The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009) 431 p.

For somebody who hates science fiction so much, Margaret Atwood sure does write a lot of it. The Year of the Flood is a novel set in the same world, and involving many of the same characters, as her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. Featuring a bio-engineered apocalypse, a dystopic corporate state and rampant genetic engineering, it’s science fiction whether she likes it or not, and she should take heed from Michael Chabon and embrace the term rather than staring down her nose at it.

Oryx & Crake was a fantastic piece of writing. Snowman, a hermit clad in a baseball cap and bedsheet, lives a lonely and melancholy life on the American eastern seaboard, apparently the only survivor of a cataclysmic plague. Nearby is a society of humanlike beings called Crakers, who revere Snowman as a prophet or god. The bulk of the story is told through flashbacks detailing Snowman’s former life as Jimmy, growing up in a hyper-commercialised world ruled by corporations. In high school Jimmy befriends a boy called Glenn, who nicknames himself Crake, and who grows up to become a brilliant bioengineer. Disillusioned and disgusted by humanity, Crake creates a new race of people, and releases a plague to wipe out the old ones. He vaccinates Jimmy against this plague beforehand, allowing him to survive as the guardian of the Crakers.

One might wonder what he is guarding them against, but at the climax of the book Jimmy discovers three real humans camping on the beach nearby. As he ponders his role as a guardian and agonises over what he will do with them, the novel ends.

The Year of the Flood isn’t really a sequel; it takes place chronologically alongside Oryx & Crake, featuring two characters instead of one, but again utilising the flashback method of following them as they grow up. Ren and Toby are both former members of a religious group called God’s Gardeners, a peaceful vegetarian sect that cultivates a rooftop garden in the middle of the otherwise bleak and grimy city. Eventually they both leave the sect, but are reunited after the plague.

The problem with this book was that I couldn’t help but compare it to the much better Oryx & Crake. For much of the novel, I felt like I was reading a book that I’d already read, because essentially I was: same themes, same world, just different characters. (Ironically, the book improves quite a bit in the second half, when Jimmy and Crake enter as supporting characters; it is, after all, their story.) One of the things that made Oryx & Crake so great was the perfect sense of crushing loneliness, the feeling that Jimmy was the last true human being left alive, something that was only slightly compromised by the sudden arrival of others in the very last chapter. The Year of the Flood, on the other hand, has a post-apocalyptic world that seems scarcely less populated than it was before the plague, with strippers and ex-convicts and artists and scientists and nearly all of God’s Gardeners crossing paths, shooting at each other, and spying on Jimmy. It kind of spoils the sense of Snowman’s miserable solitude in Oryx & Crake to know that a bunch of random characters from The Year of the Flood are living just down the road. I’m not even talking about Ren and Toby; there’s a group of ex-scientists they meet who are living in some huts and farming sheep who warn them to steer clear of the crazy guy who sleeps in a tree and talks to himself. Lame. We also never get any indication how these seething multitudes of humanity managed to survive the plague.

The Year of the Flood is not a bad book. I don’t think a writer of Atwood’s talent is capable of writing a bad book, and if you read it without first reading Oryx & Crake perhaps you’ll really enjoy it. But it’s an unnecessary book, and one that, to some extent, dilutes the quality of an earlier and much better one. Atwood already told the story of this world: the story of Crake, who tried to remake the human race, the story of Snowman, who was left behind to protect this new breed, and the story of Oryx, the woman who was a symbol, or perhaps even a catalyst, for the failings and desires that set these events in motion.

Why, then, bother telling the story of a bunch of unrelated nobodies? If Atwood writes more novels set in the world of Snowman and the Crakers, perhaps this one will slot in better in retrospect. If not, it’s an odd and unwieldy companion to a superior book.

The Year of the Flood at The Book Depository