Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. I suspect it may just end in a deluge of postapocalyptic fiction. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Year of the Flood presents yet another vision of the end of days, a welcome blend of satire, character study, and gripping suspense. Giant corporations like the wickedly named CorpSeCorps have taken over most societal functions, isolating wealthy workers in walled compounds and leaving the have-nots in violent ''pleeblands.'' These firms oversee everything from security to food production to ubiquitous sex shops. Thanks to bioengineering, there are now pigs with human brain tissue (for organ harvesting), sheep with human hair (for scalp transplants), and lion/lamb hybrids (for Christian fundamentalists, though the outcome is a less-than-roaring success).
Not everyone is in lockstep with the new world order. A quasi-religious outfit called God's Gardeners rejects CorpSeCorps products, lives largely off the grid, and leads a vegetarian, self-sufficient lifestyle. The group's leader, dubbed Adam One, predicts a worldwide calamity, the Waterless Flood, and his followers are poised to be among the few survivors when the compost hits the solar-powered fan.
Disaster does indeed strike, as readers of Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake know all too well. Both books depict a fast-spreading pandemic, but whereas Oryx and Crake focused on its enigmatic perpetrators and ended with a maddeningly ambiguous ending, The Year of the Flood charts a different, though parallel, course. This time, we observe the catastrophe through the eyes of Toby and Ren, flesh-and-blood women we come to know through their many travails both in and out of the Gardener commune. (We also see what happens after the earlier book's cliff-hanger close.) Atwood digs into the background and dynamics of the Gardener eco-cult, capturing both its noble ideals and petty jealousies. She's particularly perceptive in depicting the ebb and flow of female friendships, as well as the physical sensations of a hippieish lifestyle. (When young Ren, raised as a vegetarian, tastes her first meat, she notes, ''It felt like I'd eaten a nosebleed.'') For all the unreality of her imagined universe, Atwood grounds her story in the bedrock of good storytelling: our shared, if endangered, humanity. A–