MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood


Published: 2013 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “How many others have stood in this place? Left behind, with all gone, all swept away. The dead bodies evaporating like slow smoke; their loved and carefully tended homes crumbling away like deserted anthills. Their bones reverting to calcium; night predators hunting their dispersed flesh, transformed now into grasshoppers and mice.”

I’m a huge Atwood fan and know I’m not alone in ranking this, the final instalment in the trilogy that began a decade ago with Oryx and Crake, as one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of the year.   With a huge weight of expectation behind it, and a vast dystopian story to somehow conclude so many years after its inception, its also the release that could most easily have proved a disappointment. So I am pleased to report that it was not. While I still rate the first novel as the most powerful of the trilogy – partly perhaps because of the initial shock factor that could never be replicated in its sequels  – MaddAddam provides a sharp, exciting, thought-provoking finale that was also much funnier and, in its own esoteric way, much more hopeful that I’d been expecting.

The novel begins with a recap of the events of the previous two books; a useful refresher but no substitute for reading the novels. Those familiar with the preceding volumes will quickly notice how MaddAddam seems to balance the tone of the trilogy as a whole. Oryx and Crake is the fast-paced masculine-focused big-bang, centred on Jimmy, or “Snowman” who believes he many be the only survivor of a lethal pandemic that has wiped out other humans. Struggling to survive in a hostile environment that is rapidly being reclaimed by nature, Jimmy becomes the caretaker and reluctant prophet of the “Crakers” a group of bioengineered humanoids who were the project of Jimmy’s one time best friend and love rival.  By contrast, book two, The Year of the Flood, is  slower and more expansive:  fleshing out this brave new world by exploring the beliefs of the eco-cult The God’s Gardeners and exploring the disparate experiences of two female survivors, Toby, a senior member of the Gardener’s clan; and Ren an exotic dancer who escapes the contagion in a quarantine cell. With its ensemble cast of surviving Gardeners, MaddAddamites (the bioengineers who assisted Crake in his neohuman project) and the Crakers themselves, the final instalment pulls together the disparate perspectives of its predecessors. In the present tense, the novel explores how the remaining humans try to survive, plundering the wreckage of the old society, preparing for a deadly showdown the murderous Painballers, and trying to make sense of what has happened, both for themselves and for the Crakers.

Storytelling is the central theme in MaddAddam: “People need such stories… because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.” The main story told here is that of Zeb, the hacker, Gardener, outlaw and object of Toby’s desire whose high octane history and relationship to the head of the Gardener’s cult, ties all the other narrative strands together. Toby has taken over from Snowman as the prophet of the Crakers and the novel offers a fascinating contrast between the way Zeb narrates his history to her, and the way she recounts it to this childlike and deeply credulous group. Arduous for Toby, her story-telling sessions are a delight for the reader and here Atwood brilliantly negotiates the knife-edge path between hilarity some deeply serious theological questions:

How to explain to them what “oh fuck” means? They would never believe that the word for copulation could mean something bad: an expression of disgust, an insult, a failure. To them, as far as she can tell, the act is pure joy.

Atwood has insisted, somewhat controversially, that her work is not science fiction but speculative fiction. As she reiterates in her acknowledgements, “it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.” While I don’t want to wade into the debate about how much of this assertion is influenced by the perceived lack of mainstream appeal of Sci-Fi as a genre, it certainly struck me, as I was reading, how much more familiar MaddAddam felt than its preceding two volumes. Some of this may reflect my pleasure at returning after so long to familiar characters and to the disturbingly compelling world Atwood has created here. But many of the scenarios and developments she imagines already feel more current than they did a decade ago when I first read Oryx and Crake. For instance, comments on the allure of the unpolished as so-called “reality” shows online become ever more scripted, and the popularity of environmental charities designed to assuage guilt rather than make any genuine impact. Although Toby’s interactions with the Crakers make this a surprisingly funny read, there is much in MaddAddam that remains genuinely frightening because it does feel so possible.

My main criticisms of this novel were in the treatment of some of the female characters who seem somehow reduced from the courageous form they took in the previous novel. Ren, Amanda and even, in places, Toby herself seem less resilient here, more petty in their concerns and more reliant on their men. Atwood seems conscious of this: “Gender roles suck…”  “Then you should stop playing them.” But for all the playfulness of her tone there are some serious undercurrents: does the challenge of survival after the Waterless Flood necessarily reduce women to role of childbearers? There are no easy or comfortable answers here, but for all the horror there is a sense of community, of hope, and a surprising playfulness in this book that was missing from the previous instalments. Perhaps it is inevitable that a greater sense of security – even built on the most fragile of post-apocalyptic foundations – would allow the very human emotion of sexual jealousy to once more rear its head.

Written with verve and passion, MaddAddam is not Atwood’s finest hour but, as a satisfying conclusion to a superb trilogy, it certainly reaffirms its own central message about the redemptive power of the stories we tell. It also reminded me how much I wanted the events Toby and co experience to be fiction and not a dark glimpse of what could lie ahead.

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