The people in the chaos cannot learn. They cannot understand what they are doing to the sea and the sky and the plants and the animals. They cannot understand that they are killing them, and that they will end by killing themselves. And there are so many of them, and each one of them is doing part of the killing, whether they know it or not. – Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam
First things first: this is not the review of a single book, it is the review of the three books making up the MaddAddam trilogy. As such it is slightly longer than usual (apologies in advance).
I had not read any Margaret Atwood prior to the MaddAddam trilogy, and picked them up predominantly to satisfy my BookRiot reading challenge for 2015: a book written by someone when they were over 65 (actually only the second and third books satisfy this criteria as the first book, Oryx and Crake, was written when Atwood was 64). Anyway, I came into these novels with no expectations and no real idea of what they were about.
Pleased to say I was blown away.
I now count myself as an Atwood fan based on these three books alone, and will start working my way through her back catalogue. I particularly intend to hit some of her non-fiction.
My 5 star ranking system:
5 stars – Brilliant. I would recommend this to everyone, and it is very likely I will re-read it in the future (possibly many times).
4 stars – Very good. Would happily recommend to others, this will be a welcome addition to my bookshelf.
3 stars – Good. Solid writing, solid story, no major flaws. Might also have some exceptional parts offset by weaker components.
2 stars – Ordinary. Generally means that the weaknesses (story, style, theme etc.) outweigh the positives.
1 star – Not good. Avoid.
This is an artful apocalypse, a novel about survivors of an event that has wiped out most of humanity that manages to be both dire and humorous at the same time. The evil corporately ruled dystopia that precedes the apocalypse is beautifully detailed, and horrible to envisage. Margaret challenges the reader with a situation where humanity has degraded, it has sold itself and its environment in the pursuit of knowledge, entertainment, and (of course) profit. Atwood has (contentiously) said she considers MaddAddam to be ‘speculative fiction’ instead of science fiction – a distinction that seems to primarily turn on how ‘close’ it is to being a possible reality.
Synopsis: Oryx And Crake (5 out of 5 stars)
We start with the story of Jimmy, now called Snowman by the genetically engineered post-humans called Crakers, after an unknown event leaves him as the last natural man alive (so far as he knows). The story flicks between his life now (post-event) and his unreliable memories of before. Much of the story set in the present deals with survival in the harsh environment, the leftover bioengineered beasts roaming free, with tropical storms, heat and infection an underlying threat. Through the flashback sections the book details his life in the corporate compounds, his relationships with his best friend the enigmatic Crake, and with the love of his life the zen-like ex-child porn victim Oryx. Through these recollections and through these relationships he reveals the actual cause of mankind’s downfall.
The book ends on a cliff-hanger, with Jimmy encountering other, natural people, and leaving him deciding whether to befriend or attack.
Synopsis: Year Of The Flood (4 out of 5 stars)
Covering roughly the same timeline as Oryx and Crake, this story is told in the same manner – flicking backwards and forwards through time, from before the event to after, although Year of the Flood is told from two female points of view, the young and emotional exotic dancer Ren, and the stern and damage hardened Tobiatha (Toby).
Whilst the sections in the present again deal with survival in the newly wild environment, this time the flashbacks cover the resistance to the ubiquitous corporate rule, as both women spend time as members of the God’s Gardeners, a religion based around being eco-friendly – vegetarianism, recycling and not bathing often (water conservation) are all aspects of the Gardener’s environmentalist faith.
This book ties finishes with Ren and Toby meeting Jimmy at the cliff hanger that Oryx and Crake ended on, then pushes a little past this point to set us up for the third book.
Synopsis: MaddAddam (5 out of 5 stars)
MaddAddam picks up at the end of Year of the Flood, and this time takes the viewpoint of Zebulon, brother of Adam One (leader of Gods Gardeners) and overall baddass dude. Again we flick between the past and the present, and its a formula that still holds strong in the third book. We know where the world has gotten, and this flashback/history telling allows additional details and secrets to be revealed as you progress.
This book takes us further out from the event, and the present sections focus on the survival of a larger group, and the attendant tensions (jealously for example). The tribal Crakers take a greater role in this book too, which I feel leads the trilogy to a satisfying ending.
Right from the start, Margaret’s writing style in these books captured my attention. Her writing is elegant and poetic. Her sentences are simple, yet full of meaning, and witty without being overly comedic. If I contrast this book to Sacrament the difference in writing styles is stark; Barker’s prose is descriptive and flowing, almost flowery, he spends his time on an issue and writes a picture, but is still efficient and rarely boring; Atwood is to the point, effective, short, and sometimes leaving things entirely to the reader* – but for all that her writing is artful and engaging.
*For example – after three books I still have no idea what a ‘spraygun’ looks like or how it operates…or even what ammunition it fires!
Beyond the words themselves is the structure within the books. Telling a story that continuously casts itself back in time, whilst simultaneously progressing the present storyline had a real potential to be confusing, but Atwood handles it like a master (she’s written 30 books, this is hardly a surprise). In each book she goes over the same ground, the dystopia, the event… but the differing viewpoints in each book means you’re approaching the material from a fresh perspective – nothing seems stale.
Much of meat in the story is in the retrospective sections, indeed this is where I found most of my interest in the drama lay. This worked for me, as by the close of the first chapter I was desperate to know what the event was – where Jimmy and the others were going to end up was less of a motivation.
Of course, within this glowing praise, there was something that kept nagging at me, and occasionally dragged me out of the story (the second book particularly) – the impossible coincidental character relationships. I finished Oryx and Crake satisfied; I fully understood how Jimmy survived. It made sense. It also made sense how the others (total of maybe 10 people) survived in the subsequent books. However, regardless of how promiscuous Jimmy was, the chances of there being three ex-girlfriends in this rag-tag bunch of survivors considering the millions and millions of dead was astronomical, and I had to cry bullshit. This is why Year of the Flood got downgraded to a 4 out of 5.
The final book in the trilogy launches from the end of the second, and so builds on the main flaw that haunted the second book – the strained coincidental character relationships between survivors after the event – but as this book kicks off with these characters already in place, it kind of overcame the problem. That is, because Jimmy had met them in the last book, I had come to terms with the idea by this one, and could enjoy the story without thinking about this issue. As such MaddAddam, the last book, returns to the excellent form of the first book – simply an engaging and well written tale.
I identified a number of themes within these novels, but I focus on the ones that hit home with me. Firstly, perhaps because I had so recently read Sacrament, was that of extinction. The loss of species is a real issue today, and Atwood’s MaddAddam future shows a truly depleted existence on earth. MaddAddam is set in a world where mankind, via the corporations, is madly stripping the planet of resources in its hunger to consume. Indeed this hunger is quite literal in parts, as in the popular SecretBurger franchise, where the protein in your burger is best left to your imagination. Throwaway references are made to the loss of most of the ocean life, a popular internet game called Extinctathon is played by the characters and works like a ‘Guess Who’ of dead critters, and of course finally humanity itself (almost) joins the list. It is a none-too-subtle reference to how fragile our world, and our place within it, is.
A second major theme is that of corruption, degradation, humanity’s race to the bottom. There is no discussion of government at all in this world, no regulations – everything has been devolved to the all powerful corporations, whose only interest is profit, and who have no interest in law or order that doesn’t that directly serve this interest. In Atwood’s dystopian future, mankind’s rapid advances in technology and biology are more than matched by a regression to brutality and indifference. Diseases and viruses are engineered and released, through terrorism, corporate sabotage or simple carelessness. Atwood drops references to things we consider horrible – gladiator arenas (the painballers), casually available child porn, cannibalism, and at the same time corporations routinely kill, abduct and ransom each other’s employees. This moral degradation is thrown into stark relief by the Gardeners, environmentalists, vegetarians, very moral characters… and of course the Gardeners are rejected by the rest of the world as crazies and fundamentalists.
Finally there is the theme of the new world order, particularly after the event. The environment is crazy – climate change is in full swing, making the weather tropical, with sudden violent storms. Genetically engineered animals roam free now, some simple and tame, others violent, dangerous even intelligent… the corporations were no more restrained in their creature creations than in the diseases they crafted. The inheritors of this new earth are the survivors; a mix of the good (the Gardeners, some counter culture scientists), the bad (aggressive painballer gangs), and the created (the simple tribal Crakers, with their deep green eyes and large blue penises).
I expect with this combination of themes many readers will accuse Margaret of technophobia, bio-fear-mongering, and being a climate-change-eco-warrior that proposes mankind should drop its technology in a hole and return to a simpler Amish way of life. Personally I don’t think this is her message at all. Like most fiction, the Maddaddam trilogy is a what-if tale; it explores the outer edges of what might be if we charge blindly into the future consuming without care, creating without restraint; the risks of rapid progression with our eyes closed. In Margaret’s story the future is not lost, humanity remains, and through judicious use of technology has a good chance to survive through the genetically engineered Crakers, who are fundamentally human but engineered to avoid humanities destructive passions, wants and needs, whilst being able to live in harmony with the rest of nature.
Anyway, thanks for sitting through my long, long review of the MaddAddam trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed all three books, and highly recommend them to everyone. Considering the nature of this BookRiot challenge, a book by someone who was over 65 when they wrote it, I did cast my mind to whether Margaret Atwood’s age influenced the story at all… And perhaps it did. Margaret was born in 1939. The pace of technological advancement has increased exponentially during this time. A multitude of creatures have gone extinct, and science has created new ones (the glow in the dark rabbits for one). She has seen the advent of the internet and its infiltration into every aspect of life. Climate change has gone from fringe theory to a globally accepted doomsday scenario, but with action stymied by those with vested interests (no doubt informing the real villains in this trilogy – the corporations). Atwood’s MaddAddam dystopia might very well be a product of her longer view on our history.
What I can say for sure is that at 65 Margaret Atwood is an experienced, confident writer. She knows how to build a story, and she knows how to get a reader involved in the characters. This was an immensely enjoyable read.