This review was written for The Moose magazine, of which I am the Science Section Editor.
The great strength of good science fiction is the ability to take contemporary events and technologies and extrapolate them in ways that predict the future whilst simultaneously telling us something about —and satirizing— the present. Much-celebrated writer Margaret Atwood crafts stories and worlds that do exactly this, although, rather controversially, she prefers to not to call her books science fiction, as, according to her rather restrictive definition, the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ is ‘things which are not possible today’ and her books are very much based the technology and social mores of the present.
Over the course of the three tightly-woven books that make up the MaddAddam Trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and, the recently released MaddAddam, Atwood transports us to a twisted but all-to-real dystopian future, where a carefully engineered plague has wiped out most of humanity, leaving behind a rag-tag bunch of survivors fighting wild and dangerous genetically modified animals and each other for survival, whilst living uneasily alongside and a new species of lab-engineered quasi-humans, table rasa and sporting glowing blue genatalia.
Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake centres on Snowman, who, suspecting he is the last man alive, is slowly going insane whilst he scavenges for scraps and lives in trees to avoid being scavenged himself. The story is told over two timelines: In Snowman’s present (around 100 years into the future) we learn of the Crakers, the perfect bioengineered quasi-humans created by the titular Crake, Snowman’s one-time best, and only, friend. Having no sense of the world around them, the Crakers rely on Snowman to make sense of the world for them, something which he is struggling to do for himself as comes to term with the devastation around him.
Told in parallel, through Snowman’s fevered and bitter recollections, we are also taken back to his pre-apocalyptic incarnation as Jimmy, who was lucky enough to be born into the privilege of sanitary Compound life, home of moneyed execs and scientists, separated from the urban jungle of the Pleeblands, where the proles dwell. Snowman’s story is of the outcome of Crake’s attempt to reboot the human race; Jimmy’s is of the why and how it happened. Jimmy’s love-hate friendship with Crake, and love of the ethereal Oryx, play out in a terrifyingly well-realised world of technocratic apartheid that’s driven by increasingly sophisticated bioengineering and rampant free-market consumerism and with a terrifying backdrop of violence, paedophilia and hyper-intelligent pigs.
The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood, is a pseudo-sequel, with much of the novel’s timeline overlapping with Oryx and Crake. The perspective switches primarily to sturdy and pragmatic Toby, who inadvertently finds herself seeking refuge with a pseudo-Christian religious cult, the God’s Gardeners, who live a life of ascetism in preparation for the ‘waterless flood’. It was refreshing to have a female protagonist, still an all-too-rare a thing in post-Ripley-from-Aliens science fiction, and Toby is certainly easier to warm to than Jimmy and his needy weakness.
The weaving of this story with that recounted by Snowman/Jimmy is executed really cleverly and in a way that never feels clunky or contrived, something that can’t be said for many other expansive books (and TV shows) that have tried the same.
The Year of the Flood still retains the grim streak ofOryx and Crake , but this is undercut by the gentle satire and absurdity of the God’s Gardeners and their Nature Religion. In Oryx and Crake, the tightly controlled bubbled-off world was the really interesting character, not the people in it. The introduction of a wider set of protagonists and relationships, the anarchic setting of the Pleeblands, and perhaps the religious element too, gives Year of the Flood a more human and humane feel.
MaddAddam has the same pseudo-sequel feel as The Year of the Flood ; gaps are filled and the foundations of the story extended and the narrative is woven into a knot that is a joy to unpick. Through more flashbacks, we delve deeper into the inception of the God’s Gardner’s and Crake’s rise to infamy, whilst in the present, the remaining survivors band together and attempt to rebuild their lives and establish some semblance of normality and routine.
This book is perhaps the funniest of the three, off-setting what feels like unrelenting bleakness with some delightful off-beat humour, largely as a result of the Crakers playing a more central role in the story. Never again will you exclaim ‘oh fuck’ without raising a wry smile. It also has the most to say about being human, about the humanity left in the society that remains, and the indelible humanity left in the creatures that Crake deliberately designed to be less human.
The brilliance of the story is taking some of humanity’s excesses, demands and needs –plundering the earth for resources; killing animals and each other; constantly striving to modify and ‘improve’ nature and ourselves for vanity and sustenance; economic apartheid; religion– and taking them to their not-quite-as-absurd-as-they-first-appear extreme. Prepare to be enlightened, confused, and occasionally grossed as you inhabit the warped but disconcertingly familiar reality that Atwood as created.
Dystopias are the natural future homes for pessimists. As a natural optimist, I have strong hopes for humanity and what we can do with the science and technology available to us. The MaddAddam trilogy is razor sharp satire and a dizzying parable for where we are now and what may lie further ahead on the slippery helter-skelter that we find ourselves hurtling down.