Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood, known for her sarcasm, described her book Year of the Flood by saying, “this is the most cheerful book about the near annihilation of the human race that you will ever read. Sometimes when I say the near annihilation of the human race, people say ‘yay’. Please don’t say that.” Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson visited Cap on December 1, and she also took the opportunity to clear up some fine points about genre.

Picture, in your mind, a great big banner over the top [of the stage] and what it says is quite a lot of things. It says, we are going to put all books that are not realistic [topics/themes of] fiction novels ... and under a second banner we are going to put all of the other books. What would be left would be two families of books. One of them would be descendants of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne. He thought he was writing about things that could potentially happen on this planet. The other family would be started by HG Wells, with “War of the Worlds” and the “Time Machine”. This is science fiction ... it deals with space travel, and what we now think of as Martians ... Those are the two families; things that could potentially happen and things that would be extremely unlikely to happen anywhere. My books are part of the first family.” Year of the Flood would fit into the first family of books, firmly entrenching her work in speculative, rather than science, fiction.

Year of the Flood is about a disaster that has “obliterate[ed] most of human life” according to the book itself. Atwood’s book begins in the 25th year of an unknown era. The book jumps back and forth between this year 25 and the preceeding years leading up to the flood, in an attempt to explain why the world ended up the way it did. When Atwood uses the term flood, she uses it in the annihilationist sense, not simply a wet one. The flood Atwood refers to is the pandemic that would appear to only leave two survivors.

Toby, the first character introduced, is a former God’s Gardener and has only survived because she was locked into a spa. Atwood describes the spa as a marvellous place to be “trapped, as many of the masks were edible and [nearly] everything is pink.” Ren, the second character that the book follows, was a worker at a high end sex club called Scales. She was locked away when the flood hit because she was “waiting for [her] test results,” as a client had bit her. The understated feminist critique these characters express is a hallmark of Atwood’s writing.

In the world that Ren and Toby had lived in prior to the flood, the CorpSeCorps and God’s Gardeners essentially ran the world. The CorpSeCorps was the government body, which had become integrated with all of the major corporations in the world, and had in a sense become corrupt. God’s Gardeners were a group of people who believed that science and Christianity should be mixed, that the world was in deep peril because of the way people were treating nature, and because of this they had predicted the waterless flood countless times before. Atwood, after quickly explaining the main players in the book, reminded the audience that it was important to “keep what happens in the book within the pages of the book.”

Despite her warning, she anticipates a world that anxious readers might already find eerily familiar and has gone to great lengths herself to make sure that what happens in the book is manifested in real time. This is best exemplified through the actual music of the God’s Gardeners, available as a companion CD. After the Gardeners' sermons and hymns were written for Year of the Flood, they were put to music by singer/songwriter Orville Stoeber ( On, Stoeber explains how the hymns were written, and for what purpose. Essentially, the recorded hymns sound the way Atwood and Stoeber thought God’s Gardeners would write them. However, on the website it is left open to fans to also record their own versions of what the hymns would sound like.

During the reading, Atwood chose to read a hymn called April Fish Day  that she felt was “very fitting for Vancouver in the year 2009, a year in which 9 million salmon simply disappeared.” Confirmed by the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, BC found that only 1.1 million sockeye salmon had entered the Fraser River-ways this past year - there should have been about 10 million. 

And while the audience giggled during her entire reading because of the satirical language she used, there was a feeling of nervousness throughout the crowd, as if they believed that she was not reading a book, but predicting the future. The Copenhagen Conferences were about to commence and the world had just been shaken by the H1N1 outbreak and a global vaccination campaign.

Atwood’s book, while not specifically pointed at any environmental issue in particular, does warn of what our world could look like if trends continue. Atwood touched on the impending during the Q&A period. She jokingly stated, “Our government is standing up for our right to choke to death,”  but was quick to say that it was time for Canadians to “stop sit[ting] still.. and allow[ing] for the selfish and greedy behaviour that we have seen during [past] Copenhagen [events].”

Speculative fiction or not, Atwood’s tale of the almost annihilation of the world touched many people sitting within the theatre that evening. “Things that could potentially happen” were happening as Atwood wrote the book, and still are. H1N1 may not have succeeded in killing the world, but there has been much speculation about what this small scale pandemic could foreshadow. Paranoia points to a superbug, similar to the one responsible for Atwood’s pandemic in “The Year of the Flood.” The same  unfortunately goes for her environmental concerns and the similarity between her speculative world and our real one.

//Nicole Mucci

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