The late poet Al Purdy thought he was joking when he gave young Margaret Atwood a copy of an outdoorsy book called The Art of Survival to commemorate the publication of her early critical study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Neither of them could have known that the joke present would become a rich lode of material for a world-famous novelist almost 40 years later.
Few people actually survived in The Art of Survival, Atwood recalled in a summer conversation at a bustling, noisy restaurant near her midtown Toronto home, her affect-free voice matching an apparently deadpan manner that, close up, twitches with intelligence. "What it really was," she says, "was horror stories of people who didn't survive and what they did wrong, with gruesome photos."
Those stories joined a growing trove of knowledge gleaned from similar explorations, especially the lost-in-the-woods Canadiana she absorbed as a youth: how to snare a rabbit, how to skin a porcupine, where to find all-important lipids. "If you really think you're starving, turn over a few logs," she advises. "You can eat grasshoppers, crickets, anything that looks like a shrimp except it's not a shrimp."
Such is the strange knowledge that rattles around the mind of an "old" person, according to Atwood. "It's like junk in your house. It accumulates." But not uselessly: Some of the last-named arthropods - maggots, in a word - play a key role in the life and adventures of Toby, the tough, super-survivor heroine of Atwood's new novel, The Year of the Flood.
In the post-apocalyptic future Toby inhabits, maggots are both food and medicine. Indeed they are one of the few wholly benign creatures left in a world teeming with the misbegotten results of genetic tinkering - Day-Glo sheep, pigs with human brain power and dangerous "liobams" created by a literal-minded religious cult determined to make the lion lie down with the lamb.
"Have I ever eaten maggots?" Atwood repeats the question, but doesn't drop a beat. "Perhaps inadvertently. I have never gathered them and had a fry-up with them. But I have eaten snake. It was quite good."
Survival is no metaphor in The Year of the Flood. It is the immediate priority of all humanity - at least the fraction that survives the flood in question, called "waterless" by the fictional cultists who predicted it. Atwood describes the event as something like a worldwide outbreak of the Ebola-Marburg virus, producing "a hemorrhagic, dissolve-from-the-inside kind of fever."
Like Sodom and Gomorrah, much of the world it wipes out is hopelessly corrupt - a degenerate geography of high-security enclaves housing the pampered and feckless in isolation from the civic squalor of "pleebland," where bloodthirsty rapists rule the streets and fast-food franchises serve up human remains.
Atwood seems indignant at the suggestion that the future she imagines is uniformly horrible. "It's bad news for some, but good news for others," she insists, pointing out that "the birds are doing better" in her future.
"It could be much worse," she adds. "It could be a nuclear book in which everything is grey and burnt."
As an example of non-horrific details in her imagined future, the author offers "Chickie-Nobs," future fast food derived from birds grown without heads. "The chickens wouldn't suffer," she notes. "If you grew them in battery farms they wouldn't be suffering because they wouldn't have heads."
Then there is the "Mo'hair," a brightly coloured wig grown with the wearer's own genetic material. "I'd like to be able to order up some bright hair," she declares.
"People are fooling with the toy box, and you might get something quite good out of it," she says. But most of the future she imagines is bad, bad, bad.
What the book absolutely is not, she insists, is science fiction - a statement she has made repeatedly since the 2003 publication of Oryx and Crake, a novel that shares the same future as Flood and some of the same characters.
Science fiction takes place "somewhere in space, far, far away in a distant galaxy," she explains. "That's where hell and heaven went after Milton, escaping literarily."
On Planet X, you can still have voices speaking out of burning bushes and "strange creatures with bat wings and horns on their heads flying through the air - dragons, of which I'm very fond." But "speculative fiction" of the sort she writes deals strictly with things people can experience on Earth "without being stoned," she says. "It has to be based on real technology, real science, real possibility."
The fearsome liobam is a "stretch," she admits, showing an uncharacteristic touch of sheepishness, "but it's not out of the question." The green rabbits on which they feed already exist. Scientists have transplanted human brain tissue into other animals. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate, crops are shrivelling in worldwide droughts and devastating plagues loom behind every newscast.
As an example of where her speculations begin, Atwood volunteers the still-mysterious anthrax attacks that closely followed the events of 9/11, killing five people and infecting several others as a result of spore-laden mailings targeting media companies and politicians.
"It was first presented as part of a terrorist Islamic plot," she says. "It wasn't. It was an inside job. Then the story disappeared and we don't really know whodunit. There's a lot of speculation about it."
Atwood's reading has made her an authority on massively fatal diseases such as the Black Death, which she refers to as "the great mortality" in accordance with an emerging view that it was not bubonic plague but rather an Ebola-like, "dissolve from the inside" infection. The reading list she has posted on the website promoting her book promises a multifaceted view of environmental Armageddon.
"Diseases have been bigger game-changers over history than wars have been," Atwood notes, and most of them were just as mysterious as the unknowable flood that devastates humanity in her novel. "People don't know what they were," she says. "They were things. Apollo shot his arrows."
There are many kinds of disaster, in other words. "The big one coming up for everyone on the planet is the fundamental one. What do we eat? That's heading our way."
Reviewing the novel recently in The Guardian, famous science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that Atwood's vision was "if possible, even more depressing" than what George Orwell imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four . "Not even [Samuel]Beckett could make a scene so bleak endurable for several hundred pages," she wrote.
Not surprisingly, Orwell is Atwood's first line of defence in the genre wars her recent works set off, and which Le Guin kept alive in her recent review. Neither fantasy nor literal prediction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the model for speculative fiction as Atwood defines it.
"George Orwell was not predicting 1984," she says. "He was writing about 1948." Likewise, she is not predicting the imminent demise of humanity, merely exploring the likeliest possibilities. "I'm suggesting that this is how people behave when such things happen."
But will they happen, in her view? A staunch agnostic who draws a firm distinction between belief and knowledge, Atwood pleads ignorance of the actual future. She won't even finger a culprit as obvious as global warming.
"We don't know," she says. "This is what I mean about being an agnostic. The easy answer is global warming but the real answer is we don't know. That's the real answer to a lot of stuff."
But will things really get that bad, with advanced societies meekly degenerating into police states and brothels offering a menu of murder and processing the remains into popular fast food?
"We don't know! We don't know!" she insists. "The jury's out. It's not looking good."
Just as Orwell invented a new language to suit his degenerate future, Atwood invented a charming new religion to serve as a naively optimistic antidote to an otherwise horrific scenario. "It's been done before," she deadpans, ticking off the essentials of organized religion as precisely as she names the half-dozen possible responses to disaster. You need an inspired prophet, distinctive dress, a dash of hope, a touch of guilt, a promise of redemption and, above all, music.
"You've always got music of some kind," she says. "It's inevitable. We don't know of a culture without it, therefore we don't know a religion without it."
Thus Flood is sprinkled with sprightly hymns to a desecrated nature as sung by God's Gardeners, futuristic eco-activists who live on the roofs of abandoned buildings and cache "arks" of organic food in the hope of surviving their prophesized flood. The first and last doomsday cultists to get it right, they themselves are arks of decency in a berserk world, their beliefs rooted in a pre-modern nature worship of which the author clearly approves.
"When you walk into a cathedral, there's all of these leaves, plants, trees, foliage, animals, birds, creatures of all kinds carved into the stone and painted on the walls," she says. "It was a vision of a total world."
Her Gardeners worship saints who exemplify the vision, from the medieval anchoress Julia of Norwich to Saint Jane Jacobs. The author sings along, with tongue in cheek.
Set to music and now being performed in a series of international events Atwood organized to publicize the book, the hymns are lyrical and almost - as close as unremitting irony will allow - uplifting. But even they get darker and more complex as the flood spreads - and the good guys fall along with the bad.
This too has been done before, according to the author. "It's about structure," she says. "It's about the reading experience. 'Now we are going down into the Inferno. I, Virgil, will be your guide, Dante. You will get out at the end, but on the way we're going to go through a structured experience where you're going from one level to another.'"
Ever downward, in other words, ending ambiguously in a netherworld where genetically engineered monstrosities with giant blue penises represent the future of humanity.
"These are happy people," the author insists, adding, "I didn't say giant, I just said large. They get bigger when they're blue."
The ending is nothing if not the most bizarre cliffhanger in the history of English literature. Atwood says she is planning to write a third and final novel in the series that might conceivably offer a more consoling resolution. But nobody knows, do they?
"It's a plan, but that's not the same thing as doing it," she says. "I'm planning to do it. I may get struck by lightning."
In the meantime, the author-as-activist is busy spreading hope in the same straightforward spirit as her silly/holy Gardeners. The website promoting the book, yearoftheflood.com, links to an eclectic selection of environmental causes and initiatives. Optimistic guides to better living in harmony with nature lighten the otherwise dire reading list.
The Art of Survival makes no appearance, but similar tomes do intrude, including Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival by Mors Kochanski; and The Flu Pandemic and You: A Canadian Guide by doctors Vincent Lam and Colin Lee. Atwood, who wrote the foreword for it, describes the latter as "an essential survival guide."
It's as close as she comes to revealing her real views on the epic struggles her novel explores with such bold detachment.
"As I say, nobody can predict the future," she says, laughing off yet another clumsy attempt to pin her down. "But if I were you, I'd get that handy little booklet and keep it with you."