Born in Ottawa in the autumn of 1939, Margaret Atwood grew up in Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She attained her B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto and her M.A. from Radcliffe College. Atwood has written more than 50 works of poetry, children’s fiction, fiction, and non-fiction. While she is most known for her many novels, her book, Blind Assassin, received highest acclaim winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Currently, she lives with Graeme Gibson in Toronto.
Everyone knows Orwell’s 1984. The classic dystopian novel depicts the frightening consequences of an authoritarian state. Without removing much of its well-deserved praise, I wonder if 1984 remains a masterpiece not for its literary qualities but for its political commentary. Much like Animal Farm functioning as a satire against Communism, Orwell’s clear distaste of authoritarian government colors 1984. Moreover, the novel’s release during the beginning of the Cold War gave readers – whether valid or not – a tangible source illustrating the potential horrors of Communism.
Without a clear enemy, the dystopian novel becomes a difficult sell. If humanity does not perceive a threat, a story acting as a “what if” warning fails to convince. With Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, the enemy of humanity is not nation-states but trans-national corporations.
The Real Fear about Trans-National Corporations
Although admittedly, most don’t consider business a threat to civilization, Atwood paints a realistic portrait in Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood regarding what could happen. Simply put, if corporations seek profit above all else, what keeps them from inhibiting life in order to reap profit. For example, what keeps pharmaceuticals from developing diseases alongside antidotes? If people get sick, the company profits. Given the philosophical incentives taught in business school, such a result is certainly possible.
While book one of the trilogy, Oryx Crake, focuses on the complexities behind business starting the apocalypse, The Year of the Flood tells the same story from the perspective of an anti-corporation religious group.
In this work, each chapter begins with a sermon from Adam One, founder of God’s Gardeners, a religious group that blends evolutionary theory with creation care theology. At the end of each sermon, Adam One proclaims, “Let us sing,” and Atwood actually penned hymns that populate the liturgy of God’s Gardeners.
As a highlight of Adam One’s sermons, Atwood writes,
“The Human Words of God speak of the Creation in terms that could be understood by men of old. There is no talk of galaxies or genes, for such terms would have confused them greatly! But must we therefore take as scientific fact the story that the world was created in six days, thus making a nonsense of observable data? God cannot be held to the narrowness of literal and materialistic interpretations, nor measured by Human measurements, for His days are eons, and a thousand ages of our time are like an evening to Him” (11).
Moreover, the theology of the God’s Gardeners is apocalyptic. As with many sects that span human history, the community forms around an expectation of the end of days. Atwood states,
“According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future” (188).
Surviving the Waterless Flood
Aside from this religious institution, The Year of the Flood tells the story of two women associated with this fringe community. On one side, Toby found refuge in God’s Gardeners after her family deteriorated mostly due to nefarious corporate practices and her former job left her defenseless to an abusive boss. On the other side, Ren escaped the corporate compounds with her mother finding acceptance amongst the religious zealots.
With similar starting points, The Year of the Flood charts the different paths Toby and Ren take before the apocalyptic disease blots out most of humanity. Through serendipitous means, both women survive the “flood” as the Gardeners call it and unite to face the new, daunting world.
A Detailed Myth
The Year of the Flood adds to the dark realism of the Maddaddam Trilogy. Just like Oryx and Crake outlines the plausible scenario of trans-national corporations ruining the world for profit. The Year of the Flood depicts a complex religion and liturgy surrounding the reality of this world. As with any occurrence, counter-movements inevitably spring up. Atwood’s fictitious faction, God’s Gardeners, provides an extensive theology that is plausible not only in her invented world but also in our world as it currently exists.
Dealing with Death
Of course, this trilogy suffers from a lack of real world analogy. Yes, corporations carry a lot of power. But, we do not consider them a threat. Should we? Perhaps. But for me, the big question with dystopian models is always how humanity deals with large-scale death. Atwood pens,
“Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy” (415)?
Thus, the dystopian novel portrays beauty through its relationship with death. We all wonder about death; we all will experience it. Art finds it through dystopia and thus we read. The Year of the Flood is well-written, fast-paced, and frightening. Start with Oryx and Crake, and then read The Year of the Flood.