Monday, August 16, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, the second book in her dystopian "MaddAdam" trilogy, is almost more terrifying than the first because it's more familiar.  While the first book, Oryx and Crake, documented a not-so-distant future destroyed by environmental catastrophe and genetic experimentation, the sequel reaches a little further into the past, bringing the story uncomfortably close to our own time.  There are characters in this book who remember the old ways, who know the actions that have led to the destruction, and who may have the best shot to put it back together.

While the plague documented in Oryx and Crake raged through the world, a religious group known as the God's Gardeners were hidden away from society, convinced that the mysterious illness was the "waterless flood" promised by God in the book of Genesis.  This book explores the group's history and way of life, and the reasons they survived while so many others perished.  The two protagonists are Toby, a longtime Gardener holed up in a high-end spa, and Ren, a young woman who grew up as a Gardener and is quarantined in a sex club called "Scales 'n' Tails."  Atwood shifts between past and present in both characters' stories, overlapping until their paths intersect in the post-plague world.

In Toby's story, we get some glimpses into familiarity: she grew up in a house with a white picket fence, in an idyllic country setting, before the growing suburbs, her mother's death, and her father's suicide due to financial troubles forced her to go into hiding with the Gardeners.  When she joins the group, she spends years convinced that she doesn't believe their teachings, even as she becomes one of their leaders.  When a dangerous man from her past learns she is a member of the group, she's forced to go into hiding, where she continues to act according to Gardener beliefs even in her new life.

Ren, meanwhile, gets taken to "the Compounds" (where the giant, evil corporations are based) as a teenager, where the Gardeners' beliefs are pushed out and she finds herself at odds with her mother as she grows up.  Through her backstory, we start to see familiar characters from Oryx and Crake, getting glimpses of the plot from another angle.  Her section is filled with sudden moments of recognition, where the events that led to the plague are witnessed by a character who is much less involved than the characters of the first novel.  In the same way that Toby and Ren's plots intersect and weave together (and apart) in the course of the novel, the way the Year of the Flood plot gets mixed in with Oryx and Crake's is really well-done and believable.

The novel departs stylistically from the first novel, which gives Atwood a chance to draw in her other interests (like poetry and religion) as she writes about the God's Gardeners and their leader, Adam One.  They're a (mostly) vegetarian group, mixing science and theology to arrive at a kind of theory of existence.  A lot of their beliefs make perfect sense, and I think Atwood's intention was to make the group a believable entity, a belief system that could easily take root.  They're mostly harmless, and their survival rate is much higher than that of the regular population.  I get the sense that in the final book, it will fall to their surviving members to decide how to handle the new species roaming the earth after the "waterless flood."  Each section in this book is named for a Saint's Day or a Feast Day, with named saints drawing in famous figures from religion and ecology in equal amounts.  There is a sermon by Adam One and a song, "from the God's Gardener Oral Hymn Book" before returning to Toby and Ren.  I can see how Atwood's hymns were inspired by William Blake, and her take on theology echoes his in certain ways.

I am really looking forward to seeing how she ends the trilogy.  At the risk of spoiling anything, I will say that the end of this book, which overlaps and expands upon the ending of Oryx and Cake, leaves the characters on the precipice of a new kind of world, one which they can remake or ultimately destroy.  Read Oryx and Crake first, and then check this one out.

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