Back to the (post-apocalyptic) Future 3: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam
Margaret Atwood sits comfortably on the literature shelf. Winner of the Booker Prize and numerous other awards particularly in her native Canada, Atwood has been challenging and amazing readers for years. And then something happened. In 1985 Atwood produced a science fiction novel called The Handmaid’s Tale – an allegory of controlled procreation and women’s rights. This novel won the Arthur C Clark award and was shortlisted for the Nebula Awards. But Atwood remained stubbornly on the literature shelf, her pedigree too refined to find her slumming with the sci-fi.
Eight years later, Atwood returned with something decidedly more science-fiction. Oryx and Crake was a post-apocalyptic tale of bioengineering, environmental catastrophe and bizarre redemption. The book ticked a lot of classic science-fiction sci-fi boxes but, being Atwood, was still not tagged as genre. Readers focused on the allegory and caustic satire, both very much to the fore, and the book was shortlisted for the Booker and the Orange prizes.
In Oryx and Crake, Jimmy the Snowman considers himself the last human on Earth, charged with looking after a new species of post-human (the Crakers) created by his bio-genius friend Crake. Oryx and Crake ended on a cliffhanger. Jimmy finds evidence of other humans and the novel ends with him going off to confront them. Atwood returned to the world of Oryx and Crake in the Year of the Flood, presenting a different point of view on the events of the previous novel. Year of the Flood, like its predecessor, was told mainly in flashback. It broadened Atwood’s world but was set over the same time period and brought its plot to the same point as the end of Oryx.
In the literary world, Atwood could probably have left it at that. But the sci-fi world demands sequels. And with two sets of characters about to meet and a world to explore, another instalment was probably inevitable. MaddAddam, the final book in the sequence, fills this role. It brings all of the characters together, resolves the cliffhanger and… well, unfortunately that’s it.
Half of MaddAddam’s length is taken up with yet another backstory that traverses the same ground as the previous two novels but from a new point of view. It tells the story of Zeb, son of a preacher in the Church of PetrOleum, and brother of Adam One, leader of God’s Gardeners. Zeb’s journey once again allows Atwood’s environmental angst and satirical bent to shine. At one point, for example, Zeb works for an environmental group called bearlift that delivers human garbage to the cross-bred grizzly/polar bears in Canada’s far north to save them the trouble of raiding human garbage dumps.
The other half of MaddAddam is narrated by Toby, one of the recurring characters from the past two novels. This is supposed to be the plot driver of the novel – the resolution of the threat of the evil painballers that emerged book two. This threat from the previous book hangs over the novel for most of its length, without really creating the tension that Atwood intends. Besides this slow build up, the rest of the narrative is part post-apocalyptic soap opera and part survival manual. The counterpoint to this is Toby’s recount of events to the Crakers in the quasi-religious mode after she takes over Jimmy’s role as preacher in their strange new religion. There are elements to like in these parts of the novel, but the narrative feels stretched thinly over its length.
In Oryx and Crake, Atwood engaged in a fascinating piece of world building. But the satirical elements – such as the Church of PetrOleum, a religion bankrolled by big oil, and the Anooyoo plastic surgery clinic – made that world a little false and one dimensional. Returning to this world would have been worthwhile if it would give this one dimensional world some more depth and there was a strong narrative to carry it. But in Year of the Flood, Atwood started to cannibalise her previous story. Only the introduction of new characters and points of view gave it a freshness that overcame its deficiencies. MaddAddam stretches the friendship too far. We learn very little new about the characters we know and the minor characters feel caricatured and interchangeable, the satire has worn thin, the flashbacks retell a story we have now heard twice before, the rest of the plot is practically non-existent and its resolution is glacially slow and anticlimactic.
Something we’ve learnt from the cancellation of non-performing TV series is that sometimes it’s best to go out on a cliffhanger. Sometimes it’s better to leave people wondering about a mystery than give them prosaic answers. Maybe her fans will forgive her, or maybe they just use her to get their guilty science-fiction fix. But in this case, Margaret Atwood, possibly considered too big to fail, should have taken note.