In a recent interview with Slate, Margaret Atwood states of fiction, “You have to show people in the midst of change and people coping with change.” In The Year of the Flood, the second book in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, she postulates how mankind will react in preparation for an impending Waterless Flood. The majority of the story revolves around the ecology-based religion of the God’s Gardeners who seem to have accepted mankind’s inevitable fate and are preparing for the Waterless Flood to wash over Earth. In her creation of the God’s Gardeners and her injection of humor into their beliefs and values, Margaret Atwood is able to examine the role of religion in a pre-apocalyptic changing world and simultaneously raise questions about the role of humor in literature.
Initially one might be a bit befuddled by the idea of a religion recognizing man’s devastating impact on the planet. In novels such as Flight Behavior and in real life, many religious people believe that mankind could only be brought to its end by the hand of God, so the idea of anthropogenic climate change wiping out the species seems incredulous. However, Adam One, the leader of the God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood addresses this supposed contradiction. He quotes the Word of God from Genesis 8:21 which reads, “I will not again curse the ground anymore for man’s sake.” When God entrusted Noah with “the task of saving the chosen Species,” He made a covenant and relinquished his desire to ever bring humanity to its end (Atwood, 90). The Gardeners, who consider themselves to be a “plural of Noah,” recognize that “any further cursing of the ground would be done, not by God, but by Man himself” (Atwood, 90-91). While it would be facile to view this description of Gardener philosophy simply as a way to account for the aforementioned contradiction, it additionally harkens back to the concept of living “in the midst of change.” As the physical world changes, there is no room for traditional religions such as Christianity. Humanity has been forced to accept its impact on the environment and “can no longer fall into the error of pride by considering ourselves as exceptional” (Atwood, 53). Subsequently, in response to this paradigm shift of accepting mankind’s fate, religion, one of the most obdurate forces in history, is required to adapt its philosophy to fit into the changing world. While they may believe in the same God, the God’s Gardeners’s views are a far cry way from those of the Appalachian Christians in Flight Behavior.
Another way in which religion changes within the world of Year of the Flood is through its views on sainthood. Traditionally in the Catholic Church, those who become saints are men and women who live their entire lives practicing and spreading the Word of God. However, in Atwood’s speculative world, saints are those who lived their entire lives fighting for ecological progress. For instance, the God’s Gardeners deem Silent Spring author Rachel Carson to be a saint for she “dedicated her life to the Feathered Ones” (Atwood, 370). This debasement of the idea of sainthood reflect a larger societal shift in values. Now, pious and zealous religious figures are no longer those valued in society. Instead, the brave souls such as Rachel Carson or Euell Gibbons who fought adamantly for the birds and the trees are the true heroes.
In her initial review in the Telegraph of Year of the Flood, Caroline Moore describes Atwood’s depictions of the Gardeners and their saints as a “serio-comic balance.” Much like the aforementioned Slate interview in which interviewer Ed Finn lauds Atwood’s “deadpan wit and irreverent playfulness,” Moore is recognizing the importance of humor in the deathly serious genre of cli-fi. Atwood is able to look unflinchingly into the eye of the impending Waterless Flood and chuckle. Perhaps what allows Margaret Atwood to laugh even when confronted with the grizzly serious issue of anthropogenic climate change is her self-proclaimed unwavering hope. In the Slate interview, although Atwood admits that she cannot ascertain whether or not humanity will still be around in one hundred years, she states “I think hope is among a number of things that are part of the human toolkit. It’s built in…” Unlike authors such as Phillipe Squarzoni or Naomi Oresekes who scarcely make any room for laughs in their own works of cli-fi (using that term liberally in the case of Climate Changed and The Collapse of Western Civilization), Atwood’s innate hope in humanity allows for The Year of the Flood to be filled with dark humor.
The role of humor in the genre of cli-fi or in relation to climate change in general is a notion which seems to be rarely discussed. In fact, a Google search of the phrase “climate change humor,” results primarily in poorly put together right-wing memes which mock the entire belief in man’s impact on the global climate. So the grand question here is: does the humor work? Can a cli-fi novel take a seriously effective look at mankind’s negative environmental impact and still be incredibly humorous? While some may argue that in order for a novel about an issue as monstrously threatening as climate change to be effective it must be unflinchingly serious, in the case of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the dark humor is not only effective in captivating and intriguing the reader, it may very well be the most effective aspect of the entire novel! For instance, one of the most simplistically poignant lines of the entire novel comes in the form of Zeb’s vulgar song, “nobody gives a snot, nobody gives a snot, that is why we’re on the fucking spot, ‘cause nobody gives a snot!” (Atwood, 242). The entire theme of mankind’s ignorance leading to our downfall, which authors such as Barbara Kingsolver or Kim Stanley Robinson have spent hundreds of pages trying to convey in the most eloquent way possible, is reduced to four lines of hilariously blatant “poetry” and it becomes one of the most memorable lines of the entire novel.
Part of the reason why Zeb’s simple song is so effective is because it serves as a stark contrast to the Feast Day songs of the Gardeners from the God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook which preface each of Ren or Toby’s narratives. Caroline Moore refers to these Gardener songs as “sonorously bathetic hymns.” These songs themselves are not without humor for they, like Saint Euell or Saint Rachel, are greatly different from what we would expect of a 21st century church. For instance, the image of a choir of Gardener children singing out, “We dangle by a flimsy thread/ Our little lives are grains of sand;/ The Cosmos is a tiny sphere/ Held in the hollow of God’s hand ” is drastically and humorously different from Catholic children singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in a church today (Atwood, 427). Atwood’s ability to depict a cult-like religion with the framework of Catholicism which actually stresses importance on mankind’s weaknesses and wrongdoings showcases both her cunning wit and her sheer brilliance as an author.
Back to the contrast between Zeb’s songs and the Gardeners’ hymns, Atwood’s hilariously genius comes through in her ability to depict how Zeb is able to create bigger and more radical thoughts in just a few words while the Gardeners struggle to convey anything concrete or palpable in many of their hymns. Furthermore, this contrast between the singing of Zeb and the Gardeners creates a parallel and sets up the larger contrast between their two disparate philosophies. One of the reader’s very first glimpses of Zeb’s character comes though his earliest song, “nobody gives a hoot, and that is why we’re down the chute” (Atwood, 64). At this point, the reader had already been exposed to at least three Gardener hymns and has likely already begun to understand the dryly superfluous and anticlimactic nature of these hymns. Thus, Atwood deploys her cunning humor to establish Zeb’s personality as being dissonant from the collective mindset of the Gardeners. This dissonance later comes to an apex as Zeb breaks away from the crumbling faction of the God’s Gardeners and forms his own sort of sect, MaddAddam. So, Margaret Atwood has used Zeb’s vulgar songs which could easily be glanced over as throw-away lines to nearly single-handedly establish the basis of the entire personality of Zeb’s character and create a major contrast between him and the God’s Gardeners. Ultimately, Atwood’s humor is not only effective for handling the ideas climate change in literature, but also just as masterful story telling technique in general.
As a serious work of climate change fiction, The Year of the Flood is nearly impeccable. While many books in this genre struggle to reach a widespread literary audience, Atwood’s use of dark humor and inventive narrative techniques ensures that her works will not be relegated to the often overlooked “science-fiction” trade paperback racks at Barnes and Noble upon which many works of cli-fi will sit untouched. Margaret Atwood appears to be well aware of the enormity of her audience and the impact that her works could have on not only literature but on society at large. In The Year of the Flood, Atwood exerts her influence as an author and tackles the challenge of anthropogenic climate change with all the force with which it deserves to be tackled. While Atwood’s work of so-called speculative fiction may not be a novel from which a reader can walk away with a myriad of answers of instructions on how to behave, it is a fantastic speculative tale rife with humor which examines how mankind’s imminent realization of the erroneous nature of its ways could reshape the world.
Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Print.