Splashes of the Horrid in the Here & Now

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By Book World
Thursday, September 24, 2009


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 The police have been replaced by the private security force of HelthWyzer, the CorpSeCorps, and its storm troopers keep the peace by simply doing away with undesirables, "terrorists" and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.

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