How do you feel about lab grown meat? Glowing, green bunnies? Is our future weird, repulsive, curious, frightening and delightful?
Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy — Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013) — captures it all. It takes the reader into an apocalyptic future of genetically-modified, transgenic everything to explore the social implications of modern bioscience and extrapolate the horrors of our current environmental trajectory. It’s intriguing speculative EcoLit.
“People need stories…because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.” — MaddAddam
Atwood’s trilogy offers useful insight. It provides excellent examples of the ability to: imagine consequences, envision the future, tell stories, and view issues from a variety of perspectives — all essential skills for environmental activists.
The trilogy stands out for its storytelling. Instead of following a linear path and rushing from point to point, these books spin stories. They weave timelines and perspectives and, together, complete an intricate web.
“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story, which is part of the story too.” — MaddAddam
The books could be read as standalones in any order. MaddAddam begins with a synopsis of the prior two books, which makes them sound daunting and absurd. It’s complicated. Better just to dive into the story and wordplay, you’re in good hands.
The trilogy takes place in the near future. Crake engineers the extinction of mankind before mankind can destroy the Earth. He replaces humanity with his own creations — the Crakers — innocent, new inheritors of the planet.
From the synopsis: “The Crakers are free from sexual jealousy, greed, clothing, and the needs for insect repellent and animal protein — all the factors Crake believed had caused not only the misery of the human race but also the degradation of the planet.”
“But within every dystopia there’s a little utopia,” as Atwood says. Here it’s the Crakers.
Oryx and Crake is a classic dystopia told from the viewpoint of a lone survivor in an empty and dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape. As Snowman tries to survive, he tells how the apocalypse happened. The future envisioned shows the world that results from income inequality, the rise of corporations, and environmental negligence. The poor live in pleebands, the rich work and live in corporate enclaves, and the environmental resistance is hunted by the CorpSeCorps. The book memorably introduces horrific Chickie Nobs, an envisioning of the lab grown meats which today are ready for taste-testing, and dangerous Pigoons, pigs designed with human kidneys and brain tissue ready for transplant. The story focuses on life in the elite Compounds of bioengineers intent on controlling nature and follows the male characters: Snowman and Crake.
Year of the Flood tells a parallel story to Oryx and Crake in the viewpoint of the female characters: Ren, Amanda, and Toby. It takes place largely in the toxic pleeblands and introduces the God’s Gardeners — a religious group that reveres nature and worships environmental saints including Jane Goodall. The Gardeners foresee the inevitable apocalypse and plan for survival. Everything left in the background in Oryx and Crake comes to the fore in The Year of the Flood and vice versa. It’s a fantastic lesson in storytelling: what to leave in and what to leave out. In a trick of well-woven plotting, the book sinks its hooks deeper into the reader at mid-point as the tapestry unfolds.
MaddAddam picks up where The Year of the Flood leaves off. Toby, a former member of the God’s Gardeners, tells her own story as well as a simplified and neutered version to the naive and inquisitive Crakers — hilarious! It’s outlandish, mythic and heroic adventure with dear and memorable characters (notably Zeb and the young Craker, Blackbeard).
The story has a tragic and realistic premise:
“The people in the chaos cannot learn. They cannot understand what they are doing to the sea and the sky and the plants and the animals. They cannot understand that they are killing them, and that they will end by killing themselves. And there are so many of them, and each one of them is doing a part of the killing, whether they know it or not. And when you tell them to stop, they don’t hear you.”
So, it’s delightful that MaddAddam offers so much wry humor and clever comedy. It is the funniest and most hopeful of the trilogy. Laughter, satire and fiction can be powerful and effective responses to dystopian threats. Gotta’ love those Pigoons.
What to read next?
Try The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (see the EcoLit review) for a nonfiction pairing, and a scientific look at how the world might recover if human beings became extinct.
Inspired by these novels?
Atwood’s website recommends BirdLife International, www.birdlife.org, and Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Sipping the Atwood Blend in support of Pelee could be appropriate if you’re taking coffee with your reading.
A reader, writer, and @Utopianista living by the Salish Sea, Shel served in the Peace Corps and earned her MFA in Creative Writing.