9 December, 2013Issue 23.5FictionLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

Post-Apocalyptic Worlds

Tanya Christiansen

MaddAddam Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013
416 pages
ISBN 978-1408819708

One of the great pleasures of many novels is their world-building dimension, the careful interweaving of detail that, layer by thin layer, creates an immersive fictional setting. This craft is particularly important in science fiction, fantasy, and their related subgenres (dystopia, post-apocalyptic, and so on) because the world is often the main, or at least the first, attraction for the reader. One of the principal charms of such stories is as a vehicle with which to explore the author’s invention of an entire place and time.

The first two books of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy are wonderfully inventive examples of world-building, mixing satire and speculation with creative vigour. In the first novel, Oryx and Crake (2003), Atwood depicts a world ruled by private corporations, whose genetically engineered creations include such oddities as Mo’hairs (sheep-like animals engineered to provide transplants of lush supermodel-esque hair), and giant pigs created to grow organs that begin to exhibit a human-like intelligence. The average denizen of the elite, gated compounds of these corporations is focused only on profit-generating research into further absurdities, and on hedonistic consumption. This latter indulgence is particularly emphasised through the online world, which Atwood archly portrays as full of sadistic reality sites where one can watch live executions and enjoy ridiculous and excessive varieties of pornography. This world is destroyed when, in a bid to avoid total ecological collapse, the mad genius Crake unleashes a plague that kills most of humanity in order to leave the world free for his “Crakers”, a new genetically engineered human species, designed by Crake to be without what he understands to be humanity’s essential flaws.

The second novel, The Year of the Flood (2009), portrays the same world and its apocalypse from the perspective of the lower-class residents of the “pleeblands”, the decaying, chaotic cities. A major part of this book focuses on the God’s Gardeners, an ecological religious sect who await the coming “waterless flood” in urban rooftop gardens. Though they, like everything else in the novels, are portrayed with some humour, their liturgy is worked out in loving detail, from their hymns to their feasts. Both of these novels are fascinating in their astonishing capacity for invention; the future that Atwood portrays is satirical enough to be amusing, particularly when helped along by her wit and wordplay, but crucially close enough to our own that the outlandish creations and disastrous changes to the earth that she depicts remain thought-provoking and oddly recognisable.

This preamble is a circuitous route to having to explain why MaddAddam, the final novel in the trilogy, is a disappointment. Picking up at the point where the stories of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood join together, it follows the rag-tag group of survivors in the post-apocalyptic future, intermixed with flashbacks to before the plague to tell the history of Zeb, a hacker turned eco-resistance fighter. The flashbacks add very little to the world-building of the first two novels. There are a few new satirical jabs, such as Bearlift, an organisation founded to assuage the ecological guilt of the rich, which airlifts huge heaps of food garbage to polar bears in the Arctic. For the most part, however, Zeb’s history retraces old ground. We already knew that the world before the plague was corrupt, wasteful, and full of ersatz pleasures and suspect lab-grown food—that was the picture painted so thoroughly by the last two books. Zeb’s story of fleeing his abusive religious father (a preacher of the church of PetroOleum) is in itself a decent adventure, but it adds little to what we already know of his character from The Year of the Flood, in which he was a secondary figure. His history fills in some of the unanswered questions from the previous two novels, mostly by forging additional connections between characters who we did not previously know had ties to one another, but the revelations do not significantly alter what the first two books had already established.

The story of the survivors of the flood, in the novel’s present, is similarly underwhelming; in particular, the development of the Crakers is a disappointment. They are an intriguing idea, created by Crake as more perfect humans, as creatures who will harm neither the natural world nor each other. To this end, for example, they are strict herbivores and naturally produce insect and predator repellent; they do not feel, or express, the aggression of regular human beings; and so on and so forth. They are an attempt to make morality a biological imperative rather than a conscious choice. In the earlier novels, the depiction of the Crakers straddles the profound and the humorous: they seemed to function both as an imaginative and genuine exploration of scientific possibility and as a satirical dig at a variety of world views (primarily evolutionary psychology that seeks to reduce all human ills to biological explanations). For instance, when a Craker woman goes into estrus and her behind turns blue as a signal of her sexual receptivity, the penises of the men in the group change the same colour in response. The men approach the woman and offer flowers, she accepts the offerings of four men, and all five have sex together. This part of their design is portrayed as a serious attempt to eliminate sexual violence and miscommunication, along with all the problems associated with paternity and sexual jealousy, whilst at the same time remaining wonderfully ridiculous. There are also hints that the Crakers have in fact developed features beyond those that their creator had initially intended: they engage in an eerie type of singing, display a curious hunger for knowledge, and by the end of the first book they have developed an ever-growing set of religious beliefs that are centred on Crake and his lover, Oryx.

MaddAddam, however, shies away from more fully exploring the possibilities of the Crakers. In the end, Atwood comes across as rather enamoured of Crake’s creation and ultimately ceases to investigate its potential flaws and contradictions. For example, near the end of The Year of the Flood we learn that one outcome of the sexual design of the Crakers is that they think normal human women are always in heat and sexually available, and therefore the very modification designed to prevent sexual violence has the potential to encourage it. This development seems to suggest that the group sex, giant blue penises, and simplified sexual relations of the Crakers may be evidence that Crake’s vision of a perfect human race comes as much from the decadent pornography and male privilege of his world as from objective scientific reasoning. At the beginning of MaddAddam this point is underlined when the Crakers come across a group of normal humans that includes two young women, one of whom, Amanda, has just been rescued from two “Painballers”, vicious criminals who have raped and brutalised her for days. Amanda screams when “four large, beautiful, flower-toting naked men close in on her” and then she disappears “in a flickering thicket of naked male limbs and backs.” At first this scene of gang rape appears to be a clear indication that the Crakers are far from the perfect beings that they were intended to be. However, the Crakers face no consequences for this action and are instead taken in and protected by the human survivors. Weeks later, when Toby, the main character in the survivor sections of the novel, is trying to determine the paternity of the child with which Amanda is now pregnant, she recalls that night “when they jumped on… where there was a cultural misunderstanding?”, downgrading and eliding the act with a euphemism. It is not until almost the end of the book that we learn that Toby has taught the Crakers that they must be respectful “and always ask first, to see if a women is really blue or is just smelling blue.” The rape is barely mentioned after it happens and its result—a hybrid human-Craker—is portrayed as a wholly positive outcome. And so the Crakers return to being complete natural innocents, deprived of any deeper complexity, and the satirical implications initiated in the previous novel are blunted.

Like the human survivors, Atwood seems strangely committed to protecting the Crakers. At the beginning of the novel they unknowingly release the Painballers from where they have been tied up by Toby, and the criminals run off to become the main antagonists for the rest of the novel, existing as an unseen threat in the woods. Afterwards, Toby observes that the Crakers, despite having no real experience of fear or understanding of violence, insist that she repeatedly re-tell the story of their mistake in releasing the Painballers, which seems to develop into a type of Pandora-style myth through their growing mythological status. This interest in the Crakers is, however, not really justified by the rest of the novel. They never face any consequences for their actions. Some of the humans and their intelligent “pig” allies are hurt or killed through the novel’s events, but the Crakers always remain unharmed observers, sheltered by the humans and merely curious about the goings-on. In order to maintain this image of them as innocent non-violents, Atwood ensures that they are never placed in a situation where this non-violence might be tested. It is easy to remain non-violent if there is a convenient other, in this case the humans, who will fight on your behalf.

There is one main development of the Crakers in MaddAddam, and this is that they are taught to write by Toby. One of them even eventually begins to tell parts of the story, assuming a narrative voice in the novel. Though these sections contain some interesting and amusing meditations on the meaning of the act of writing, this is not enough to elevate the novel to the level of its predecessors. The inventive capacity of the first two novels well rewards the reader; the third, unfortunately, does not.

Tanya Christiansen completed her MA in English Literature at the University of British Columbia.