MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddamTitle: MaddAddam
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #3
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 03 September 2013
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic literary
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 8/10

Like Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam has two timelines. The present timeline picks up after Toby and Ren rescued Jimmy and Amanda from the Painballers. They return to the Maddaddamite camp, with all the curious Crakers in tow. The groups of humans and posthumans live together peacefully, since the Crakers are designed sleep outside and eat leaves, and therefore do not require any of the humans’ resources. With Jimmy unconscious as he burns with fever from an infection, Toby takes up his task of telling the Crakers stories. Zeb takes some of the other men out on periodic scavenging trips, and hopes to find Adam One as well.

It’s a peaceful existence compared to the horrors of the previous two books, but Toby can’t forgive herself for “set[ting] human malice loose in the world again”. Thanks to her God’s Gardener teaching she could not bring herself to kill the Painballers, and even shared food with them. When the confused Crakers pitched up, they untied the Painballers who immediately escaped into the forest. They now present a renewed threat to the humans, the Crakers and the extremely intelligent pigoons, who react with grief and anger when one of their own kind is killed.

The second timeline tells Zeb’s story, which he tells to Toby, and which Toby simplifies into a kind of children’s story for the Crakers. Zeb, as it turns out, is Adam One’s brother and they grew up with a fanatical and abusive Petrobaptist priest – the very wealthy leader of a powerful but absurdly stupid religious sect that believes “God’s Holy Oil” and spouts slogans like “Solar Panels Are Satan’s Work” and “Serial Killers Believe in Global Warming”. The ecological version of the Phelps Family.

Adam was the golden boy, but Zeb was beaten and locked in the punishment closet, an experience that led him to develop the skills of a sneak thief. Despite the differences in the way they were treated, Adam and Zeb were close, united in hatred of their father. With Zeb’s hacking skills and Adam’s planning, they stole their father’s money and escaped, following the myriad paths that eventually led to the God’s Gardeners, and often brought them into contact with Crake.

Zeb and Adam’s story reminds me of Jimmy and Crake’s, with their dysfunctional parents and enduring bond. Adam is a lot like Crake. He has a brilliant mind; not as brilliant as Crake’s perhaps, but similarly amazing and frightening. He’s also inscrutable. He struggles a bit with human interaction, but otherwise displays a cold, calm intelligence, in sharp contrast to Zeb’s exuberance.

Like Jimmy, Zeb had many lovers and no loves, but possesses a much more practical skill set and a stronger survival instinct than Jimmy. His story takes him all over the place, reinforcing the worldbuilding. He works as pilot doing food drops for endangered bears, in the Compounds as both a janitor and a computer programmer, in Scales and Tails as a bouncer. He meets Crake as a child, and we learn a bit more about Crake’s influences. At this stage of Zeb’s life, it’s too risky for him to spend much time with Adam, so we don’t see much of him and only get the bare bones of his plans for starting the God’s Gardeners.

These stories are too complex for the Crakers, but Toby quickly develops an understanding of how their minds work and simplifies the stories as necessary. There’s a lot of humour in the Crakers’ storytelling time, as she repeatedly asks them to stop singing and keeps having to come up with simple or silly answers to their many questions.

These stories are not just a form of entertainment. They clearly have a kind of religious importance, despite Crake’s attempt to design the Crakers without any proclivity for religious belief. Ironically, Oryx and Crake have become like gods to them, and the stories are like myths. Toby has to think on her feet and adjusts or makes things up as she goes along, but you still have a sense of how important her words will be to the Crakers. In addition, Jimmy inadvertently set up a storytelling ritual that the Crakers expect Toby to follow – she must wear Jimmy’s red baseball cap, talk into his gold watch (Jimmy said it was for speaking to Crake), and eat a fish that the Crakers catch for her (Jimmy’s way of getting an easy meal). None of this is necessary, but the Crakers’ insist on it, and you can easily imagine all this becoming part of a future religion: Oryx and Crake as gods, Zeb, Toby and Jimmy as prophets, priests wearing red caps and eating a fish before the sermon. And when Toby starts teaching a sweet young Craker boy to write….

The Crakers also prove to have some mystical qualities to them. They have the ability to ‘see’ when people are dreaming, when their minds are wandering. While Jimmy is unconscious with fever, they describe him as taking a long walk away from them. When someone dies, they can describe the consciousness journeying further and eventually leaving. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, and I rolled my eyes a bit when Toby was in a quandary and decided to meditate at Pilar’s grave (a friend from the previous book who reappears in Zeb’s story) to ask the dead woman’s spirit for advice. The novel however, doesn’t scoff at these more mystical occurrences. I guess it suits the changes in society – the world has been destroyed and renewed. Hard science has been its downfall. The survivors must look to older methods of coping, and the Crakers can tap into other aspects of existence.

The Crakers can also speak to the pigoons, which adds an interesting new dimension to the story. In the previous books pigoons were ethical conundrums and dangerous predators. Now they’re more complex. They’re basically people, and the humans need to treat them as such if they have any hope for a future.

And the human race could persist, even if it’s in a posthuman form. After the first two books, it seemed that humanity was doomed, assuming the whole world had been as badly affected as North America. The handful of survivors would hang on for a bit, then die out. However, Atwood offers up the possibility of a more functional future with a society composed of humans, Crakers and even pigoons. The humans in the story are all God’s Gardeners or MaddAddamites, so they at least have the skills and experience to survive in this postapocalyptic world. The Crakers are turning out to be more than just the “creepo naked people Crake made” or “walking vegetables”, as the MaddAddamite scientists refer to them. The pigoons, with their human brain tissue, prove to be even smarter than anyone assumed. They have language, emotion, ideas, suggesting the possibility of a better relationship between animals and humans. On the other hand, though, they also make me think of the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm, with the possibility that pigoons will simply be considered superior to other animals.

There are little worrying details like this, in the midst of the largely positive outlook. How will people like the Painballers affect the future? If a human society thrives, will it be regressive or progressive? Already we see traditional roles being set up, with the men going out with guns, while the women start thinking about childbirth. Is it a good or bad that the Crakers are developing religion, especially considering the fact that Crake tried to eradicate religion as one of the causes of misery and cruelty?

Overall, I found MaddAddam to be a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. It ends on a slightly more conclusive note that book one or two, even though it leaves us with plenty of questions to consider. Personally though, I think it’s my least favourite of the trilogy. It doesn’t have the massive impact of Oryx and Crake or the fantastic character stories of The Year of the Flood. Adam is a brilliant, enigmatic figure reminiscent of Crake, but while Crake was intriguing, Adam is too far removed from the plot. He’s a fascinating character, but unsatisfying to read about because we learn so little of him. Toby is a strong protagonist, and she finally acts on her feelings for Zeb, but then proceeds to get a bit too jealous and whiny about other women he’s slept with. One thing I admired about The Year of the Flood was that the many characters felt distinct, even though some of them had small roles. This time, the main characters stand out but most of the others just blend into the background.

However, MaddAddam is still a more elegantly written sci fi novel than most. The great thing about this series is that it takes a more literary, character-based approach to the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genres. I wouldn’t call it “thrilling” as the marketing-speak does, because that’s not the point. There’s violence, action and suspense, but for the most part this is an intimately human story. Don’t miss it if you’ve been following this series.

Review of Seed by Rob Ziegler

Title: Seed
Rob Ziegler
Published: 15 November 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction, biopunk, dystopia, post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 7/10

It’s the 22nd century. The world’s oil supplies have finally dried up, but humanity has done the damage and the climate has risen by a devastating 5⁰C. North America is a wasteland, with most of its people reduced to starving migrants wandering across the land in the constant search for food and water.

The only viable course of food is Sartori – a massive, sentient, bioengineered city made of living flesh and bone. Its inhabitants are all post-human, genetically engineered beings whose main purpose is to design, produce and grow seed – a climate-resistant seed whose crops are now America’s only means of survival.

Then Pihadassa, a Sartori Designer (geneticist), defects from the living city in order to play out her own plans for sustainable life. Among the migrants, Pihadassa becomes known by the rumour of ‘the Corn Mother’ – a woman who will save them all from starvation. To Brood, a Latino teenage orphan, it’s just a rumour. He and his austistic brother Pollo, along with Hondo, an old man, get by as small-time thieves and Brood has no interest, or faith, in a search for a different life. Nevertheless, circumstances put him on the path to the colony that the Corn Mother is supposedly establishing, where fresh food is freely available.

Also on the hunt for Pihadassa is Agent Sienna Doss, the soldier who never Fucks Up. The US government – or at least the remaining scraps of it – want to get the Designer under their control so she can create seed for them. The government resents the power and necessity of Sartori, especially since its only remaining function is to distribute seed around the nation – a function Sartori could easily perform on its own. It’s a government “afraid of its own obsolescence” and Pihadassa represents an opportunity for it to reclaim power.

In the meantime, within the flesh walls of Sartori, Pihadassa’s mate Sumedha suffers the pain of his partner’s absence, while continuing with a series of genetic experiments that will affect both Sartori and the future of the human population.

Brood, Doss and Sumedha’s stories slowly move toward each other in an interesting and relevant novel that depicts a painfully plausible environmental future, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and the many ethical conundrums that are inevitably raised.

This review has been a difficult one for me to write, because there’s a hell of a lot going here. I’ve outlined the structure of the plot, but in fact it takes a while for it all to get put into place. Much of the first half of text is devoted to world-building and getting to know the characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does slow the overall. The characters  themselves undergo a lot without moving the main plot forward all that much until the last third or so. For example, we spend a lot of time with Brood, who gives us a glimpse into what is now the life of the average American – endless travelling across a hot, dusty landscape, the constant threat of violence, and hunger that’s as much a part of life as breathing.

Doss on the other hand, enjoys a relatively privileged life as a government agent. She has a diet of “vat-grown chicken breast and weirdly perfect Sartori vegetables”, has well-made clothes and shoes, and is in good shape to do the many violent things the government requires of her. Normally I admire strong female characters, but I have to admit I didn’t particularly like Doss. She’s an archetypal American soldier – brash, gung-ho, and cold; patriotic but increasingly jaded. She’s not the type of character I generally have much interest in, and I felt no different here.

The most interesting character was Sumedha, Pihadassa’s mate, partly because he gives us a perspective on the best part of the novel – Sartori and all its related genetic creations. I’ve encountered other structures made of flesh in science fiction, but the scale of Sartori and its situation in a barren land makes it especially alien and amazing:

The city spread out below, an intermingled series of bending muscle towers and soft domes twined abruptly with the concrete, brick and plexi of the old city. Shadowy bone latticework showed through translucent skin. A thousand hearts beat oxygen and heat into a thousand buildings, pumped waste out onto the compost heaps along the northern fields. Far beneath Sumedha a group of landraces moved slowly on their hands and knees along a snake scale street. Their rough voices sang as their hands polished the scales with fur brushes. Sumedha closed his eyes and touched the wall, sure he could feel the city’s pleasure at the touch of its children’s brushes. A warm sensation spread through his body…Love. He opened his eyes and the helix [DNA] danced. Each building a different expression of its strange and brilliant will, yet part of a whole that fed sensation down lush nerve matrices to the center, here, to Satori tower, where Sumedha stood touching flesh, almost connected. Over it all stretched the dome, a mother’s womb shielding the city and its children from the mad seasonal swings of a climate knocked from its axis.

Sartori manages to be both grotesque and beautiful, depending on how you feel about its organic structure. People sleep cradled in flesh pods or amniotic sacs. Opening a ‘door’ involves a muscle contraction that parts flesh. Light comes in the soft glow of biolumes under the skin, and in some cases the colour changes to reflect the mood of a room’s inhabitant. Most of Sartori’s energy comes from photosynthesis, and the skin of the dome turns green and gurgles with sugar production in the hot sun. During winter it grows fur for warmth, and the rooms too have floors covered in soft fur.

Sartori’s inhabitants include Designers, advocates and landraces. The landraces are worker clones, designed with an instinct for labour. The advocates are perhaps the coolest creatures in the book, but also the most vicious. They’re designed for security purposes and although they look mostly human, they have the DNA of a variety of predators spliced into them. The advocates have a constant, barely controlled lust to kill things with their bare hands (their fingers are hard and sharp and can easily rip out throats).

Then there are the Designers, Sartori’s geneticists (responsible for creating seed, landraces and advocates) and general managers. Sumedha is one of these, and I appreciated the complexity of this very alien character. As a post-human creation with carefully designed instincts, outlooks and ways of communicating Sumehda was difficult to relate to but fascinating nevertheless. He and the other Designers have faces “so perfectly proportioned it made the rest of the world feel distorted”. They communicate not only through speech but through touch, smell, and their ability to ‘read’ DNA. They have an intensely sensual relationship to each other and to Sartori, to the extent that Sumedha experiences Pihadassa’s absence as much more than just an emotional loss. Their attitude to life in general is also one of deep appreciation and fascination, an attitude that’s an essential part of their design. The creator of Sartori insisted that if life on earth were to continue in the wake of all the environmental disasters humanity has caused, then human beings not only needed to change morally or ethically, but genetically.

While I admire these things about the Designers, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they also come across as very cruel. Although they value life deeply, individual lives mean little to them, particularly the lives of humans and the ‘lesser’ genetic creations, such as the landraces. You get the impression that Pihadassa and Sumedha often view humans as nothing more than a combination of DNA strands to be studied and if necessary, killed and dissected. Sumehda, for example, is running a series of experiments on a young girl he has genetically engineered. He does without compassion, ignoring her protests that what he does hurts her. At one point her amputates her arm (under anaesthetic, at least) as calmly as he would take her temperature. He’s also paying a group of gangsters to bring him migrants who are suffering from a disease called ‘ theTet’. He needs them for his experiments, and doesn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that these people are locked up in cages and live in filthy conditions.

This plays into the novel’s ongoing debate about genetic engineering and the use of a being like Sartori. Clearly, it presents wonderful possibilities, and might even be a necessity in an ecologically damaged world.  However, it is dangerous in the hands of someone as cold as Sumedha. Pihadassa offers a more viable alternative as she wants to return to a more natural existence in which “the mother shapes the helix, as she has always done” with only a little genetic management on her part. But it’s clear that Pihadassa is not exactly the loving ‘Corn Mother’ of the migrants’ rumours, so who then, should guide future developments? Of course the government wants to do that, but you know that’s just a struggle for power and has nothing to do with ethics.

Other issues come into play as well. Is it right to engineer beings like the landraces? They’re designed to enjoy manual labour, but are not acknowledged as individuals, as real people. The same question comes up with the advocates, who are nothing more than organic killing machines; they do not seem to want anything else but the chance to kill.

While I like the idea of a post-human future (it’s part of what makes me a sci fi fan), Seed cools my enthusiasm even as it ignites it, offering a sobering picture of the future. It’s a good book and an impressive debut that I appreciate for its ideas and the depiction of bioengineered life forms.On the downside there’s a large cast of characters, a complex plot and a lot of information about the world of the novel so reading can feel a bit of a chore at times. There’s a great deal of action and violence, but it doesn’t exactly transform this into a page-turner. However, the characters are refreshingly diverse, well-developed, and the world itself (Sartori in particular) is intriguing and relevant enough to keep me interested, if occasionally confused. Speculation about the future of human and animal life on our planet offers some much-needed food for thought regarding our lifestyles today, while revitalising the post-apocalyptic movement in fiction with some great ideas. If you’re interested in the recently defined biopunk genre or fiction that tackles issues of climate change, environmental sustainability and genetic modification, then I recommend you get a copy of Seed. 

Buy a copy of Seed at The Book Depository