BOOK REVIEW: Religion and Dystopia in Atwood’s THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2)The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sequel to Oryx and Crake (and the 2nd book in the newly-dubbed MaddAddam Trilogy), The Year of the Flood is a better book, in my opinion, than the series opener. The story is told through the eyes of two women, Ren and Toby, who are once and future members of an eco-cult called God’s Gardeners. Ren grows up in the cult after her mom leaves one of the gated pharmaceutical communities that control the world. Her narrative is first person and traces her life from an impressionable child to tough adulthood. Toby’s narrative is in third person, and she initially becomes a Gardener to escape a dire circumstance. Each of their contrasting sections is short and they end on a cliff hanger moments. Through these fragments, you get a different glimpse into the dystopian future Atwood’s created, with its Corporate structure and science gone amok. Interspersed are sermons and hymns from the cult. A warning: the book is very dark, even grim-dark. Atwood doesn’t shy from describing the horrors these two very different, and differently strong women face. A criticism: I found it hard to believe one major plot point which I won’t spoil. The Year of the Flood also reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable series, in the use of religion and dystopian themes.

The Parable of Octavia E. Butler

I went to hear Octavia Butler speak when her novel, Parable of the Sower was released. This was before she won the MacArthur Genius Grant. The thing was, at that time, she didn’t read. Always self-deprecating to a fault, Butler instead gave a talk about her work and writing the process, and at least to me, that was as enthralling as any recitation could be. She told a story about how she had been stuck with writing her current novel at one point, so she went for a walk to buy some food at a supermarket. Butler lived in Southern California at the time, and she wasn’t a driver—a rarity, if you’re at all familiar with greater Shangri-L.A.

octavia-butler-3

She paid for her purchases with a $100 bill. The cashier stopped the process, and called over a manager. Apparently, there had been a rash of counterfeit 100 dollar bills floating around the area, and they needed to confirm that the bill was legitimate. The store took the necessary steps, and Butler walked out of the store with her groceries. She wasn’t too far from the store when a phalanx of police cars converged on her—she described it as more than two cars, with their engines whirring. She stopped, and they detained her in the store’s parking.

The officers explained the counterfeit issue again. Butler asked why the police had been called, since she had already paid and been cleared by the store’s management. The reason was, she looked suspicious. Butler was a tall black woman (she might have been 6 feet tall) and walking along the side of the highway in L.A.. That had been a red flag for the store’s owners.

The audience listened to this story in quiet shock. Octavia Estelle Butler, one of the greatest SF writers ever, had been racially-profiled! Butler, being a writer, saw this incident as important, and it influenced Parable of the Sower’s sequel, Parable of the Talents.

Racial profiling is something that many African Americans face. It’s a fact of life. My 83-year old mother, an ABD (all but dissertation) Ph.D, was recently mistaken as a waitress in her retirement community home. It can be used as a justification to kill, if you tell a certain narrative. The Martin case, like the Rodney King case before it, exposes an issue faced by black male youth.

Butler used her experience to create a masterwork of speculative fiction. I hope that the Martin case can be used as a springboard to stop profiling and murder, bring justice to everyone.