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.