The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel The Year of the Flood is horrifying and wickedly funny, often at the same time. Most readers will find their greatest fear for society realized in the world of the novel, whether it is global warming, species destruction, out-of-control corporate greed, an entrenched gap between the rich and poor, religious fundamentalism at its extreme, rampant crime, or a global pandemic. Atwood terms her novels set in the future “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction. They explore what would happen if events followed a certain trajectory based on what is currently possible. In The Year of the Flood, the future that results is in most ways much worse than the present. The likelihood of so many things actually going so badly is slim, but the setting enables Atwood to satirize aspects of current society ranging from religion to capitalism to environmentalism.
Despite the story’s sensational events, including a pandemic that kills all but a handful of people, Atwood’s development of the personal narratives of Toby and Ren is her novel’s most compelling feature. Each woman believes, for most of the novel, that she is the only person to survive the sickness. The plot alternates between scenes from the women’s lives after the pandemic and flashbacks to their earlier lives. The scenes told from Toby’s viewpoint are narrated in the third person, but the scenes from Ren’s viewpoint are narrated in the first person. This strategy gives readers multiple ways to understand the story. Toby is older and is analytical about her experiences. Ren is a young woman at the time of the pandemic, and her observations are often direct but do not always demonstrate a deep understanding about what happens around her. Gradually, readers learn from their two stories what led to the pandemic and why these women were saved. Only near the end of the novel do Toby and Ren discover each other, as well as other survivors.
The Year of the Flood retells the story of Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (2003) from different perspectives. The earlier novel focused on Glenn and Jimmy and on Glenn’s creation of a new, ideal human species and his bioengineering of the plague that wipes out most people on the planet. The main characters in The Year of the Flood are bystanders reacting to events and situations as they occur.
Before the pandemic, the characters live in a society in which wealthy people live in gated corporate compounds and others live in the “pleeblands,” where laws are no longer enforced and CorpSeCorps, a police force paid for by the corporations, acts in its own interests. Corporate greed runs rampant. CorpSeCorps targets are likely to be ground up to provide meat for the Secret Burger fast food chain. The HelthWyzer corporation tries experimental drugs on unsuspecting consumers or intentionally spreads illnesses so that consumers will purchase HelthWyzer’s drugs to cure those illnesses.
Many species in Atwood’s world have become extinct because the environment has eroded. In their place, the corporations have bioengineered new species. These include the rakunk, a cross between a raccoon and a skunk; the mo’hair, a sheep with human hair in colors such as silver, blue, and purple; and the pigoon, a pig with human brain tissue. The most alarming animal, the liobam, was created by a religious extremist group: A cross between a lion and a lamb, the gentle-looking but deadly animal was designed to show that, not only can the lion lie down with the lamb, but the two species can also coexist in the same body. These satirical embodiments of corporate greed and religious extremism provide opportunities for humor. For example, the bioengineered sheep are useful for hair replacements, which look great so long as the wearer does not mind smelling like mutton when it rains.
Overall, tampering with nature is presented as a bad idea. One of the germs developed to create a need for medicines gets out of hand and kills almost everyone on the planet. In fact, all uses of science and technology turn out either to be ill-intended or to have bad effects.
In addition to damaging the planet and human health, the corporations’ power shows the dangers of capitalism gone awry. Because Ren lives in one of the walled compounds for corporate families during part of her childhood, readers learn about the comfort and privilege the...
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