The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The events leading up to the “waterless flood,” a global catechism wiping out almost all of mankind, as told from the point of view of two survivors, a sex worker and a healer, both of whom were members of a radical vegetarian cult.

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood’s companion to Oryx and Crake, presenting the events that led to Jimmy the Snowman’s reign over the gentle, sinless Crakers in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Atwood resolutely refuses to call either book “science fiction,” in a disingenuous bit of verbal sleighthand that I find snobbish to the core–and this despite Atwood’s status as one of my favorite authors of all time.

I’ve never liked her so-called “speculative fiction,” and The Year of the Flood tried my patience with its rampant coincidences. I’m really meant to believe that the only survivors of a cataclysm consist of:

  • a stripper with a heart of gold
  • her best friend, located in another city
  • a man both of them slept with (who also randomly ended up roommates with a third girl they both grew up with)
  • one of the women who raised them in the cult
  • that woman’s seriously abusive ex-boyfriend–who comes and kidnaps the stripper and the best friend
  • two other boys who grew up in the cult

And nobody else! It angered me to no end, these coincidences in a book whose theology seems to deny the existence of any ordering principle in the universe. I don’t believe in coincidence in stories, or in fate or destiny or any of those things. In a fictional world, you can’t escape the presence of the author’s hand, so if you’re going to deal in coincidences you have to make something of it, not just shrug it off and expect me to swallow it.

As science fiction, The Year of the Flood doesn’t offer much that’s new or innovative. The religion she invents for the God’s Gardeners doesn’t seem particularly well thought out. The hymns she writes for them lack theological depth, with barbless satire that doesn’t point to any discernible real world equivalent.

The best parts of the book concern Ren and Amanda’s friendship, but of course that’s what I’ve always loved about Atwood. Her ability to limn the contours of female relationships has always been her genius, and it shines just as brightly here. But it wasn’t enough to save this book for me.

10 thoughts on “The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood”

  1. I cannot stand it that she refuses to call her books science fiction – not just that she won’t call them that (which I can understand, because sci-fi is often looked down on), but that she makes disparaging references to other sci-fi books. This with lots of love for her writing!

  2. With Jeane, this is the first less-than-positive review of this book I’ve seen. Thanks for the honesty! I’ve read little Atwood and now will look for her other books instead of this one.

  3. I love Atwood and I loved this book. Perhaps you don’t realize that this is one in a number of interconnected stories. Oryx and Crake is another. I imagine that in the next story we will learn why these people survived when no one else did. A review of Oryx and Crake’s synopsis on Wikipedia gives some insight.

  4. I think you need to re-read this book, taking your time this time, and you’ll see that the people who survived did not do so by pure coincidence and they were not the only survivors. First read Oryx and Crake, then read The Year of the Flood, and instead of saying “this is over my head,” instead say, “what have I read in the news recently that makes this plausible?” Think about Blackwater, Monsanto, and big pharma for starters, and then move on to global warming and the spread of formerly tropical diseased like West nile Virus worldwide.I think you’ll get more out of the books. The point of speculative fiction is to get you to look at the world around you with new eyes.

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