What happens when you get the apocalypse you wished for? That's what a band of eco-subversives called the Gardeners find out in Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, a story of humanity destroyed for meddling too much with the environment.
Set in the near future, Year of the Flood is a retelling of Margaret Atwood's apocalyptic classic Oryx and Crake from the perspective of characters who were only marginally involved in the massive act of bioterror unleashed by the previous novel's sociopathic Utopian scientist Glenn (AKA Crake). While Glenn and his damaged, upper-class buddies were cooking up a virus to end the world, the peaceful Green separatist Gardeners lived in squats, tending vast urban rooftop gardens. The Gardeners' leader, who goes by the name Adam One, preaches a kind of new agey Catholic environmentalism, complete with days devoted to saints (like Saint Rachel Carson) and hymns.
We follow two women, the young, credulous Ren and the toughminded Toby, after they join the Gardeners. Slowly they learn the skills necessary to survive the social collapse – the "flood" - that Adam One predicts will come about as the result of rampant genetic engineering and pollution. Circumstances sweep the two women back out into the "exfernal world," and they begin lives as service workers – Ren works at a sex club called Scales and Tails, while Toby takes a job managing a spa called AnooYoo that does biotech beauty treatments on wealthy women.
While Ren is relatively happy dressing like a bird and doing trapeze stripping for her clients, Toy stays in contact with the Gardeners via a secret chat room. She knows vaguely that her former brethren have splintered into two groups: Those who prefer Adam One's peaceful ways, and those who work with Glenn on acts of bioterror. Still, Toby is unprepared for what happens next: Trying to purge the Earth of its greatest threat, Glenn creates a human-targeted supervirus that spreads like wildfire across the globe, literally melting people in their tracks.
Ren and Toby manage to survive, but now they have to deal with fighting off genetically-engineered animals gone wild. The pigs with human brain cells and the half-lion, half-lamb creatures developed by Bible literalists who want lions to lay down with lambs are particularly pernicious. The two women inch towards their inevitable reunion across a landscape heaped with the refuse of scientific innovation gone horribly wrong, though we are never certain that they or any humans will ultimately survive.
Unlike Oryx and Crake, whose main characters come across as irredeemable, Year of the Flood is an oddly hopeful book. The Gardeners' odd survivalist wisdom is exactly the kind of belief system you'd need to survive a global pandemic. Members of the group know how to forage in an urban wasteland, and what to eat in the forest. Equally important, they possess a reverence for the ecosystem that's completely missing from traditional Western religion.
It's clear that Atwood has thought a lot about the kinds of helpful myths she'd implant in human history if she could restart the world: That's why every few chapters we hear a sermon from Adam One, along with a hymn. It's an interesting exercise in speculative worldbuilding. If the Gardeners can survive – and seems as if they might – their beliefs could become the moral lifeblood of a civilization founded on renewable resources rather than environmental exploitation.
For this reason alone, Year of the Flood is an interesting companion piece to Oryx and Crake. In the latter, Atwood investigated what it would take to genetically engineer the perfect posthumans. Glenn and his colleagues secretly build these perfect beings by synthesizing hardy, disease-resistant humanoids who eat nothing but leaves, communicate through healing purrs and birdsong, and experience no sexual shame. Now, with Year of the Flood, she imagines what's required to culturally engineer a new human society out of novel mythologies and social structures created by the Gardeners.
We never know for sure whether the genetic or social experiment will save what's left of humanity, and that's a good thing. Atwood pulls us into the lives of her characters so that we're forced to contemplate the true and deadly precariousness of our future as a species. You may not agree with the way she's framed the problem – the science in this novel is fanciful at best – but it's hard to deny that she's asking the right questions.