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Splashes of the Horrid in the Here & Now

By Book World
Thursday, September 24, 2009

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

By Margaret Atwood

Doubleday. 434 pp. $26.95

All science fiction is really about the present. What novels set in the future do is simply extrapolate from now: If such and such a trend goes on -- grows worse or more intense or simply skids out of control -- where might it lead, what might happen? In Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood" -- set in the same world as her 2003 novel "Oryx and Crake" -- we recognize some of the more repugnant aspects of our own 21st-century society gone totally rancid.

In the future, the HelthWyzer Corporation acts as the government. Its top researchers and their families live in a guarded and barricaded compound that separates them from the underclass. The police have been replaced by the private security force of HelthWyzer, the CorpSeCorps, and its storm troopers keep the peace by simply doing away with undesirables, "terrorists" and anyone who opposes the corporation's activities. More often than not, the victims' bodies, usually minus some important organs, are ground up with sundry other ingredients, some of them mammal, in the addictive SecretBurgers. The SecretBurgers chain then employs young people desperate for work, all of whom must wear baseball caps and T-shirts that say: "SecretBurgers! Because Everyone Loves a Secret!"

Of course, if you're a cute and limber young woman, you might take a much better job with SeksMart, where you could work as a "comfort girl" or perform as a pole dancer at a club like Scales and Tails. More likely than not, you'd probably need Bimplants with responsive nipples, and you'd definitely be wearing a Biofilm Bodyglove -- for disease protection -- and lots of glitter and paint and colorful feathers or iridescent scales: Fantasy is the name of the game.

But "plank work" -- no matter how soft the actual bed -- can still be brutal, especially if Painballers drop in for a little amusement. The Painball Arena -- actually a forested no man's land full of hidden TV cameras -- pits teams of brutish criminals against each other in a kill-or-be-killed competition. You can watch the action on cable. The few who survive the arena are more predator than human, as well as insane.

Not that life out in the so-called Sewage Lagoon is anything but nasty and ruthless. Out of desperation, many people have turned to, or retreated into, various cults, to the disgust of members of the "rich religions" like the Known Fruits and the Petrobaptists:

"Groups of turbaned Pure-Heart Brethren Sufis might twirl past, or black-clad Ancients of Days, or clumps of saffron-robed Hare Krishnas, tinkling and chanting, attracting jeers and rotting vegetation from the bystanders. The Lion Isaiahists and the Wolf Isaiahists both preached on street corners, battling when they met: they were at odds over whether it was the lion or the wolf that would lie down with the lamb once the Peaceable Kingdom had arrived. When there were scuffles, the pleebrat gangs -- the brown Tex-Mexes, the pallid Lintheads, the yellow Asian Fusions, the Blackened Redfish -- would swarm the fallen, rooting through their draperies for anything valuable, or even just portable."

As it happens, the HelthWyzer biogeneticists have partially solved the Isaiahist schism by creating the libam -- half lion, half lamb -- as well as other creatures such as the rakunk (rat and skunk) and the strangely intelligent and bloodthirsty pigoons. HelthWyzer also regularly experiments on the unsuspecting population with new drugs, such as the super-sex pill BlyssPlus.

Little wonder that one religious group, the pacifist vegetarian Gardeners, has long foretold the coming of a Waterless Flood that will cleanse this sordid and polluted Earth. Against this day, the Gardeners have stockpiled food and supplies. But the cataclysm proves more terrible than expected.

When "The Year of the Flood" opens, it appears that only two people have survived a deadly pandemic: the 30-something Toby, who is holed up in the AnooYou spa surrounded by marauding pigoons, and Ren, a befeathered trapeze artist at Scales and Tails, who has been locked up in a sealed quarantine area dubbed the Sticky Zone. In alternating sections, the novel traces how these two came to be where they are. Toby's story is told in the third person, Ren's in the first.

Years before, the Gardeners rescued Toby from sexual slavery to Blanco, the manager of a SecretBurger who preys on his female employees. The Gardeners hide her from the Bloat -- as he is called -- on the roof of a rundown apartment building, where they cultivate vegetables, herbs and bees. As their leader, Adam One, explains, they are left alone by the CorpSeCorps because "they view us as twisted fanatics who combine food extremism with bad fashion sense and a puritanical attitude towards shopping. But we own nothing they want, so we don't qualify as terrorists. Sleep easier, dear Toby. You're guarded by angels."

While with the Gardeners, Toby meets Ren, the young daughter of Lucerne, the runaway wife of a HelthWyzer scientist, who has hooked up with the easygoing Zeb, half biker, half eco-terrorist. In fact, Zeb is the secular arm of the Gardeners, skilled in urban warfare and all the secret ways of the Exfernal World. Still, Toby lives in mortal fear of the Bloat. If the tattooed sadist finds her, she knows her fate will be far worse than a fate worse than death -- or even than death itself.

Meanwhile, little Ren grows up in the Garden, where nearly every day seems to honor some iconic environmentalist or green pioneer. These include Saint Jacques Cousteau, Saint Rachel Carson, Saint Karen Silkwood and Saint Dian Fossey. Adam One usually preaches a homily on their feast days, and Atwood beautifully captures his stately yet slightly pompous and sometimes unconsciously comic style. Of Saint Euell Gibbons, we learn that "he sang the virtues of the wild Onion, of the wild Asparagus, of the wild Garlic, that toil not, neither do they spin, nor do they have pesticides sprayed upon them, if they happily grow far enough away from agribusiness crops." Following each sermon, the Gardeners sing a hymn, and Atwood includes these as well; they often sound like a mix of Isaac Watts and Edward Lear. Here's a quatrain from "Oh Lord, You Know Our Foolishness":

We fall into despondency,

And curse the hour that bore us;

We either claim You don't exist,

Or else that You ignore us.

For Ren, life in the Garden is the only childhood she knows -- until she meets the pleebrat Amanda, who becomes her best friend. Though hardly out of childhood, Amanda has already learned to trade her body for what she needs, knows how to slice a man's throat with a piece of glass, and is as cynical as Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel." Love, she tells Ren, "was useless, because it led you into dumb exchanges in which you gave too much away, and then you got bitter and mean."

As dismal as it is, this future often seems little different from today. Pleebrats still have cellphones and hang out in malls and play computer games like Barbarian Stomp: "Blood and Roses was like Monopoly, only you had to corner the genocide and atrocity market. Extinctathon was a trivia game you played with extinct animals." Kids also go out for Happicappuchinos at the ubiquitous Happicuppa franchises or eat at ChickieNobs. The geeks eventually go on to study bioengineering at Watson-Crick; the losers and artsy types are cattle-carred to Martha Graham Academy, where they take classes in Holistic Healing, Dance Calisthenics and Dramatic Expression.

As "The Year of the Flood" advances, Atwood begins to integrate characters and elements from "Oryx and Crake." Don't worry: Those who've read the earlier book will appreciate various small details and ironies, but the new novel stands perfectly well on its own. There are, however, a surprising number of coincidences -- Jimmy, a major character in "Oryx and Crake," keeps cropping up. No matter. By its last half "The Year of the Flood" has turned into a heart-pounding thriller, a desperate Painball game to the death set in an already devastated world.

Still, the book regularly undercuts the horrific with touches of comedy -- Ren talks about her work at Scales and Tails as "the daily grind" -- and Atwood superbly captures the voices and attitudes of the serious Adam One, the frivolous Lucerne, the resourceful Toby and the rather simple-minded and fragile Ren. Canada's greatest living novelist undoubtedly knows how to tell a gripping story, as fans of "The Blind Assassin" and "The Handmaid's Tale" already know. But here there's a serious message, too: Look at what we're doing right now to our world, to nature, to ourselves. If this goes on . . .

Michael Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com -- appears on Thursday in Style.

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