MaddAddam (2013) is the third book in Atwood’s dystopian trilogy about a world in which the human race has been all but destroyed by a pandemic. The first two are Oryx and Crake (2003), which I reviewed here, and The Year of the Flood (2009), reviewed here. Although there is a brief summary of the two earlier books at the beginning of this one, I strongly suggest you read the other books first; both characters and situation are much easier to appreciate with a knowledge of what has gone before. Even having read the previous books it took me a while to reconnect with the story.
This book starts where The Year of the Flood finishes. Toby has met up with the handful of other survivors of the pandemic – some of the MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners from the previous book – and the group of ‘gene-spliced quasi-humans’ created by Crake – hence called Crakers. Not all the survivors are friendly; there are also two semi-crazed ‘painballers’ on the loose. Some of the genetically modified animals now roaming free are also dangerous. The Crakers love stories, and it becomes Toby’s role to tell them. But, she realises, ‘There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told.’ These three elements make up the book. The on-going ‘story’ she tells the naïve and trusting Crakers is a much modified version of the reality of things before the ‘waterless flood’. The ‘real story’ behind what she tells them is mostly flashback told to Toby about the pre-catastrophe lives of Zeb, the leading MaddAddamite, and Adam One, head of the God’s Gardeners. And the ‘story of how the story came to be told’ takes up the struggle to survive in a perilous world where everything has to be improvised: ‘physical objects have shucked their tethers’. ‘Once there were too many people and not enough stuff; now it’s the other way round’ – though little enough of the scavenged ‘stuff’ is useful. What sort of future can be possible for them?
MaddAddam has been criticised on the grounds that depicting a dystopian reality after a world catastrophe is a commonplace in science fiction. ‘It is not simply a question of the broad outlines being well-worn,’ writes one critic, ‘but of the numerous tropes deployed: the mad scientist releasing the virus; the millenarian cults and cannibal gangs; the survivors subsisting, ironically, on throwaway consumer items; the tech-noir and cyber-punk stylings; flooded cities; the vine-wrapped skyscrapers.’ This criticism seems to me to miss the point; Atwood isn’t really writing science fiction. ‘If I were writing about Planet Xenor, that would be different. It is our world, except with a few twists,’ she says. In the acknowledgements, she writes that: ‘Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or not possible in theory.’ So this isn’t the creation of an imaginary world – which I take to be an essential ingredient of science fiction. It is written as a dire warning about the directions we are taking today, and where we could well end up.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some problems with the book. Having the three ‘stories’ is a bit clunky, especially the stories Toby tells the Crakers. And though Zeb and Adam’s story is interesting, it seems like a diversion rather than an integral part of the ongoing story. Then there’s the Crakers; what is Atwood saying about quasi-humans? Maybe that we should accept differences without too much prejudice? Certainly in this story they are going to be a part of any ongoing human race. And the Crakers do evolve during the story – as someone says, their brains seem more malleable than might have been anticipated – and they have unexpected powers. On the other hand, Toby – whose Gardener name was Eve Six – wonders if teaching them to read and write might ultimately harm them. Is Atwood making a sly allusion to the forbidden apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden? It’s as if Atwood is throwing off ideas like sparks – a dramatic show, but ultimately a bit of a fizzer. There’s also rather a lot of coincidence and a lot left unexplained; the device of Zeb telling his story to Toby means in theory that Atwood gets away with gaps in what Zeb knows, particularly about Adam, but in practice this can be frustrating for the reader.
Atwood is a great writer, and no unease about the structure and intention of the story can undermine my pleasure in her use of language, which is sometimes expressive, and sometimes sharp and acerbic. Describing the pleeblands: Zeb looks out of a sealed bullet train window and sees ‘gated communities … fields of soybeans, frackware installations, windfarms, piles of gigantic truck tyres, heaps of gravel, pyramids of discarded ceramic toilets. Mountains of garbage with dozens of people picking through it; pleebland shanty towns, the shacks made of discarded everything.’ Zeb says of his crooked father: ‘You have to give the guy some credit. He was twisted as a pretzel, he was a tin-foil halo, shit-nosed frogstomping king rat asshole, but he wasn’t stupid.’ But I agree with the critic who suggests that Atwood’s tone in this book is ‘whimsical rather than moving’.
Overall, I didn’t think this was up to the standard of the first two in the trilogy, or to her usual standard, for that matter. In the end, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic in the Guardian who wrote: ‘MaddAddam is slightly crazed, usually intriguing and often great fun. I would have enjoyed it even more, however, were it not for the nagging voice that said: instead of this, we might have had another Alias Grace, or another The Blind Assassin.’ You can read what I said about The Blind Assassin – one of my favourite books – here.
You can read more about Margaret Atwood here.