The Year of the Flood

With The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood has in effect written a sequel to her 2003 Booker-shortlisted novel, Oryx and Crake. It is set in the same waterless "flood" world - an environment ruined and diseased by the excesses of the west - in the period following the one in which the events of Oryx and Crake take place.

This tale focuses on a group that appears in the earlier book: the God's Gardeners and their gentle, avuncular leader, Adam One. We meet him again as he and his acolytes are being attacked outside a fast-food joint called Secret Burger, "secret" because you don't know what you're eating. A wild young woman named Toby, who comes to the kindly eco-priest's defence, finds that she enjoys kicking people in the head. She leaves with Adam One to join his group, which has its own saints and its own hymns, which Atwood renders wittily and lovingly.

In the bosom of the God's Gardeners, Toby meets another woman, Ren, like her a refugee from urban violence. Together they face the apocalypse of "Year 25".

Atwood was raised in a household full of scientists, and she anatomises the world of this novel as precisely and clinically as she did the universe of Oryx and Crake. There are green rabbits, ghastly things called rakunks, hybrid foods such as chicken peas and beananas, iridescent green beetles that settle on spinach, caterpillars with the faces of babies, DNA infusion, skin colour-changing and parenthood licences. All things that might happen in an awful future.

But dystopias are always about the present. In my own novel Entropy, for example, I look at the world of 2044, in which 65-year-olds have babies and 25-year-olds can't, because they are the worker-drones in a Britain that has become nothing more than a testing ground for germ warfare. Not too fictional, I'd say.

There is also a parallel here with Mary Shelley's science-fiction novel The Last Man, in which a plague in the year 2092 has wiped out England. The Last Man is also a picture of the end of the Romantic age and of one man left huddled over a cache of meagre provisions, waiting for the end. Similarly, at the end of The Year of the Flood, Adam One is left standing, yet expecting the inevitable.

But, for all its careful construction of character and its subtle plotting (much better than that of Oryx and Crake), The Year of the Flood is, like its predecessor, little more than a big, fat eco-pamphlet. There are not ideas here so much as messages: about the consumption of food and our overly carnivorous nature; about our callous and dangerous disregard for other species; and about the abuse of members of our own species by the powerful ones among us.

These are messages any civilised human being should take seriously, and in the hands of a writer of Atwood's distinction they are all the more compelling. And yet lying just below the surface is something altogether more poignant, stark and beautiful.

Atwood is a Canadian through and through, and she writes exquisitely about the natural landscape. Like her, I grew up on the prairie and I can feel a bleakness, a hard-as-nails toughness, or just plain cussedness, ringing through The Year of the Flood - not to mention a strain of melancholy and lostness. The combination is glorious. The description of Toby's father's suicide by a shotgun blast through the mouth and the neighbour, rather than thinking that the man has killed himself, assuming he has absconded because he doesn't want to pay for his wife's funeral, is pure prairie. Meanwhile, the image of the girls in their "Special Burger" caps and T-shirts waiting for customers is not so much the future, but today - somewhere just outside Toronto.

“Painball", the fatal sport that Atwood has invented, in which hardly anyone is meant to leave alive, reads to me like a very accurate description of an ice-hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and their mortal enemies, the Chicago Blackhawks.

All of these vignettes are beautifully realised, though there is a sense that Atwood is more interested in her overarching message. There is nothing new to be learned here - just the warning that this is what is coming. This type of speculative fiction is now the principal way that writers in the overdeveloped world can present the looming catastrophe that we are responsible for creating. The Year of the Flood is much more than mere fiction. It is prophecy and, as such, it is a kind of masterpiece.

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, 448pp, £18.99

The playwright, novelist and critic Bonnie Greer's most recent book is "Entropy" (Picnic Publishing, £9.99)

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken