The challenge of raising good, organic food in the rotting cities of the not-too-distant future is one very interesting theme of Margaret Atwood's new book The Year of the Flood. The characters belong to a secret and persecuted environmental sect. They forage in city parks, plant gardens and raise bees on the rooftops of decaying apartment buildings, and study old healing lore. They avoid the products of the evil fake food and designer drug companies. Wise women of the group gather mushrooms for food and to enhance "meditation." They also have some deadly ones in reserve for extreme situations.
The working out of this theme is interesting. The characters revere the biosphere, they talk out loud to bees, they pray to environmental saints like Dian Fossey and Ewell Gibbon, and they exaggerate many of the tenets of today's real-world greens and environmental advocates of various sorts.
The hated fake foods and drugs, genetically altered meat sources (animals without heads or brains), and hybrid animals like pigoons (bred to engender organs for transplantation) or rakunks (pets combining the good characteristics of skunks and racoons) are all very inventively named and described. So the book has a very amusing and satirical side. The biggest sell-out the characters can do is to work for one of the fake food and drug companies -- whose employees have all the material goods that they lack. You could read it as a send-up of our culture. Or not.
The characters themselves are all very three-dimensional and convincingly appealing, tormented, or evil -- as always, Margaret Atwood is a master of character development. They sell natural products at open-air markets. They fight the disillusioned gangs of kids -- "pleebmobs" in the "pleeblands." They infiltrate fake health spas and sex clubs. Sometimes, despite their ideals, they go wrong and apply their skills to growing bad drugs in their urban farms, or sell out to the big corporations. They have a very elaborately described religion with its prayers and hymns interspersed in the text.
The Year of the Flood takes place in the same miserable future that Atwood created in Oryx and Crake. Since I knew this, I reread O&C over the weekend before I began YOTF. The action in two books takes place in parallel, and characters overlap -- so the new book at time seems to be a kind of back-story to the first. Even the imaginary products and animals are shared, with different features of them highlighted in each book.
While O&C was focused on one character, Snowman, and a couple of his friends, YOTF has several heroes and heroines. For me, it had too many to make as good a story. The plot seems somewhat driven by a desire to codify and explain the previous book. (I often find this sort of codification tendency a flaw in sequels to fantasy books: a need to draw maps, spell things out... even The Lord of the Rings codifies the spontaneous world of The Hobbit.)
The Year of the Flood contains multiple references to famous or semi-famous historical personages who have become the "saints" of the ecological religion that the characters in the book belong to. I didn't feel like googling all of them as I read, so I felt as if I was only half-way engaged in the book. I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of self-containment.
Snowman, the hero of O&C thinks he's the last survivor of a global pandemic, and the book thus seems rather pessimistic. He works for the survival of a new, artificially created humanoids who have better immune systems and lots of other new features -- an ultimate creation beyond even the animal hybrids. In contrast YOTF reveals that quite a few other conventional humans have in fact made it through the catastrophe -- and focuses on the "real" people, while O&C focused on the new breed. As YOTF proceeds from the time before the plague -- which they call "the flood" -- the characters struggle against increasing persecution. And after the flood, they struggle to apply their skills to a whole new set of survival challenges. Interestingly, one thing that fails them in the new conditions is vegetarianism. Slowly as desperation overtakes them, they overcome their revulsion for eating animals.
At the end, the characters all assemble in a scene that originated as the last chapter of Oryx and Crake. In a way it makes the new book seem like an explanation for the somewhat dangling plot elements of the first book. I don't think this is a "spoiler" because the second book proceeds inevitably in parallel with the first -- if you read them one after another, you KNOW what's going to happen.
I believe that Margaret Atwood has promised a third volume in the series. I hope it will stand alone better than Year of the Flood. I loved Oryx and Crake (and many of her other books) so I have high hopes for it in a few years or whenever. I've been following her blog in which she is documenting her book tour -- today's post described a meal commemorating the food in the book -- Ottawa St. Brigid YOTF Dinner