In April I had the pleasure of attending a reading and book signing by the legendary novelist and poet Margaret Atwood. Meeting an author whose books I’ve loved for years was a once in a lifetime opportunity. She was willing to sign any of her books after the reading, an array of choices that was rather dizzying, but I chose to purchase a copy of her new novel MaddAddam for the signing. This is the last in a trilogy of books beginning with Oryx and Crake, which I originally read when it was first published. Although it’s significantly different from most of her other work (with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale – all four books sometimes being dubbed science fiction, Ms. Atwood prefers to call them speculatory fiction), I fell in love with Oryx and Crake when I first read it. It’s one of the few books that I have reread – three times now.
It’s virtually impossible to describe the plot of the trilogy in any way without spoilers, so I’m not going to avoid them. If you want to go into these books blind, and I can understand why you would although I’d say they’re still excellent even if you know what’s going to happen, STOP READING NOW.
I MEAN IT.
* Oryx and Crake. The first in the series follows Jimmy, aka Snowman, who in the present day is living in a tree on the beach after most of the world’s human population has been decimated. I TOLD YOU THERE WERE SPOILERS. Jimmy is keeping watch over the Crakers, a small tribe of a new type of human bioengineered by Jimmy’s childhood friend Crake (nee Glenn). Much of the book consists of flashbacks to Jimmy’s early days, from his mother’s abandonment, through high school and college days while friends with Crake, and into adulthood. Jimmy is a class clown as a kid and later a womanizer, a deflector, a dissembler. (I would love to discuss his character with anyone else who’s read the trilogy because I am curious about how others see him. I felt that in this novel he seemed to a person who purposely plays dumb to dissociate himself both from trouble and from pain; but later books narrated by other characters portray him as truly clownish and clueless.)
The book portrays a future in which corporations rule the world and the natural world is utterly at the mercy of human ambition. It’s chilling to read about some things that have already come to pass (human-animal gene splicing) and those that are, terrifyingly, all too plausible (pharmaceutical companies that embed poisons and pathogens into vitamins to further their medication sales). Law and order, like everything else, have been privatized, and personal privacy has been mostly erased. Society is split into an elite class who work for and live in corporation-run compounds, and the poor and underprivileged who live in the chaotic “pleeblands.” The environment has been ravaged, with severe weather events and frequent animal extinctions become commonplace. This dystopia is horrifying precisely because it reads like a projection of what our society WILL become without major course corrections.
On my first reading I was left feeling somewhat mystified by the title of the novel, which is not, in a literal way, really about Oryx or Crake. The character of Oryx is also followed somewhat loosely from childhood to adulthood. Jimmy and Crake first encounter her “acting” in a child pornography video (a mainstream form of entertainment in this future world) and she becomes a symbol of something essential – purity perhaps, innocence, vulnerability, all of these being heavily ironic as Oryx herself professes to be none of the above – that Jimmy clings to as he floats aimlessly into adulthood. She turns up again as Crake’s love interest and his scientific colleague as well as Jimmy’s lover. When I first read the novel a decade ago I was disappointed that I never got to know Oryx or find out the truth of her life story – she is a slippery figure on many levels.
Having read the entire trilogy now I think that the novel is titled Oryx and Crake because it is a Genesis story and they become the primary deities in the new world that will unfold. Even as they stand at the center of this story they are elusive and shadowy. Exalted and idealized but also remote. Their truths are impossible to grasp. Jimmy bumbles along far below, messy, goofy, directionless, yearning for love and meaning but constantly distracted by selfishness and cowardice. Jimmy is us, the human race – and, as it turns out, the one little corner of it that Crake deems worth saving.
* The Year of the Flood. The middle novel in the series feels like a bit of a return to Atwood form with two female narrators alternating throughout the book. Toby is a middle aged woman who has survived the “Waterless Flood” (this book’s term for the pandemic that Crake has unleashed to destroy most of humanity) by barricading herself into the AnooYoo Spa where she used to work as manager. She is a former member of the God’s Gardeners, a spiritual group that revered nature and sequestered itself from modern society. Meanwhile, Ren is a young exotic dancer who survives the Waterless Flood because she was in a quarantine tank at the dance club after a client exposed her to disease. Ren is also, we find out, a former member of God’s Gardeners.
Chapters about the backstories of Toby and Ren are interspersed with present day scenes and punctuated with sermons and hymns from the God’s Gardeners holy days. The Gardeners particularly revere the small, ordinary things of the natural world that have been trampled by their technology-obsessed mainstream culture – the mushrooms, the nematodes, the bees. They are tending gardens and beehives and storing food and supplies for the Waterless Flood they are sure is coming soon. Their theology is a mix of old testament Christianity and what we would think of as lefty, anti-corporate environmentalism (other religions mentioned in the book sound like offshoots of Prosperity Gospel). Toby joins when she is rescued from an abusive relationship as an adult and always struggles somewhat with her faith, while Ren joins as a child and experiences the religion more as a foundation of her identity.
Toby’s and Ren’s stories converge in the present tense as they find each other and eventually wind up in a standoff between two criminals, themselves, and none other than Jimmy – with the Crakers headed their way.
While Oryx and Crake is a story that unfolds slowly, suffused with dread, like a bad dream turning into a horrible and inescapable nightmare, Year of the Flood is a story that unfolds slowly, lit by a spark of hope, like a green shoot pushing through a pile of rot. The Gardeners are conservationists, protecting not only the plant life and knowledge that humanity will need after the predicted apocalypse, but also the better aspects of human nature – kindness, love, faith, community. When the Flood sweeps through, the garden itself is lost, but hope stays alive in the persons of Toby and Ren. I think that in fact this could have been a sequel that ended the story – it felt complete with these two books, and I would have been content to imagine what happened next. Not that I was disappointed to have another installment….
* MaddAddam. From the beginning of the trilogy we have known that MaddAddam was a group of scientists working on rogue bioengineering projects and ultimately involved in Crake’s project to create a new human race. But who were they exactly? The final book answers that question in some biographical detail and continues the present day story where Flood left off.
MaddAddam, as it turns out, began as a splinter group that formed when Zeb split off from the Gardeners, led by Adam One. Zeb was unsatisfied with Adam’s pacifist stance and felt that more aggressive action was needed to shake up the trajectory that society was taking. He presided over the Maddaddam group as they unleashed a series of new bioforms that would disrupt society without harming people physically. Though we were at first led to believe (by Crake) that these scientists were later recruited to help Crake with his experiments, we now find out that Crake in fact captured and enslaved them under threat of death.
The key elements of this novel are of course the present day story, the backstory of the life of Zeb (and by extension his brother Adam), and the development of an ever more complex theology for the Crakers, the new human race created by Crake in captivity before being released by Jimmy after the Flood. In order to satisfy some basic questions and anxieties of the Crakers, Jimmy had invented a simple religion wherein Crake was creator of all people/Crakers and Oryx was creator and protector of animal life and nature. Jimmy was a prophet who could communicate directly with Crake, and Toby takes over the role while Jimmy lies in a coma for a portion of MaddAddam.
I have to admit that I was a little befuddled by a lot of the story of Zeb. In the larger view where Atwood is creating an entire new culture, I could see how he would be part of the new canon – the archetypical Hero figure. Obviously he figures into the main action as a key member of the MaddAddam group and as Adam One’s brother, and Toby’s love interest. Still I found his character and his irreverence jarring sometimes. I think I may just need to reread and soak it in, as I have learned from rereading the previous two books that there is a lot more here than I could really absorb with one read through.
The budding Craker religion was fascinating, especially given that we know Crake had deliberately attempted to breed religion (and singing) out of this new species, and failed. Atwood is clearly telling us that music and religion are part of who we are. I suspect that she is also telling us that in these two inevitable strands of our DNA are two more inevitable strands – the pitfalls of dogma and the corrupting influence of knowledge, as well as the beauty and redemption of art. The Crakers are also introduced to literacy as one of the children learns to read and write from Toby; the book concludes with the first written history of the new people – and so, we see, their culture has truly begun.
Thus the human race is given a chance to start over, with all of the ingredients of good and evil seeded into the garden. How will the world be remade by the Crakers and by their human-hybrid offspring? I was pleased that this was left open ended because it seemed the natural conclusion to say that we just don’t know.