MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood – review

With its Pigoons and ChickieNobs, does the conclusion of Margaret Atwood's SF trilogy show her at her best?

The late Iain Banks complained a few years back about "literary" authors doing what their science fiction counterparts call "slipstreaming" – trespassing on their turf. In principle, Banks was all in favour of writers crossing genre boundaries, but he objected when the marauders didn't bother to work out what had "Been Done", and indeed what had "Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke". Imagine, he said, a literary novelist excitedly telling his editor about his brilliant new idea for a book, which is set in an English country house:

"And there's a sort of houseparty going on, you see? And there are all sorts of people there, like a retired colonel and a famous lady clairvoyant, an angry young man and a flighty young thing – isn't this just a fascinating cast of characters? – but then there's an unexpected snowstorm and they're completely cut off, and then … there's a murder! Yes; a murder. But it turns out one of the guests is a famous amateur detective, and …"

Banks's thoughts came back to me while I was reading Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, which concludes with this novel. It is a peculiarity – a series of books written by a wonderful and justly venerated novelist, with a generic SF plot that closely recalls, say, the unloved recent BBC1 series Survivors. A mad scientist working for an evil corporation releases a virus that wipes out most of humanity; the survivors must scrape a living from the ruins of industrial civilisation, fighting against feral gangs and sometimes each other. I use Survivors – itself a remake of a 1970s series – as an example, but the post-apocalyptic sections of Atwood's books have many precursors, from Mad Max to The Omega Man and 28 Days Later.

The dystopian world that existed before the pandemic is seen in flashback: a nightmare of all-controlling corporations, out-of-control scientific innovations, ecological catastrophe and social breakdown which is equally familiar, from the likes of Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Hunger Games and countless others. All this will seem troublingly unoriginal not just to hardened SF fans, but to anyone with an average movie-going habit. It is not simply a question of the broad outlines being well-worn, but of the numerous tropes deployed: the mad scientist releasing the virus; the millenarian cults and cannibal gangs; the survivors subsisting, ironically, on throwaway consumer items; the tech-noir and cyber-punk stylings; flooded cities; the vine-wrapped skyscrapers.

I should say at this point that I thoroughly enjoyed MaddAddam and the other two books (I also enjoyed Survivors). But they do present an eccentric spectacle – of a fierce, learned intelligence, throwing out references to Robinson Crusoe, Blake and especially Milton, while writing what is essentially an epic B-movie.

It is regarded as a form of bigotry nowadays to disparage SF, but there are clear reasons why many people don't get on with it. There is its tendency towards stock characters; the difficulty of creating a satisfying fictional texture in an entirely made-up world; the need to incorporate vast amounts of "tell me, professor"-type exposition; the proliferation of geeky names and terminology ("'thopter", "cell-pack ammunition", "Swift Fox", "Ivory Bill" etc; Atwood's attempts to write in youthful and hardboiled registers are not always successful).

The best literary SF, such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or Atwood's own patriarchal dystopia The Handmaid's Tale, manages to solve these problems. But this time round, I fear, Atwood has preserved the disadvantages, while failing to capitalise on some of the genre's advantages: namely, its ingenuity, and its fast-moving plots. What saves the trilogy is its complexity, its tough-minded satire, and its strangeness. MaddAddam is a wild ride.

To recap, as briefly as possible: the first book starts with Jimmy, aka the Snowman, living in a tree by the seashore, soon after the end of the world as we know it. This has been precipitated by a pill called BlyssPlus, which gave its users prolonged youth and unlimited libido, but also spread a virus, known as the "Waterless Flood", that wiped out humanity. Jimmy seems initially to be the Last Man: he spends his time salvaging tins of food, and dodging monstrous transgenic animals, such as "Pigoons", crafty pigs with partly-human brains and a taste for flesh, as well as "wolvogs", "liobams" and so on.

Nearby, though, live the Children of Crake, "a gentle humanoid species" bioengineered in a laboratory. Both BlyssPlus and the Crakers, as they are known, are the creations of Crake, or Glenn, Jimmy's erstwhile best friend and rival in love for "the beautiful and enigmatic Oryx", a wise former child prostitute. Crake, a sort of cross between Dr Moreau and Steve Jobs, destroyed the world because it disappointed him. And, to be fair, the pre-flood civilisation was fairly horrible, with its "compounds", where corporations housed the technocratic elite, and the "pleeblands", where the unfortunate pleebs lived, beset by crime and fed on corporation "labmeat".

The second book, The Year of the Flood, tells the story of women in the pleeblands, particularly Toby, who works for the SecretBurgers chain (the secret being that no one knows what kind of protein goes into them). She is repeatedly raped by her boss, and is rescued by the God's Gardeners, an eco cult founded by the mysterious Adam One. The Gardeners are linked to a collective named MaddAddam, which has its virtual base in an online game called Extinctathon. ("Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play?") She survives the pandemic by holing up in a spa, and hooks up afterwards with a handful of surviving Gardeners and MaddAddamites.

The third book, like the others, inches forward slowly in the post-apocalyptic present, while providing extensive flashbacks. It fills in the backstory of Adam One and his brother Zeb, and then resolves the survivors' clash with a brutal gang of "Painballers", who have also survived. (Painball is a to-the-death form of paintball).

The aim of much SF, as Ursula Le Guin put it in her review of The Year of the Flood, "is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half-prediction, half satire". Atwood summons up a nightmarish world in which people customise their children, "ordering up DNA like pizza toppings", in which the genome is captured by commerce and lives are dominated by porn and other forms of virtual cruelty. Essentially, her dystopia is a very exaggerated version of right-wing America, the nightmarish barbarian at the gates in much of her fiction. (There is a Church of PetrOleum, in league with the OilCorps; "Tex-Mex" illegals are maltreated.)

None of this is new, or subtle, but it's effective. The corporations have horrific, gaudy names that often helpfully telegraph their evil intentions: CorpSeCorps, HelthWyser, ChickieNobs, SecretBurgers. Sheep are genetically spliced with humans, to provide hair extensions, and known as Mo'hairs: "Hair today, Mo'hair tomorrow." Atwood's aim seems to be to fill the reader with disgust for our banal, voracious species, and particularly for the male half. In this she is often successful.

Tonally, though, MaddAddam is wildly varied, and there's a lot of strange comedy too. The Crakers, bred by their creator to eliminate human vice and malice, are a Swiftian joke about human perfectibility. They breed only in season, turning blue at the crucial moments, and engaging in joyful group sex. They abhor cruelty to animals, and eat only vegetable matter, including their own caecotrophs (semi-digested pellets). And they stand around bothering the real humans, singing their awful songs, childishly demanding stories, with their huge blue penises hopefully "waving back and forth". As for the pigoons, they turn out to have their own complex society …

MaddAddam is slightly crazed, usually intriguing and often great fun. I would have enjoyed it even more, however, were it not for the nagging voice that said: instead of this, we might have had another Alias Grace, or another The Blind Assassin.


Theo Tait

The GuardianTramp

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