You don’t need to read Oryx and Crake prior to reading The Year of the Flood. The two novels take place concurrently (though this one does extend slightly beyond the other’s narrative, wrapping up the cliffhanger of Snowman discovering that other humans have survived). However, I would recommend you read them close together. I only read Oryx and Crake back in March, but even a short span of two months has obliterated a good deal of the plot and characters from my memory. That’s a shame, because one of the best things about The Year of the Flood is seeing minor characters from Oryx and Crake pop up in minor or even major capacities. Ren, who was Jimmy’s high school girlfriend, is a significant protagonist in this book; she spends several years of her childhood with Amanda, who later becomes Jimmy’s girlfriend during his adult years. Similarly, this book provides a different, less personal perspective on the apocalyptic events that Snowman recounts in the first novel.
As is typical in my reading of Atwood, my problems with this book started off as mostly stylistic. She’s a lovely storyteller; it’s just that her style of writing doesn’t always work for me. Hymns from her God’s Gardeners cult introduce each section. Within each chapter, her narrator can be sporadic in attention to detail. Ren’s chapters are in first person but Toby’s are in third person limited omniscient. I wasn’t a fan of how we kept jumping between the two characters. However, I gradually changed my mind as I continued. By the end, I had come to value the multiple perspectives that Atwood offers. In this respect, The Year of the Flood branches out and helps to mitigate the unreliability of Jimmy/Snowman’s story. We get to see what is happening to this part of the world through the eyes of people who are not all that associated with Crake, who don’t have first-hand involvement in kickstarting the apocalypse. As with the first book, this one takes place both before and after the apocalypse, with Ren and Toby remembering or recounting their lives that led up to the year of the flood.
Oryx and Crake was very much a polemic against the influence of corporations on our lives and society. This theme remains in The Year of the Flood, but Atwood shifts the emphasis from corporations to religion. Ren and Toby both belong to a fringe sect called God’s Gardeners. They practice veganism, eschew complicated technology, and try to venerate and work harmoniously with nature. In their rejection of consumerism, God’s Gardeners are everything the corporations want to avoid in a spiritual movement (though they are at least not violent in their prosletyzing). Both Ren and Toby have experience with life in the "Exfernal world", as they call it, Ren afterwards and Toby previously, which offer interesting contrast to their lives in God’s Gardeners. Through this group of people, Atwood examines the possibility of rejecting capitalist ideas and behaviours that have precipitated many of the crises humanity now faces.
Atwood portrays the Gardeners quite realistically for a semi-cult religion. They are neither paragons of nature lovers, nor are they monstrous, corrupt abusers of women and children. They are people. Some, like Toby and Lucerne and even Zeb, don’t even believe in the creed that Adam One and the other senior Gardeners create. Lucerne abandons the Gardeners (though, in an exhibition of decency, she stops short of actually betraying them to CorpSeCorps), taking Ren with her; Zeb eventually splinters away from the main movement. Atwood has a lot of positives to show when it comes to embracing nature and rejecting capitalism: the Gardeners seem healthier and calmer people. But ultimately, it’s clear that simply retooling one’s belief system is not enough. Religion or spirituality are not panaceas for all of humanity’s problems; individual people are complicated and will always have flaws and foibles and moments of weakness.
Nevertheless, the God’s Gardeners’ approach to reconciling science with the Biblical account of creation struck a chord for me. This is by no means a new objective for some religions. What makes it interesting in this case is Adam One’s motivations: he seeks to mend the amorality in science, which he attributes to atheism. This call for a more "socially conscious" science echoes some of Margaret Wertheim’s arguments in Pythagoras’ Trousers and is an idea that has been in the forefront of my mind for a while now. It’s so tempting to think of science as neutral, as a tool or process for explaining the natural world that is neither good nor bad. Yet if one examines that proposition, it soon becomes patently false. And what Atwood has created in these two books is a world where science has been co-opted by capitalist entities for the relentless pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all else.
So this is cautionary social science fiction at its best. It’s a warning, not against scientific progress itself, but progress unchecked and driven by avarice and blind ambition. What we need is science and progress driven by motives that are questioned, examined, and reframed in a socially conscious way. We need science not just for humanity but for the Earth as a whole—because if we don’t have that, then the Earth will quite happily swallow us and move on to the next great thing. Many people on both sides of the environmentalism and global warming debates are missing the point: environmentally responsible initiatives and policies are not, should not, cannot be about saving the environment. The environment is going to do just fine regardless of whether humanity is around. These initiatives are about saving humanity from the unfortunate consequences of our alterations to the environment. If we don’t change what we are doing, the climate will change, the environment will change. Some species, maybe humans included, will go extinct. The Earth will go on, but it will not be the Earth we know. And it is up to us, as a global society, the extent to which this change will impact the human species.
The transformative aspect of The Year of the Flood reminds me a lot of Octavia Butler. There are so many different transformations here. Prior to the Flood, Ren is a sex worker in a boutique operation called Scales. She uses the latest in technology to temporarily alter her appearance and make herself more enticing and arousing for the clientele. Related technology allows the God’s Gardeners to help people, including Toby, alter their appearance in radical ways—hair and skin colour change, even voices change—so that they can go underground and disappear. The Flood, of course, includes Crake’s lovely little plague that eliminates and sterilizes the bulk of the population, after which the survivors must contend with a plethora of gene-spliced new species who seem to have a deviousness and cunning heretofore unseen in the animal kingdom.
So despite my reservations about the style of the book, The Year of the Flood once again enthralls and impresses with its sincere exploration of a corporate-dominated, environmentally-barren future might hold. The characters are complex, flawed people whose choices help drive events in this brave new world. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be, and the result is a story that makes you think about the direction in which we are heading as a species, even as it entertains and enchants you.