If a religious sect predicts an apocalyptic event and then separates itself to start preparing for that cataclysm, the general public pretty much shakes its collective head and writes them off as whackos. But are they still whackos if they turn out to be right?
In The Year of the Flood, Atwood takes us inside a religious sect on the fringes of the mainstream (albeit a very fragile, last-days-of-the-Roman-Empire kind of mainstream), and pretty much asks the reader just that question. Those on the outside think God’s Gardeners are crazy or dangerous or both. From our insider perspective, it’s those on the outside who seem crazy and dangerous.
Or maybe I just think that because I found myself agreeing with a surprising amount of the Gardeners’ theology. It’s a hodge-podge of Christianity, Buddhism, and a religious reverence for science, but it kind of works for me. I like the idea of learning to be self-sufficient, of using just what we need and no more, of fostering compassion and respect for all creatures. I like, too, that while the Gardeners have very strong beliefs, they’re also pragmatic. For example, they don’t believe in eating meat, but they are okay with it if it’s a matter of life and death (for them) and if they do it mindfully.
I liked the combination of science and religion in the Gardeners’ worldview and their focus on mindfulness and empathy. In particular, I liked the idea that it’s not just the creatures we think of as gentle that are God’s children. Wolves, lions, spiders: they’re every bit as much God’s children as humans are. There’s also the suggestion that even “evil” people—mass murderers, serial killers—are God’s children, and we should deal with them with compassion and empathy, a view with which I agree and for which I’ve been shouted at by people in my own otherwise compassionate and touchy-feely religion. But then, not even all of the Gardeners agree on how one should deal with a person who means us harm, which is the cause of significant disagreement within the sect.
I also really enjoyed the hope that the Gardeners maintained in the face of the cataclysm they saw coming. They didn’t know what form it would take exactly, but they knew something bad was going to happen and instead of becoming fatalistic, they prepared for it.
Basically, I really loved this book. It was well-written and I loved that it’s told from the perspective of two female characters (and Adam One’s sermons). The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because it’s left me feeling a little paranoid. The Gardeners see danger everywhere, and that helps them stay safe. In light of the fictional situations Atwood presents (which are uncomfortably close to reality), I’m looking at the things that raise flags for me in my life and wondering which ones actually pose a threat and which ones don’t. I tend to note potential dangers and then dismiss them, and I’m wondering if I’m too complacent about the negative influence these elements have on my spiritual self and their potential dangers to my material self.
What harm can it do to hook into Facebook or Twitter or Gmail (or Goodreads)? What’s the danger of owning a cell phone or putting a transponder in your car to automatically pay road and bridge tolls? Sure, it’s all huge corporations (and a highly corporate-influenced government) mining our data and monitoring our internet and calling histories, but the alternative is to drop out completely, and that’s just not practical. (Plus, it’s only the bad guys who get caught, so I have nothing to fear.) That coffee isn’t shade-grown, that chocolate’s not fairly traded, there’s corporate advertising in our public schools, and that diamond engagement ring was almost certainly mined with slave labor, but those are just side effects of a free market. What we do as individuals doesn’t make a difference, so it’s okay to just keep on drinking mochas and watching reality television. Still concerned? Here, have some BlyssPluss, and you’ll feel much better.
Now I need to go back and re-read Oryx and Crake and eagerly anticipate the publication of MaddAddam. And maybe throw out my nutritional supplements and buy the audio CD of the Gardeners’ hymns.