Less cosmetically, but just as effectively, Ren, a pole dancer at a local sex joint called Scales and Tails, is in an isolation room after a bloody attack by a punter, so she too misses the bio-bug. The women’s past and present stories alternate and intertwine, bringing to life the world they must survive in — a world where pigs have human brain tissue and sheep are bred with human hair in different colors, silver and purple being hot hits for whole-head implants, providing you don’t mind smelling of lamb chops when it rains.
My favorite Atwood genetic invention is the liobam — a cross between a lion and a lamb, engineered by a lunatic fringe religious group that’s tired of waiting for the prophecy of the lion lying down with the lamb to come true. Their own breed has curly golden hair and long, sharp canines, and will look at you very gently while it rips your throat out — which is pretty much the metaphor for the world of lethal paternalism created by CorpSEcorps.
The sensitive CorpSEcorps elite boy Glenn, who becomes Crake, starts out as a teenage sympathizer for the Gardeners but is too seduced by his own brainpower to trust nature. Like his friend Jimmy, Glenn doesn’t know how to love, and the awkward devotion he feels for the girl he calls Oryx is not returned. Atwood is very good at showing, without judging, what happens when human beings (usually men) cannot love. In the worst of them, like Blanco the Bloat, brutality and sadism take over. In the better of them, like Crake, a utopian desire for perfectability replaces the lost and lonely self. Crake designs out love and romance because he wants to design out the pain and confusion of emotion.
In this strangely lonely book, where neither love nor romance changes the narrative, friendship of a real and lasting and risk-taking kind stands against the emotional emptiness of the money/sex/power/consumer world of CorpSEcorps, and as the proper antidote to the plague-mongering of Crake and Jimmy, for whom humankind holds so little promise. As ever with Atwood, it is friendship between women that is noted and celebrated — friendship not without its jealousies but friendship that survives rivalry and disappointment, and has a generosity that at the end of the novel allows for hope. Atwood believes in human beings, and she likes women. It is Toby and Ren who take the novel forward from the last page, not the genetically engineered new humans.
Atwood is funny and clever, such a good writer and real thinker that there’s hardly any point saying that not everything in the novel works. Why should it? A high level of creativity has to let in some chaos; just as nobody would want the world as engineered by Crake, nobody needs a factory-finished novel. The flaws in “The Year of the Flood” are part of the pleasure, as they are with human beings, that species so threatened by its own impending suicide and held up here for us to look at, mourn over, laugh at and hope for. Atwood knows how to show us ourselves, but the mirror she holds up to life does more than reflect — it’s like one of those mirrors made with mercury that gives us both a deepening and a distorting effect, allowing both the depths of human nature and its potential mutations. We don’t know how we will evolve, or if we will evolve at all. “The Year of the Flood” isn’t prophecy, but it is eerily possible.