Paul McEuen relishes the final instalment of Margaret Atwood's sweeping trilogy about a dystopian world devastated by a 'hot bioform'.
- Margaret Atwood
A decade after Margaret Atwood began her great dystopian tale, we have at last reached the end of that road. The Canadian novelist has taken us from Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) to this final instalment, MaddAddam.
A global pandemic dominates the trilogy. In Oryx and Crake, a disillusioned bioengineer (Crake) unleashes a 'hot bioform' that kills most humans. The Year of the Flood revisits the pandemic through the lens of a religious cult called God's Gardeners, whose followers try to survive the ravages of the pathogen. MaddAddam completes the saga with the story of two members of the cult, Toby and Zeb, as they live through the aftermath of the plague. In the dystopian tradition, the trilogy is a window on our possible near future — in this case, one driven to disaster by human ingenuity gone wrong.
As MaddAddam opens, with almost all of humanity having perished in Crake's “Waterless Flood”, it turns out that the bioengineer had good reason to reboot the human race. Atwood paints a picture of a pre-flood nightmare, class-divided, corporate and hegemonic. This was a world of Hunger Games-like death sports, rampant sexual enslavement and increasingly macabre genetically engineered hybrids. It begged to be wiped out.
The surviving humans must cope with a number of relics of pre-flood genetic tinkering. These include Pigoons — large, ferocious pigs with near-human intelligence, originally created for organ transplants — and domesticated goats with human hair known as Mo'Hairs. Also surviving is a small group of humanoids called Crakers, so-named for their creator and genetically modified to be polyamorous innocents with a predilection for eating kudzu (an invasive plant). These are the meek whom Crake would have had inherit the Earth, but they face many dangers. The remaining humans, especially Toby and Zeb, protect them from the Pigoons and a pair of murderous death-game survivors who have already raped and killed some of their clan.
As time passes, the Crakers begin to show signs of culture. They sing songs, beatify their now-dead creator, and hunger for more myths and stories about their origins. Toby, the book's main protagonist, provides these as best she can, and we watch with hope and dread as she spins child-like tales for the Crakers out of the unseemly facts of the Flood.
Many of these stories are told in flashback, particularly the full story of Adam and Zeb, who are in some ways the moral poles of MaddAddam. It is a biblical tale of grace and punishment, false idols and vengeance; but Atwood keeps the morality multifaceted, making a case for both pacifism and, when absolutely necessary, murder.
Technology is the apple in the garden. In the pre-flood world, it evolved faster than it could be assimilated. Technology overwhelmed its creators, preying on their basest instincts and enslaving and degrading them. Plucked from the tree, it spread and destroyed.
It is a pattern that threatens to repeat itself with the Crakers. Language, Atwood maintains, was humankind's first technology, and one of the most oddly chilling scenes occurs when the Crakers take the first bite of the apple. Toby is teaching one of the Crakers — a young boy named Blackbeard — about writing. The innocent Blackbeard refuses to accept the idea that pieces of the sensual world around him can be captured in lines on paper. Toby persists, showing the boy his name on a page. “This is how your name begins. B. Like bees. It's the same sound.” But Blackbeard replies “That is not me,” adding “It is not bees either.”
Blackbeard learns in the end. He has tasted the fruit of the tree. But language is shown to be a saviour too. The secret to a new beginning for Toby, Zeb and the Crakers lies in forging deep links between the experiences of the humans and the Crakers, as well as the Mo'Hairs, bees and even Pigoons. This is how they start the world anew: as a process of weaving different languages and understandings of the world into a unified tapestry. Atwood shows us that what is missing in the fast-evolving technological world is a constant awareness of the link between the iPad and the exploited worker in China, or the hamburger on the plate and the factory-farmed cow.
Will Atwood's imagined future be our own? Some elements of it will undoubtedly happen. Bioengineered meats are a staple in Atwood's pre-flood world, and earlier this month a bovine stem-cell hamburger created by Mark Post, a tissue engineer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was cooked and eaten. Will our technologies swallow us? The book's palindromic title suggests as much: disastrous ends yoked to new beginnings, with one flowing into the other in a never-ending cycle. But MaddAddam also tells us, even in the face of a disaster, to persevere. Atwood's book is a warning but also, in its final accounting, a hopeful meditation on the cycle of life, death and the possibility of life anew.
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McEuen, P. Science fiction: A post-pandemic wilderness. Nature 500, 398–399 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/500398a