UTOPIAS MAKE for lousy fiction. Who wants to read a novel in which everyone is flawlessly educated, respects wildlife, and recycles their aluminum? Give me dystopia every time: gunned-down dissidents and simmering metropolises and haywire genetic experiments.
Margaret Atwood’s latest book, The Year of the Flood, is about as dystopian as novels get. As in her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, Atwood presents a vision of a miserably hot, totalitarian future in which people live either in gated corporate compounds or in seething “pleebs.” Corporations kill off employees, smuggle viruses into pills, and grow human replacement organs inside pigs. An all-seeing security army executes illegal immigrants and uses cyborg honeybees to spy on enemies.
Oh, and Wisconsin is a desert. And autumn doesn’t exist anymore.
In this bitter future, cults flourish. Central to the book is a particularly earthy one called “The Gardeners,” a lifestyle religion that fuses evolutionary theory with Hebrew traditions and hippie mishmash. The Gardeners grow food in rooftop gardens, wear homemade clothes, preserve the genomes of extinct animals, and brush their teeth with “frayed twigs.” Their fundamental message is that disaster cometh. As in: Everyone is going to die. Everyone, except, of course, The Gardeners.
Guess what? Disaster cometh. In spades. A mutant virus (surprise) morphs into a plague that turns hundreds of millions of people into “pink porridge.”
Two female ex-Gardeners survive. One, a leathery refugee named Toby, hides out inside a spa called AnooYoo. The other, a sex palace trapeze dancer named Ren, locked inside a virus-free containment room, watches the world’s population die on television.
Ren survives on frozen fishsticks and genetically engineered “ChickieNobs.” Toby grows “polyberries” and munches edible spa treatments. Through vast, parallel swaths of back story we learn their life stories. It’s not until the last hundred or so pages of the novel that we finally get to watch Toby and Ren investigate the plague-ravaged world, a post-apocalyptic anti-Eden where hyperintelligent pigs are on the prowl.
Once your mind gets used to Atwood’s kooky names for things — the AnooYoos and SecretBurgers — you fall into her intensely inventive world and find yourself carried happily along.
That’s in part because the book is funny. Pleeb street gangs are named like restaurants (“Asian Fusions” and “Blackened Redfish”), The Gardeners’ self-defense moves are named for pieces of sushi, and their extensive pantheon of saints includes folks like James Lovelock, Linnaeus, Gautama Buddha, and E. O. Wilson.
“A certain distortion is used to get at the truth,” Flannery O’Connor once said, though Stephen Colbert or George Orwell (or Margaret Atwood, for that matter) probably could have said it just as well. Despite its futuristic trappings, The Year of the Flood’s world is recognizably our world. People drive solar cars and dine on endangered species in not-so-secret banquet rooms and the “media Corps” controls what is and isn’t news. Atwood’s implied message is deadly serious: unless we alter our course significantly, we’re all going to end up as pink porridge.
Can a science fiction novel make a difference? Can any work of fiction? That’s not for me to answer, but I do believe every drop in the bucket helps. No matter how many reports a body like the United States Global Change Research Program issues, statistics and projections about climate change don’t reach people in their guts. Stories affect people because story is the most effective form we have for rendering situations in the moment-by-moment reality of an individual’s experience. Stories show us what it’s like to see, feel, and hear as someone else.
We live in a middleworld, struggling to measure what we’ve already lost, while we peer into a greenhouse future in which our grandchildren will probably have to prepare for cataclysmic droughts, massive human migrations from the coasts, and empty supermarket shelves. Here’s Toby, looking back on her life: “I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I’d seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were somewhere else. . . . The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with.”
The Year of the Flood might be too silly, too speculative, or too entertaining to move many of its readers to action. But it might move some. It might move thousands. As Ren the trapeze dancer says, “If you can’t wish, why bother?”