Canada Reads Along: The Year of the Flood

Cover image for The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 978-0-385-52208-2

According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.

Continuing the dystopian world of Oryx and Crake, in Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood leaves behind the secure compounds where Jimmy and Crake grew up, and ventures out in the pleeblands where the rest of the population of this disintegrating society must try to survive. The central characters are Toby and Ren, both members of the God’s Gardeners cult, a pacifistic religion which prioritizes environmentalism and rejects consumerism. Both Toby and Ren are dubious believers; Toby found refuge from an abusive employer amongst the Gardeners, and eventually rose into the group’s leadership despite her doubts. Ren was dragged into the Gardeners by her mother as a child, and then extracted just as abruptly. By chance, both women survive the plague that wiped out most of the population in Oryx and Crake—an event which the Gardeners call the Waterless Flood—but their temporary refuges will only sustain them for so long before they must face their new dystopian world.

Although Year of the Flood is the second book in a trilogy, it’s pacing is very similar to Oryx and Crake. Like many middle books in a trilogy, Year of the Flood does not advance the plot tremendously so much as add to it, and set up the conclusion. Toby and Ren must figure out how to live day-to-day in the present, while recounting their time with the Gardeners, and how they came to survive the apocalypse. The timelines come together at the end of the novel and overlaps with Oryx and Crake, revealing surprising intersections of characters and events. The timeline goes only a little beyond the ending of Oryx and Crake, so in many ways, Year of the Flood is not so much a sequel as the same story told again from a very different perspective. Atwood further reveals her projected corporate dystopia through contrast, by delving into the beliefs of its most extreme opponents, so that the same events can be seen again in a very different light. The world is as much a character in this narrative as the few people who remain to inhabit it.

One of the most compelling aspects of Year of the Flood is the construction of the world view preached by Adam One and the God’s Gardeners. Atwood skillfully appropriates and adapts Christian concepts and imagery to create the ideology of the God’s Gardeners by synthesizing Christianity with environmentalism and resistance of capitalism and consumerism. Although Toby and Ren are ultimately helped by the skills they acquire during their time with the Gardeners, their doubting natures also prove critical to their survival. Through her involvement in the leadership, Toby learns that general membership doesn’t really know what is going on at the higher levels of the group. The eco-terrorist label that seems so ridiculous based solely on the teachings of the Gardeners may not be as unfounded as it initially seems. However, Atwood does go a little but overboard with her construction of this religion; Adam One’s sermons at the beginning of each chapter are little more than over-expository information dumps clearly directed to the reader rather than the Gardeners he is ostensibly speaking to. Atwood skillfully builds a world within the narrative of each chapter, without needing to resort to this kind of blatant exposition.

Although there is much to recommend Year of the Flood, it was the first book voted off of Canada Reads 2014 today, despite the carefully crafted defenses of Stephen Lewis, who argued that climate change and the consequences of capitalism are two of the most pressing issues facing Canada. Canada Reads is an annual event that seeks to identify the one book all Canadians should read, but this year there is a special focus on championing titles with the power to inspire social change.  Although the panelists cited their inability to relate to the characters as their primary reason for eliminating the book, I think that Year of the Flood suffered for being the only speculative fiction title in contention. While the panelists seemed to feel that Atwood’s story was too distant to have a real impact on readers, I felt that it was a strong contender precisely because it so clearly illustrates the potential perils of continuing on the present course. Wab Kinew initially identified Year of the Flood as the best book other than the one he was defending, because of the importance of the issues it addresses, but at the end of the debate he ultimately delivered the decisive vote against it on the reasoning that it was weaker than the other titles. Arguably it was not actually weaker so much as too different; genre fiction is frequently dismissed as being insufficiently serious, and I think that was ultimately the death of Year of the Flood in this year’s debates.  Lewis described it as “brilliant evocation of a collapsing society as a result of environmental destruction,” and I think that the intersection of these two issues would have carried any other title much further into the week, if not to victory.

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You can watch the Canada Reads debates on the CBC website.

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