ENTOMOLOGIST’S DAUGHTER: Atwood’s futurescape is both chilling and plausible.
At the start of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, mankind is heaving its last gurgling sighs. A deadly pandemic has chewed through the human race, whose planet-stripping, gene-scrambling civilization of the not-too-distant future has finally unraveled into a useless heap. The disease “travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through the cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery.” It ravages both the bottom-dwelling underclass of the urban Pleeblands and the privileged elite living in their gated Compounds.
|The Year of the Flood | By Margaret Atwood | Nan A. Talese | 448 pages | $26.95|
Not everyone in Atwood’s future world was blindsided by the plague. God’s Gardeners had been forecasting a “Waterless Flood” for years. More than just fanatical hippies, these doomsday eco-cultists boast a disconcerting number of disillusioned scientists — as well as our two female narrators, Toby and Ren. A disenfranchised Pleeblander living on the skids, Toby is “snatched alive” by the Gardeners, saved from the wrath of a brutally abusive ex-boss. Ren was dragged into the flock by her mother, a pampered Compound wife seduced from her sheltered life by the erotic charms of a high-ranking Gardener.
The book scampers between the viewpoints of the two women as they wait out the still-smoldering plague. Toby has holed up in the AnooYoo day spa; Ren is barricaded in the SeksMart-owned Scales and Tales nightclub, a strip joint where the girls sport iridescent lizard outfits and bionic breast implants. Steeled by a life of heartache, Toby narrates from a clinical third-person perspective, whereas the more vulnerable Ren talks to us directly. (“I’m really very lucky,” she assures us.)
Eventually, we bump into sullen genius Glenn and his class-clown pal Jimmy — both characters from Atwood’s previous book, Oryx and Crake. For Flood is not a true sequel, but a paralleloquel: the two books cover a similar timeline from different angles, their narratives meshing like the teeth of a zipper (or the double helix of DNA).
The daughter of an entomologist, Atwood (who reads in Harvard Square this Sunday) proves adept at turning her magnifying glass to pop culture and spinning her insights into a futurescape that is both chilling and plausible — unlike her first foray into dystopian world building, The Handmaid’s Tale. Whereas that 1986 classic hammered out a hyperbolic feminist nightmare, The Year of the Flood stays a bit closer — and more uncomfortably so — to home. When we’re already living in a world of OctoMoms, oceanic trash vortices, and spider-silk-squirting transgenic goats, Atwood’s glowing green rabbits and odious meat plants that sprout “ChickieNobs” aren’t too much of a stretch.
Of course, it’s not realism that she’s after. She salts her book with jarringly goofy tidbits. The street gangs have names like the Tex-Mexes, the Lintheads, and the Asian Fusions. The public lives in fear of a trigger-happy law-enforcement squad known as the CorpSeCorps. Ren’s best chum invents an art form called “Vulture Sculptures”: she spells words with cow carcasses, waits for vultures to feast, then films the results from a helicopter. (She hits pay dirt with “love.”)
Even at their most groan-worthy, these hammy notes endear and captivate. Writers have scrubbed plenty of grim post-apocalyptic wastelands across our eyeballs. Far rarer is the story that keeps grinning all the way through Armageddon.
MARGARET ATWOOD | First Unitarian Church, 3 Church Street, Cambridge | October 25 at 7 pm | $25 [benefit for environmental groups]; tickets at Harvard Book Store | 617.661.1515 orwww.harvard.com