Reviewed by Rachel Graf
The Year of the Flood. Anchor Books, 2009.
The Year of the Flood is the latest of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels, in which characters find themselves all but helpless in a world gone wrong. In 2003, Margaret Atwood published Oryx & Crake (the first of the trilogy of which The Year of the Flood is the second novel), renewing her flirtation with science fiction. Although Atwood is careful to distance herself from the ‘science’ part of speculative, dystopian writing, 2009’s Year of the Flood features telltale tropes including genetic engineering, the rapid destruction of the earth’s climate and corporate monopolies on food and medicine. Considering the novel’s environmental themes, it is tempting to read The Year of the Flood as a moralizing portrayal of the consequences of corporate greed and individual complacency that simply disregards the political effects of globalization.
For Atwood, however, the greatest evil is not human weakness, but capitalist mythology. The United States government has fallen apart and been replaced by corporate military control. Many live in the relative safety of corporate compounds, but they have traded their personal liberty to do so. Dangerous urban areas known as “pleebs” house the rest of society. For them, jobs are hard to come by, degrading and dangerous. In this pleeb wasteland, a man who calls himself Adam One forms a community committed to humanitarian values, and members of the community call themselves the God’s Gardeners. The Gardener children attend classes where they are taught about animals recently made extinct by the corporation’s anti-environmental policies, how to flee a CorpSeCorp incursion, and crucially how to learn through memory, writing information in the dirt to be quickly swept away so that it cannot be traced. The Year of the Flood features two cults: the first is the Gardeners, who draw on scripture, foretell prophecies and reinvent biblical mythology in their quest to thwart corporate rule; the second is culture at large, driven by the pursuit of commodities and pleasure. The mythologized cult community becomes a foil to the consumerist mythology of the rest of society. This consumerism is explained by Ren, one of the novel’s two protagonists when she describes teenagers from the pleebs: “They looked as if they already owned everything from every store and were bored with it. I envied that look so much” (72).
Year’s biggest weakness is the heavy-handedness of its critique of consumerism. In this regard, Atwood’s moralism is not very different from that of dystopian classics like Orwell’s 1984 or even from her own landmark novel The Handmaid’s Tale, but her portrayal of the dangers of capitalism can be grating. The doomsday fear of corporate rule replacing electoral democracy and destroying the planet has been explored in literature and film for the past several decades to the point that it may feel passé, not least because such texts imply that individuals simply need to be made aware of their oppression to resist it. Atwood herself has said that the goal of speculative fiction is to alert readers to a future that we must avoid.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s most intriguing intervention in the speculative genre to date, she continues to insist that totalitarianism succeeds by indoctrinating its subjects via mythology more than by brute force. She offers a black-humor critique of the health care industry in the novel’s HelthWyzer corporation, which creates a disease for warfare and tests the weapon on vitamins the corporation sells to the public. Toby’s mother, a HelthWyzer employee who loyally and unsuspectingly takes the vitamin supplements everyday, contracts the illness: “Franchise operators like her got a deal on the supplements – their own customized package, just like the ones for the higher-ups at HelthWyzer” (25). Even as her health declines she continues to put her trust (and her finances) into the corporation, unable to see past the “value” of the employee discount.
From The Year of the Flood’s ostensible villains to its victims, every character in the novel except the God’s Gardeners seems to have subscribed completely to the myth that happiness is an industrial product – a commodity. To combat this complicity, the novel returns to the redemptive potential of ideology and myth. By structuring their lives around cult-like investment in prophesy, prayer and ritual, the Gardeners alter their relationship to knowledge and power. For its followers like Toby and Ren, who are more interested in the safety the Gardeners offer than in their religious mythology, the Gardener cult contrasts with mainstream society to highlight ideology’s role in producing consumer subjects who become complicit in their own domination. The Gardeners offer an awareness of mythology that proves to be the key to their followers’ survival, but this awareness requires an almost complete withdrawal from society. Ultimately, by portraying the ubiquity of consumerist mythology, Atwood offers little optimism. She tends to wonder ambivalently if society can avoid the kind of future imagined in her novel’s speculative universe.
At press time: Rachel Graf teaches at the University of Washington where she is also a PhD student in English. Her research interests include late twentieth century narrative, women writers and film. She is especially interested in postmodernism, feminism and representations of history.