Margaret Atwood has always made a point of saying that her speculative fiction is not fantastic or fanciful; it includes only technologies and “biobeings” that exist or could exist given present human knowledge. And indeed, the current-events-cranked-up-just-a-notch plausibility of her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale is what gives that novel such chilling power. Oryx and Crake, the first volume in the MaddAddam trilogy about a bioengineered apocalypse, packs a similar punch. But with The Year of the Flood, the second book, the story began to take on a comic, even antic flavor. MaddAddam is even more playful, filled with wisecracking dialogue, running jokes, and smart wordplay. With this book, Atwood’s saga becomes not so much a dystopian vision as a darkly funny fairy tale for grown-ups.
MaddAddam’s preface briefly rehashes the story from the first two books: in a future world ruled by ruthless global corporations, society is divided between technocrats, who live within fortified corporate compounds, and the masses, who live outside in “pleebland” slums and suburbs. Thanks to corporate greed and extensive environmental damage, bioengineered everything—drugs, food, sex, animals—is the order of the day. A favorite form of entertainment is Painball, a reality show in which convicts are forced to fight to the death, with winners released to wreak havoc in the pleeblands. A bioterrorist network called MaddAddam and a group of spiritual tree-huggers known as God’s Gardeners resist the corporate tyranny. Crake, a brilliant young scientist bent on remaking this ruined world according to his own vision, whips up a herd of genetically modified humanoids—the gentle, herbivorous Crakers—and then unleashes a bioengineered virus that wipes out almost everyone else. The few known survivors include Jimmy, a.k.a. Snowman, a boyhood friend of Crake’s who becomes a guide and teacher for the Crakers; a small group of MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners, including friends Toby, Ren, Amanda, and Zeb; and a couple of vicious Painballers who are on the loose and eager for prey.
MaddAddam opens on the scene where both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood end: by the seashore, some time not long after the virus has completed its work. Toby and Ren have traveled there in search of Amanda, who’s being held as a sexual slave by the Painballers. The seriously injured Snowman is also there with his Craker charges. The Painballers are briefly captured, only to be set free by the innocent Crakers. (“This rope is hurting these ones. We must take it away.”) Snowman and the Crakers then join up with the MaddAddamite group, and they all work to survive in an environment now dominated by freakish predators, particularly the oversized, unnaturally intelligent pigs known as pigoons. They also hope to find some evidence of Adam One, the missing leader of God’s Gardeners and brother of Zeb.
Toby, who was an important character in The Year of the Flood, takes center stage in MaddAddam. Trained as an herbalist before the pandemic, she becomes a mother figure to the Crakers as she tries to heal their beloved Snowman. Her longtime feelings for Zeb blossom into a love affair, although not an untroubled one, since she fears she has a rival among the younger women in the group. Toby’s efforts to push closer to Zeb provide a narrative opportunity for him to fill in his history with Adam One, explaining the origins of God’s Gardeners and their connections to MaddAddam, much of which was left vague in the first two books. In between the flashbacks, Toby and Zeb sleep together and banter:
“Don’t be so warped.”
“Life is warped. I’m just in synch.”
The Crakers take up most of Toby’s attention not occupied with Snowman or Zeb. When they’re not munching kudzu or mating, the beautiful, green-eyed creatures insist she tell them sanitized stories of their creator (“good, kind Crake”) and how he cleared away the “chaos” of the old world for them. (“Yes, that did make things smell very bad for a while.”) Although the Crakers seem dangerously innocent and helpless to the human members of the group, they prove to be unexpectedly useful in dealing with the voracious pigoons. When the Painballers reappear with Adam One as their hostage, a Craker child becomes central to the rescue effort.
There’s plenty of action in MaddAddam, some of it decidedly gory, and the mission to free Adam One carries real suspense. For much of the book, though, Atwood seems simply to be having fun with the elaborate story she has created. There are frequent jokes involving the Crakers, with their blue genitals and their endless singing, and the terrifying pigoons begin to seem more and more like something created by Maurice Sendak as the book goes along. Zeb’s habit of singing to himself gives Atwood lots of opportunity for naughty wordplay:
Roamin’ here, roamin’ there, roamin’ in my underwear,
I got a sweetie covered in hair
She’s all pussy everywhere….
The serious themes underlying the MaddAddam story—the destructive power of human greed and arrogance, and the utter necessity of respecting the environment—are not lost in this final volume. The humor here is not meant to diminish the horror; rather, it nourishes necessary hope in these characters, and it does the same for the reader. Like any good fairy tale, MaddAddam reveals an ugly truth while pointing to beautiful, happy possibilities beyond it.
[To read Chapter 16‘s interview with Margaret Atwood, click here.]
Margaret Atwood will discuss MaddAddam at Austin Peay State University on April 11, 2014, at 8:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.