(For folks who just like to read rather than debate genres, science fiction is speculative fiction, but speculative fiction isn’t necessarily science fiction. “Star Trek” = science fiction. “1984” = speculative fiction. The distinction isn’t determined by a lack of spaceships or cool collectibles. Nor is it just a case of adding major literary clout. Instead, speculative fiction is any case of the “what ifs” unfurling outside known facts about either history or reality. Androids or giant bugs are welcome, but not essential. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” which asked “What if Charles Lindbergh were elected president?” would be an example of historical speculative fiction. Is that clear? Good. I now return you to your regularly scheduled plot summary.)
“The Year of the Flood” rejoins the world Atwood created in her 2003 novel, “Oryx and Crake.” But while characters from the first novel reappear – including both Crake and Jimmy the Snowman – this time the focus is on two women who escape the pandemic. You don’t have to have read “Oryx and Crake” to understand what’s going on. Although for those who have, the new novel carries events past the earlier book’s ambiguous ending. And, with its emphasis on female relationships over genetic machinations, I found it a more accessible read. This is not to say we’re talking Brave New Chick Lit, by any means (although teenage Ren does covet trendy clothes). It’s as dark and apocalyptic as anything a Cormac McCarthy or Aldous Huxley could dream up.
Before surviving biological peril, Toby and Ren first have to make it through the man-made horror of life governed by a giant corporation. (The mammoth Buy ‘N’ Large in “Wall-E” never dreamed of the extremes of the CorpSeCorps, who make Big Brother just look nosy.) This future is so toxic, the plague is almost beside the point.