MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
It’s pretty clear that Margaret Atwood didn’t intend for Oryx & Crake to be the first in a trilogy, but I’m sure glad that she changed her mind. Unlike Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood more clearly set up for a concluding story, and thankfully MaddAddam mostly delivers. Whilst not being quite as accomplished as the first two, it is nonetheless a truly excellent read, and a further solidification of Margaret Atwood as one of this generations greatest writers of science fiction (although I’m not sure she’d be too thrilled to be thought of as such).
MaddAddam picks up right where The Year of the Flood and Oryx & Crake left off, with Jimmy the Snowman wandering into the aftermath of Toby and Ren’s rescue of Amanda from the hands of the rapist Painballer thugs. Their respite is brief, as a cultural misunderstanding leads the adorably naïve Crakers untying the Painballers, and they flee into the night. Ren, Amanda, Toby, the Crakers and an unconscious Jimmy, near death following the infection in his foot he gained during Oryx & Crake, make their way back to the Maddaddamite base. Under constant threat of Painballer assault, pigoon attack and internal tensions, Toby hears from her lover Zeb the story of himself and his brother, Adam One, and the formation of MaddAddam and the God’s Gardeners.
In Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood created one of the scariest apocalypses that I’ve ever seen in fiction, terrifying in its plausibility and unique in its shunning of genre clichés. It’s interesting that writers who aren’t normally associated with science fiction, such as Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), have created some of the best dystopian science fiction in recent times. Perhaps it takes someone not too closely tied into the sci-fi scene to really avoid the clichés of the genre. The expansion of the world of the Waterless Flood in MaddAddam doesn’t hold quite the same impact as Oryx & Crake did, and doesn’t show such a massive contrast as Year of the Flood did in its portrayal of the Pleebands. The flashbacks in Oryx & Crake and Year of the Flood were about world building, about showing us what existed before this catastrophe, but MaddAddam exists comfortably in an already built world, and allows the focus to shift to the characters. That said, there are surprises, and a few of our pre-existing preconceptions about this world are torn down, in ways you really couldn’t see coming.
For the final in a trilogy, MaddAddam actually has a more relaxed tone that its predecessors, with the internal sexual politics of the MaddAddamites as focused upon as the core threat of the Painballers. Things ramp up quickly in the central narrative towards the end though, leading to a satisfying and gripping conclusion, which I had doubted was coming considering the laconic first two thirds. The flashback story is interesting and entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily feel vital, with much of what we’re told already implied in the previous books. This isn’t so much a necessary part of the puzzle, as a final slotting of those pieces together, which leads to an oddly relaxed but extremely satisfying book.
Margaret Atwood is a really, really good writer. I can try to think of a cleverer way of expressing it but there isn’t one, she’s just really, really good. She is excellent at crafting a sense of place, has a wonderful knack for dialogue, manages to allow poetic beauty in her prose without it turning purple and can write incredibly movingly. The surprise highlight of MaddAddam for me though was it’s often warm and funny tone, particularly in regards to the Crakers, whose adorable naivety never fails to amuse and charm. Atwood has clearly become very affectionate to her most ridiculous creations, and they’re drawn absolutely brilliantly, becoming more than their simplistic role in Oryx & Crake might have suggested.
Toby is the clear central protagonist of The Year of the Flood, with Ren and Jimmy stepping back into the role of supporting characters. Toby is probably the most likeable and sympathetic protagonist of the bunch, so letting her be the core of the book was a good call. The oft mocked, slightly bitter Toby, filled with insecurities and fear yet projecting a tough exterior, is hard not to feel for. Zeb, the protagonist of the flashbacks, becomes a better fleshed out character too, and by the end MaddAddam becomes a book about the people, where arguable Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood were books about the world.
MaddAddam doesn’t quite soar as high as Oryx & Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, but a book that I’d feared as pointless and tacked on is anything but, offering a surprisingly reflective, melancholy, warm and funny vision of a horrific future. Atwood’s future is a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare I’m going to miss.