MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

23rd Sep 2013

We don't want it to end! But here's our thoughts on the final book in Atwood's dystopian trilogy.

In the third and final instalment of the dystopian trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake in 2003, Margaret Atwood ponders what will remain of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world.

Set in the wake of environmental catastrophe and pharmaceutically-induced plague, MaddAddam opens with Toby and her small band of remaining humans encountering the lab-created Crakers at the seashore.

The eerily naïve Crakers are physically perfect but spiritually simplistic: puzzled by metaphor, they still demand ritualized stories about their origins. Toby, a veteran of the God’s Gardeners nature religion, takes on the role of myth-maker for this peculiar humanoid tribe.

In Atwood’s particular form of dystopia, which she calls ‘speculative fiction’, every incident is believable – if not prophetic.When MaddAddamite bioterrorist Zeb rejoins the group, he and Toby begin a gentle middle-aged romance and he recounts his life story. He was raised as half-brother to Adam One, leader of God’s Gardeners. After betraying their corrupt father, they adopted a string of false identities, working at HelthWyzer pharmaceuticals and AnooYoo spa, familiar venues from the previous novels.

Advanced technology was once a given, with genetic engineering, hacking and cryogenic freezing commonplace. Throughout MaddAddam, technology gone mad is in sharp contrast with the austerity of Toby’s remnant: they live simple, almost monastic lives, foraging for kudzu and fungi, concocting herbal remedies and keeping bees.

There is a certain relief in returning to nature, but this is not paradise; humanity resumes a primitive patriarchy where women are constantly pregnant with Craker-hybrid babies while men go adventuring.

In Atwood’s particular form of dystopia, which she calls ‘speculative fiction’, every incident is believable – if not prophetic. For instance, lab-grown meat, a distant prospect when Atwood created ‘ChickieNobs’ in 2003, is now a reality.

What makes MaddAddam distinct from other dystopias is its meditation on storytelling. Through Toby’s interaction with the Crakers we see history becoming myth, both oral and recorded, as the creatures develop written language.

Like the innocents of Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden or the empathy-impaired androids of Philip K. Dick, the Crakers are simultaneously subhuman and superhuman. The need to know where they came from fuels the development of a religion; indeed, Toby’s tales have the resonant delivery of scripture, and Atwood consciously echoes biblical narratives of creation and exodus.

MaddAddam itself is largely composed of stories from the past, it contains minimal current plot. In a sense, this and The Year of the Flood are less sequels than companion volumes, filling in backstory and giving different angles on events but not adding much new information.

Readers unfamiliar with the previous books may find the jumble of character and organisation names confusing, and the fact that this book opens with a four-page recap suggests that it cannot entirely function as a stand-alone volume.

What human qualities would Atwood wish to save, with the bloodline sullied and the planet crippled? “What to eat, where to shit, how to take shelter, who and what to kill, are these the basics?” Toby asks.

Rather, Atwood reveals, what lasts is the art of storytelling: “There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told.”

Ultimately, MaddAddam is something of a hotchpotch. It might have been preferable if Atwood had stopped at Oryx and Crake and instead spent the past decade on fresh work (alas, the dystopian trilogy’s lure is, it seems, inescapable).

The vibrancy of her feminist work through the 1980s has faded – she clearly sees environmental disaster as a more imminent threat than misogyny – but her skill as a storyteller, shifting between past and present tense and creating seamless, slang-filled dialogue and enduring characters, is still peerless.