Post-Apocalyptic Feminist Vegetarian Heroines

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.

Atwood, I’m Impressed

I was deeply impressed with how engaging and interesting “The Year of the Flood” was from the very first chapter. And it’s not just because the characters of Toby and Ren are round and well developed (not going to lie, I was much more invested in Ren’s storyline than Toby’s), but also because Atwood writes such insightful and intriguing lines so fluidly. One thing in particular that struck me was the idea of writing being a dangerous action. According to the Gardeners, writings can be easily used by enemies to bring harm to yourself, an idea so different from what I’ve been taught all my life: Writings preserve knowledge and foster the development of communities and cultures, creating better futures. Writing has always been taught as a positive thing, but here it’s described as permanent in a negative way because it allows everybody to share knowledge that should only be possessed by few. This is just one excerpt that made me stop reading and think (I’m not much of a reader, so I don’t ponder over books very often).

Another part that impressed me was the depiction of Ren as a young child, it’s so accurate of children everywhere. She’s immersed in an environment which she had no real option to be in and there are many restrictions and rules which must be followed. Children don’t like rules, this is a common fact, which makes her encounter with Amanda so intriguing. She meets this flashy, knowledgeable Pleebrat, a member of the real world, full of danger and excitement. Her deep desire to impress this new character is completely understandable, and I’m not surprised that she even denies being part of the Gardeners when she’s questioned about it. People in general, but children especially, wish to gain acceptance and approval from their peers because they believe it will bring about connections and relationships with others, which is exactly what happened between Amanda and Ren. It’s also a very middle school situation that Amanda and Ren spread this rumor about Burt which gets wildly out of control and escalates very quickly. Atwood does such a wonderful job of depicting childhood habits and showing that despite the occurrences of this time period, these characters are still just kids.

God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook

When The Year of the Flood was released in 2009, it was accompanied by an album composed by the musician Orville Stoeber, who set the “Hymns” of God’s Gardeners to music. Here’s a video in which Stoeber sings and plays “The Garden” (the first hymn in the novel) while Atwood looks on:


There’s a lot more here.

The Year of Religious Immersion

The Year of the Flood is certainly the most immersive book we’ve read so far. I found no issue diving directly into the book and really getting a feel for the deeper ideas and plots immersed within. This book has two really huge themes that I think are worth discussing. The first is religion, and its ability to effect people, and then obviously vegetarianism, and how that will help us to ensure a sustainable future. This will lead into the bigger discussion of how this book relates to the class as a whole, because it very clearly does.

I think that the overarching ship of religion that this story sailed on was fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of religion being used to convey the major themes and ideas of the book. The religious group in this story is referred to as the “Gardeners”, they are a sect of people who live a very modest life. They are vegetarian because of their belief system, and they also grow almost everything they consume. Their entire policy is about reducing their environmental impact and only using what they need at all times. They get almost all for eh materials they use in their day to day lives from the world around them, and teach this kind of conservationist lifestyle to their children. This lifestyle may seem great and wonderful, but it can certainly have its shortfalls. The main one that I can find is that this society has completely eliminated meat. This is a major issue nutritionally for any society that wishes to not only survive but also to prosper. A vegetarian diet can be incredibly nutritious, but there are certain vitamins and minerals that one simply cannot get from fruits and vegetables alone. There are visible signs of the malnutrition of the Gardeners in their descriptions. The only one who is ever described as anything other than thin is Zeb, and that is because he eats meat on the side. I would imagine that him introducing meat into his diet is what has allowed him to be so strong in the first place. I only know so much about the negative impacts of not eating meat at all because of some research I did after considering a vegetarian society.

The gardeners also believe in the complete reuse of everything. This is an interesting concept to me because it seems incredibly practical, especially in a post apocalyptic wasteland, like the one described after the “waterless flood”. There is definitely some utility in the ability to utilize products for different purposes, and there is certainly no harm in repurposing something to make it into something else. The Gardeners take it to a new extreme when they are simply reusing everything. They sleep on husks from dead plants, now that is a little extreme. Their entire society fascinates me simply because it is so different from the one that I am accustomed to living in. There are just so many fundamental differences between the world today and the cult that the Gardener’s live in. Which, I do believe them to be a cult. I had not thought of them that way until Lucerne started to tell people she had been abducted, and while that story was not truthful, there are many aspects of the Gardener way of life that are very cultish. I’m sure that in a time of incredible environmental change doomsday cults would pop up everywhere, and I’m sure there would be plenty of able bodied men and women waiting to join.

The final aspect of this book that needs to be discussed is how it relates to the class as a whole. This book is definitely about a changing environment. Which does relate to the climate element of our class, thankfully so because these books tend not to. There is also an interesting “end of the world scenario” element to this book, which allows us to test what we believe about our own faith and morals. Would you be able to carry a belief system with you even past the proverbial ‘end of days’. I think this book asks in a lot of ways what faith is, what belief is, and makes fun of those people who are overly prepared for climate change, the few who are doing all the work, and those who are woefully unprepared, the many who have not even changed their lightbulbs yet.


Works Cited

“Why You Should Think Twice About Vegetarian and Vegan Diets.” Chris Kresser. N.p., 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

The Year of the Flood – Apocalypse Now

Margaret Atwood’s “Year of the Flood” focuses on the story of an environmentalist cult, many of whose members will ultimately survive the plague wreaking havoc, for a variety of reasons.  These people have anticipated this event for so long they’re more prepared than anyone else, or at least the ones that survived the initial epidemic are. This group of people has created their own ideology which melds science and nature woven into the nature of religion, which was really quite intriguing. The reader follows Ren and Toby, both members of the “green cult” called the Gardeners. These two women are from very different background, and have many years separating them. Atwood smartly uses alternating points of view to tell their stories, which was a welcome development as to not let us get confused between the women. Ren’s chapters are told in first person whereas Toby’s are told in third.

The reader can sense Atwood’s contempt for the companies featured (ie CorpSeCorps) utter disregard of the environment and health, just to prove their profit and loss statements. Gerry Canavan suggests in his article, “Apocalypse reminds us that the logic of consumer capitalism is not, in fact, timeless and eternal; there was a time before it, and there will be a time after it.” The constant reminders are throughout “The Year of the Flood” concerning this, creatively in fact, with the names for the companies in addition to the unprovoked opinions from the characters.  He goes on to say, “So-called ‘deep ecology,’ both in and outside science fiction, has long wrestled with precisely this fraught relationship with catastrophe and extinction in its push for a human race with so light an ecological footprint so as to (at the extreme end of its logic) be erased from the planet altogether.”

The world that Atwood created is ruled by corporations, a world that deals death and exhaustion regularly. She showcases how disconnected we are from the planet nourishes us. Atwood shows the reader what could happen if we continue on this course, living in inequality and greed. Canavan also cites Lawrence Buell, “who noted, ‘Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.’” This powerfully ties into climate change fiction, and whether or not it can have a change on the discourse the subject, and invoke passionate conversation from a wider audience. Due to the immense popularity of Atwood’s novels, I think this trilogy has a chance to bring these issues to the forefront of discussion.

Reference: Gerry Canavan, “Hope, But Not for Us: Ecological Science Fiction and the End of the World in Margaret Atwood’sOryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood

Year of the Flood: Climate change hidden inside a compelling story

For a sequel, The Year of the Flood stands on its own surprisingly well. Full of interesting characters, engaging plots, and of course climate issues, it was a great read. The story centers around two members of a vegetarian cult known as God’s Gardeners, Ren and Toby. Both women survive a deadly virus engineered to replace humans with a new race of immortal people.

The book is, at its core, a cli-fi book, though it wisely focuses more on its engaging plot and great characters. The message still gets across. The God’s Gardeners, who bring life into the world and sustain it, are the heroes. The corporations, who produce artificial things and fight to keep profits coming at the expense of other people, are the villains. This is clearly an echo of our society today, as companies manipulate legislation in order to keep destroying our planet.

I thought this book had some great things to say about faith and family, as well. The dedication of the Gardeners to each other, especially at the end as they come together to support each other even after being separated for so long, helped us to see their feelings of connection to each other. Even those that didn’t believe in Adam One’s teachings found solace in them in the end. I thought it put a great message across about how humans use both religion and family as support in times of great tragedy. 

This book made me really wish I had read Oryx and Crake first. I felt as though there were important bits of plot that I missed out on due to skipping the book. I wished I knew more about Glenn and Jimmy, and their motivations to do the things they did. While I appreciated the glimpse we got of them through the memories of Ren, I felt as if there was more I needed to know about them, particularly Glenn and his thoughts leading up to his decision to wipe out humankind. I also feel as though pairing this book with Oryx and Crake might help to highlight the class issues that are so prevalent in climate change fiction. The perspectives of the rich and the poor juxtaposed could really show the differences in suffering and privilege. We got a little of that difference in this book, as we got to see the results of Glenn’s playing god from the eyes of the people it hurt the most.

Overall, I thought the book was great. It had great themes, great characters, and a great story to tell. It gripped me all the way through. While I wish I’d had some more knowledge of its predecessor going in, that is not the fault of the book. Even without Oryx and Crake, the book stands on its own fairly well.