MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddam is the concluding volume of Margaret Atwood’s post human-apocalypse trilogy, which began with Oryx and Crake and continued with Year of the Flood. I say “Post-human-apocalypse” rather than post-apocalyptic because more so than most novels in this sub-genre, I’d say Atwood makes it pretty clear that our apocalypse is not the world’s, that in fact, this little blue ball of water and rock will spin on quite nicely without us, as will whatever life inhabits it at the time. So sorry humanity, contrary to what you might think, once you’re gone, Earth isn’t going to curl up into the fetal position with a pint of ice cream and an old tee-shirt. It’s seeing other species.
Like the prior two novels, and you really should read those before reading MaddAddam, the third book goes back and forth in time. One track shows us what the world was like before the plague that wiped out nearly all humanity, and it isn’t pretty: huge class division, corpocracies running the world — creating diseases so they can sell the cures —, lots of bioengineering going on and damn the consequences, etc. The second track continues the present day story begun in Oryx and Crake and takes place roughly a year after the plague.
Fans will recognize many of the characters, such as Jimmy, Ren, Amanda, Zeb, Toby, Adam One (leader of the cult-like Gardeners whom we met in the earlier book), and a group of “Crakers” — the post-humans created by the genius-cum-genocidal plague-designer Crake, whom they now worship as a god. The humans try to hang onto a sense of community, attempting to recreate a society on a quasi-farm while the Crakers observe, mostly in befuddlement (“why do you eat smelly bones,” “why don’t you eat your droppings too?” “who is this ‘oh fuck’ you call on when in trouble?”). Meanwhile, danger presses in around them in the form of a pair of homicidal Painballers who have already kidnapped, raped and nearly killed Amanda, as well as a group of “Pigoons,” huge, tusked, and intelligent transgenic pigs once bred for human organs.
For much of Year of the Flood, Toby was more the classic hero facing overwhelming odds, barricaded in a small area on her own, using her rifle to fend off monsters of both the human and inhuman sort. Here, she is more passive, recording Zeb’s backstory as he relates to her his sibling relationship with Adam, his involvement as an anti-corporation terrorist, and how he eventually got to the Gardeners, which is where he met Toby. This backstory makes up much of the novel. Beyond listening to Zeb, Toby collects some bees, works to heal Jimmy from the wounds garnered in the earlier works, and teaches a young Crake — Blackbeard — the rudiments of reading and writing.
Some might bemoan this portrayal of a less active Toby (who I felt talked far too much and too often about Zeb’s feelings toward her, the other women in their camp, and in his past), and to be honest, the novel moved much more slowly for me in the start than either of the first two, having far less direct conflict in it — between individuals, between corporations and their opponents. And while Zeb’s story is more active and he is an engaging tale-teller, his story was diluted somewhat due to the summary/dictation style of “and then and then…” There also seemed a bit of a disconnect between the tone of the narration and the implied dangers of the bloodthirsty killers prowling around nearby and surviving after an apocalypse.
On the other hand, I think this is part of Atwood’s point, that surviving the apocalypse is not simply a matter, as is usually presented, of Western-style fighting off the bad guys in gritty, stoic fashion. It’s also a matter of forming and reforming personal relationships (friendships, loves), of softly speaking to the swarm of bees you hope to coax into a hive so you can have honey, of figuring out ways to make food, to deal with waste, and so on. There aren’t a lot of post-apocalypse books/movies that deal with a run to the wrecked town to grab some tampons, for instance. Toby herself guides the reader toward this realization:
What to eat, where to shit, how to take shelter, who and what to kill: are these the basics, thinks Toby. Is this what we’ve come to, or come down to; or else come back to? And who do you love? And who loves you? And who loves you not?
It isn’t action movie compelling, and I’ll admit, sometimes it isn’t compelling at all, but for the most part it draws you in and holds your attention, especially because the stakes in the book are so high.
Another prominent aspect of the novel focuses on myth and story-telling. The sections dealing with present and past are regularly interrupted by the nightly Stories of Crake that the Crakers demand of Toby (Jimmy, who actually knew Crake, began telling them these stories but Toby took over when Jimmy was unconscious). These sections allow for some commentary story/myth/history, as Atwood, through Toby, points out:
There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.
Or when Toby recalls: “People need such stories, Pilar said once, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”
Toby’s nightly stories have become actual ritual: She must wear Jimmy’s Red Sox Cap (this is how Crake speaks the words to the tale-teller) and Jimmy’s watch, and must eat the ritual fish before each story, and so on. We can see a brand-new mythology being made, often in humorous fashion, as when “Oh, Fuck” becomes a minor deity in the pantheon. Despite the humor and the absurdity of much of it (or perhaps because of it), it is clear that myth/story is of vital importance — it is/was for humans, it is for Crakers, and, possibly it turns out, for Pigoons as well. This concept also comes out via Toby’s teaching of Blackbeard, the sole (or is it first) Craker to wonder about Toby’s funny little marks:
What is a scar, Oh Toby?
A scar is like writing on your body. It tells about something that once happened to you, such as a cut on your skin where blood came out.
What is writing, Oh Toby?
Writing is when you make marks on a piece of paper — on a stone — on a flat surface… and each of the marks means a sound, and the sounds joined together mean a word, and the words joined together mean…
Oh Toby, I do not understand. You make a mark with a stick on your skin, you cut your skin open and there is a scar, and that scar turns into a voice? It speaks, it tells us things? Oh Toby, show us how to make these scars that talk!
This underlying theme was one of my favorite facets of the entire novel. Now, whether or not this is a good thing for Blackbeard to learn writing and reading…
The prose, as one expects by now of Atwood, is sharp and the world, both pre and post-plague is vividly and often bitingly conveyed. Atwood has always had a stiletto style when it comes to satire, slipping the blade in softly yet deeply, and that continues here. And all of this satire is built upon quite reasonable and plausible extrapolation from what we see around us today; Atwood clearly keeps up with both current science and current headlines. And, as usual, the novel is liberally sprinkled with original turns of phrase, thought-provoking metaphors, startling use of language, and lots of black humor.
MaddAddam eventually moves toward the expected confrontation with both the Painballers and the Pigoons, though in unexpected fashion. I won’t say much about it save that it ends both strongly and appropriately, closing in both hopeful and bittersweet fashion. While I’d call this the weakest of the three novels, I’ll happily take a “weaker” Atwood novel over most authors’ best attempts. If you’ve read the first two, you’ll mostly be pleased where Atwood takes us. If you haven’t, you’re missing out on one of the smartest trilogies out there.