I must start by saying that I have a lot of issues with Margaret Atwood’s world. I find her constant barrage of satirical portmanteau names for consumer products and bio-engineered animals quickly tiring. I likewise find Atwood’s emphasis on her novel as a work of “speculative fiction,” (as distinct from sci-fi), to be problematic, because while the technologies and much of the society present in The Year of the Flood are plausible enough, her actual narrative struggles to maintain her apparent commitment to realism. Why, for example, do all of these characters, who happen to know each other, also happen to survive the same devastating global pandemic that wipes out approximately 99.9% of everyone else? How does Bee-stings Blanco keep surviving Painball, when we see him disposed of by less rugged competition multiple times? Even if these events technically could happen, the insistence on “speculative fiction” seems dubious given how many coincidences are necessary to support Atwood’s plot.
But all of these issues aside, Atwood’s primary protagonists, Ren and Toby, are not only believable, they are also sympathetic and thoroughly admirable. After reading through the frustrating perspective of Jimmy in YotF’s predecessor, Oryx and Crake, it is refreshing to see the other side of the story. Likewise, Ren and Toby’s vegetarian moralism, while perhaps absurd to average (American) omnivore, is truly fascinating to think about for a real world vegetarian, (i.e. myself). It is tempting to imagine that in any post-apocalyptic world, all of its survivors will adhere to a strict pragmatism, (John Hay has some great thoughts about this in his essay, Shakespeare off the Grid,) but it is not unreasonable to think that people’s spiritual and moral beliefs will instantly dissipate as soon as their first pangs of hunger strike. (Toby and Ren may not take long to resort to carnivorism, but they certainly never feel good about it.) The Year of the Flood is at its best when it makes us consider the necessary compromises of its heroines and the determination of their convictions in the face of such a brutally indifferent and inhospitable world.