, and rooftop gardening…

SFF fans that love a good story set in a well-built world will be pleased with Year of the Flood. Exploring the dogma of God’s Gardeners is as fun as Atwood’s ecological dystopia is shocking. Year of the Flood may not be a sequel, but I for one would certainly welcome a third novel in this … don’t call it a “trilogy.”


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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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