Bloomsbury, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: MaddAddam, By Margaret Atwood

This epic dystopian journey through a wasteland of high science and low deeds ends in hope

MaddAddam forms a satisfying conclusion to Margaret Atwood's trilogy of dystopic novels, not least because it subverts the soullessness that sometimes characterises this mode. This final volume deploys its author's trademark cool, omniscient satire, but adds to that a real sense of engagement with a fallen world. Atwood has created something reminiscent of Shakespeare's late comedies; her wit and dark humour combine with a compassionate tenderness towards struggling human beings.

Get money off this title at the Independent book store

MaddAddam stands alone, and can enjoyably be read in that way, since en route to its cautiously optimistic conclusion it darts back and forth over the terrain of Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of The Flood (2009), filling in gaps, adding details, revealing unsuspected links between characters. This new saga tracks the progress of a band of survivors in an unnamed northern continent, after a global pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, markets, and state and big-business systems of surveillance and control.

People formerly suspicious of one another have had to join together. The gentle hippies of the defunct God's Gardeners movement, represented by the female healer and bee-keeper Toby, have pooled resources with the former techno-wizards and bioterrorists known as the MaddAddamites, symbolised by the charismatic, reformed-badass Zeb. Holed up in the stockade with them are Snowman, hero of Oryx and Crake, and also the sweet, green-eyed Children of Crake, or Crakers, originally bio-engineered to replace imperfect human beings. These charming creatures wear no clothes, sing eerily, and turn blue when ready to mate. Outside prowl the terrifying Pigoons, genetically engineered animals with human brain tissue, and the super-sadistic, rapist Painballers, ex-convict combatants who like to feast on their victims' innards.

My synopsis is necessarily banal, since fiction's meaning resides in the fullness of the text, re-made by the shared activity of writer and reader. Atwood demonstrates this by foregrounding questions of storytelling, writing and creativity. Prominently displaying the way she has constructed her novel, she forces the reader to understand that this is part of its subject. We are not allowed to be passive consumers of her tale but have to pay attention to how stories arrive, change and last. The opening invokes religious and scientific discourses: "In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can't go on with the story."

We discover that Toby, requisitioned by the Crakers to keep alive their myth of origin, regularly dons a prophet's outfit (Snowman's red baseball cap) and translates events into their kind of language: childlike, naïve, and often very funny to us, eavesdropping. She starts to teach Blackbeard, one of the Craker children, to read, after he watches her writing her diary and becomes curious about this scratching of marks on paper.

In love with Zeb, Toby listens to his Boys' Own-ish tales of hacking heroics and derring-do, banters sassily with him. Zeb's accounts of the past, both mocking and reifying the status quo, ventriloquise Atwood's mordant satire, which sometimes morphs into near-contempt: "There was a moppet shop, with a mix of real girls and prostibots, depending on how much pre-programmed interaction you wanted, not that you could always tell the difference." Zeb's cool, ironic, show-off monologues, necessary to tell us the back-story, are balanced by the tone of Toby's introspection: warmer, more sensual, less relentlessly knowing.

Since almost everything in the world has been broken or has broken down, the novel's form, whirling as brilliantly as the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, or the pixels in a complex computer game, seems simply to replicate that chaos. However, behind the apparent disorder Atwood the conjuror remains in firm control, juggling her narrative techniques with postmodern glee. Since she is describing an exploding universe of mutants, gene-splicing and scientific experiments gone haywire, her narrative is similarly fractured, split, its modes eclectic. It zigzags between first-person reminiscence, old-fashioned rom-com, Craker-talk, IT-speak, the euphemistic drivel of religious hypocrites, the staccato, lying utterances of adpersons. At some times we seem to be witnessing a mythical quest, at others a buddy movie.

Certain contemporary novelists enjoy mapping the writing of fiction onto that of game theory, and Atwood nods towards these. Crouching over her entire story like a gorgeously bejewelled toad is the MaddAddam chatroom, formerly used by Zeb to contact his beloved, lost friend Adam, a computer genius and founder member of God's Gardeners. The novel's climax nicely twists together elements of farce and tragedy. Zeb, Toby and Snowman, accompanied by the Craker child Blackbeard, and protected by the herd of tamed Pigoons, set out into the wilderness to find and punish the last two Painballers. In doing so, they stumble across the seriously wounded Adam.

Atwood has disclaimed any attempt to write science fiction, asserting that her novel only treats of what our current world makes possible. That's perhaps a limiting definition of the genre. In her groundbreaking work on female SF, In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah LeFanu argues powerfully that the form, potentially radical and feminist, encourages subversive imaginations to weave dialectically between modernity and futuristic speculation. She holds up Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) and Suzy McKee Charnas as dazzling examples.

Certainly, in one respect Atwood's novel breaks from the innovations of her great forebears: the gender politics of MaddAddam remain fairly conventional. In this fallen world of hierarchical difference, men and women stand for separate values even as they are equal in corruption. If politics has dissolved as a source of hope, art remains. The ardent Blackbeard has learned to write: "And Toby showed me how to make the black marks with ink that is made of walnut shells, mixed with vinegar and salt." The tribe's new chronicler, he forges a quaint, poetic narrative: "Now I have added to the Words, and have set down those things that happened after Toby stopped making any of the Writing and putting it into the Book. And I have done this so we will all know of her, and how we came to be."

This neo-Biblical language underlines how the Fall charted by the trilogy, caused by the would-be godly arrogance and greed characterising late capitalism, became necessary. Paradise Regained embodies the acknowledgment of failure, of death, which permits re-growth. Babies will be born, both Craker and human. Atwood's story ends intensely movingly, with the damaged world potentially renewed through storytelling, through writing.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel is 'Ignorance' (Bloomsbury)

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?