I read this book and Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard back to back, courtesy of the randomness of my public library’s on-hold books availability. (Hot is reviewed here.) It was a fortunate (and fascinating) happenstance. Hot is a journalist’s account of his up-to-date research on what is very likely to happen over the next 50 years as Earth’s climate grows hotter; Flood is a novelist’s imaginative construction of life on Earth at some undetermined date in the future, as humans live with the consequences of climate change.
Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood imagines a future where sea levels have risen so much that the coasts are lined by abandoned high rise buildings still standing far offshore. Governmental power has shrunk, and effective control is carried out by corporations who rule through the use of paramilitary forces. The affluent corporate employees live within walled compounds, enjoying the company life. The bulk of the population gets by within crumbling, crime-infested cities.
Many have been unable to survive the rapid climatic changes and a number of fringe groups have arisen in which bedraggled people with no official corporate identity and no visible means of support have banded together to survive, and to oppose the rule of the corporations.
God’s Gardeners are one such group, led by soft-spoken, charismatic Adam One. They live a pacifist existence among abandoned inner-city buildings, with Eden’s Cliff, a rooftop organic garden, as their headquarters. They glean useful items from surrounding ruined buildings, and fashion an ordered existence under Adam One’s leadership. His “theology” is a mashup of post-Christian thinking, New Age ideas, and environmental notions. Every day belongs to a different saint, whose life and works are celebrated. Saint (E.O.) Wilson, Saint Euell (Gibbons), Saint Rachel (Carson), Saint (Charles) Darwin and many others lend their beatific vision to the oddly hopeful worldview the Gardeners live by.
Their world is an extremely dangerous place, as everyone is struggling to survive. To complicate things further, the unbridled power of the corporations has loosed in the world a number of their failed experiments. The corporate hubris in playing with gene splicing has allowed relatively harmless escapee hybrids like the rakunk (cross between rabbit and skunk), and green and pink and blue mohair sheep to thrive – but also terrifying creatures like the liobam (cross between lion and lamb) and feral pigs who now have near-human intelligence as the result of splicing human brain tissue. Everyone must be ever-vigilant.
With climate change comes ferocious disease pandemics, including the long-predicted “waterless flood” – a devastating viral infection that, in a matter of weeks, wipes out almost all the Earth’s population. The only human survivors are those who, in one way or another, were isolated: several prisoners who had been in solitary confinement; a sex club dancer who had been quarantined to avoid a dangerous STD; a spa worker who lived for weeks on the roof of her building, and others. The Year of the Flood follows these survivors (and a few surprises) as they struggle to find food and shelter and meaning in a damaged ecology.
Year of the Flood is informed by a finely-tuned environmental and ecological sensitivity. Atwood’s creativity extends beyond gifted storytelling with compelling characters and interesting plot twists to inventing a world beyond what we know – but which we very likely are in the process of creating.