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.
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.)
“The Year of the Flood” rejoins the world Atwood created in her 2003 novel, “Oryx and Crake.” But while characters from the first novel reappear – including both Crake and Jimmy the Snowman – this time the focus is on two women who escape the pandemic. You don’t have to have read “Oryx and Crake” to understand what’s going on. Although for those who have, the new novel carries events past the earlier book’s ambiguous ending. And, with its emphasis on female relationships over genetic machinations, I found it a more accessible read. This is not to say we’re talking Brave New Chick Lit, by any means (although teenage Ren does covet trendy clothes). It’s as dark and apocalyptic as anything a Cormac McCarthy or Aldous Huxley could dream up.
Before surviving biological peril, Toby and Ren first have to make it through the man-made horror of life governed by a giant corporation. (The mammoth Buy ‘N’ Large in “Wall-E” never dreamed of the extremes of the CorpSeCorps, who make Big Brother just look nosy.) This future is so toxic, the plague is almost beside the point.
The Gardeners, who revere saints like Dian Fossey and Jacques Cousteau, stand in quirky, shabbily dressed opposition to the institutionalized murder, torture, and corporation-induced disease surrounding them. Both Toby and Ren become members, Ren as a child and Toby as a reluctant elder. The Gardeners rescued Toby from systematic rape by her boss at her fast-food job, and, while she doesn’t really believe their doctrine, she is grateful for her quiet life teaching herbal remedies and keeping bees. (And I was grateful Atwood stopped describing what was in the burgers.) Ren, meanwhile, ends up leaving the cult as a teenager and becoming a trapeze artist at a sex club.
(Did I mention that society was depraved?) Both women were attacked by men, and when the plague strikes, Toby is in hiding and Ren is healing in an isolation chamber.
The novel occurs mostly in flashbacks as Toby and Ren reflect separately on what happened before humanity got its collective ticket punched. Toby especially wonders why she was spared. “ ‘Who lives here?’ she says out loud. Not me, she thinks. This thing I’m doing can hardly be called living. Instead I’m lying dormant, like a bacterium in a glacier. Getting time over with. That’s all.” Toby wonders, from her pink sanctuary, Anoo Yoo, a former spa, “Why has she been saved alive? Out of the countless millions. Why not someone younger, someone with more optimism and fresher cells?”
“The Year of the Flood” is dark, but not devoid of humor. Atwood is a wry wizard at world-building. Earth under the CorpSeCorps comes complete with new species such as the liobam. This is a hybrid genetically engineered because another cult was tired of waiting for the prophecy from Isaiah about the lion lying down with the lamb to come true. (Let’s just say the new beastie is not a vegetarian.) The hymns and sermons that start each section are a much-needed hoot.
Personally, though, I prefer Atwood in a retro mood. I’d easily take “Alias Grace” or “The Blind Assassin” over the lucid nightmares of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Oryx and Crake.” But fans of those novels should grab a biohazard suit, crawl into a hermetically sealed fallout shelter, and dive right in.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.