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The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood’s dark, sharp, dystopic novel picks up where ‘Oryx and Crake’ left off.

By Yvonne Zipp / September 25, 2009

The Year of the Flood By Margaret Atwood Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 431 pp., $26.95

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Hello, potential cult recruit. Before selecting a fictional dystopia, here are a few background points to help you adjust: 1. If you’re going to join a cult, it’s best not to have a highly developed fashion sense.

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2. A tin ear and a fondness for rhyming slogans will make you a better team player. (If you can’t imagine working “Australopithecus” into sacred music, you may wish to seek elsewhere.) And remember: “It’s better to hope than to mope!”

3. Does your cult revolve around a prophecy? Then the future is unlikely to involve fluffy bunnies or everyone getting their own personal unicorn.

4. If your world has been designed by Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood, things won’t have gone so well for the females of the species. (Although to be fair, pretty much everyone is in the soup this time.)

God’s Gardeners, a cult of environmental activists who believe recycling and vegetarianism are holy duties, hew closely to the typical cult outline, with one crucial difference: Their prophecy – about most of humanity being destroyed by a “waterless flood” – actually comes true. “This was not an ordinary pandemic: it wouldn’t be contained after a few hundred thousand deaths, then obliterated with biotools and bleach,” writes Atwood in her new novel, The Year of the Flood. “This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners so often had warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery.”

Atwood has said she prefers the term “speculative fiction” instead of science fiction to describe her future-set novels, in which she takes current events and teases them out to an extreme that makes you want to run for your life. Materialism has never been so nauseating as in “The Year of the Flood.” If the recession hasn’t already made you renounce shopping in favor of home-grown tomatoes and DIY composters, Atwood will.

(For folks who just like to read rather than debate genres, science fiction is speculative fiction, but speculative fiction isn’t necessarily science fiction. “Star Trek” = science fiction. “1984” = speculative fiction. The distinction isn’t determined by a lack of spaceships or cool collectibles. Nor is it just a case of adding major literary clout. Instead, speculative fiction is any case of the “what ifs” unfurling outside known facts about either history or reality. Androids or giant bugs are welcome, but not essential. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” which asked “What if Charles Lindbergh were elected president?” would be an example of historical speculative fiction. Is that clear? Good. I now return you to your regularly scheduled plot summary.)

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