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.

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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)