The End of the End of the World

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy may be one of the most significant works of 21st-century literature that you haven’t read. Which is surprising, since the novels have been well reviewed, avidly ...

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy may be one of the most significant works of 21st-century literature that you haven’t read. Which is surprising, since the novels have been well reviewed, avidly marketed, and abundantly sold. Yet they have been oddly absent from the radar screens of many who consider themselves aficionados of the contemporary novel.

This trilogy takes on nothing less than the intertwined dangers of ecological and social collapse, envisioning the horrifying near-future, post-apocalyptic consequences of unchecked corporate culture and scientific experimentation. But Atwood masterfully realizes this big picture through the telling (and occasionally hilarious) detail, with vivid characters, gripping plots, and complex narrative structures that subtly reflect the fundamental connection between human consciousness and storytelling.

The final installment, MaddAddam, is not the strongest of the three, but it deftly pulls together various threads left loose in Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). The two earlier volumes were “simultanequels,” a term Atwood coined to distinguish them from the linear sequencing of prequels and sequels. MaddAddam begins where the cliffhangers of the two previous volumes ended: with the world precariously balanced between the few remaining survivors of the human race and the transhumans bioengineered to be their successors. This novel narrates the immediate destinies of the preceding volumes’ main characters and sketches the likely future of humanity and posthumanity. But here, as in the first two volumes of the trilogy, Atwood devotes as much time to the past as to the future.

The novel traces the picaresque wanderings of Zeb through the varied wildernesses of the pre-apocalyptic Western hemisphere.

Even readers of those previous volumes may need some plot summary to orient them in this new work, which promotes a minor character from The Year of the Flood to the status of titular protagonist and fills in his backstory. MaddAddam is Zeb, the leader of a resistance group dedicated to battling the bioengineering corporations known as the Corps, who are policed by their own private militias, the CorpSeCorps. At least that was the MaddAddamites’ mission before they were conscripted to work for Crake, the mad scientist responsible for the viral pandemic that killed off most of the human race, as well as for the creation of their bioengineered replacements—a trusting, inquisitive, and uncannily beautiful species known as the Children of Crake or, less formally, the Crakers.

In the previous two volumes, we only glimpsed the MaddAddamites from a distance, and this novel doesn’t tell us much more about their methods or group dynamics. Rather, it tells the story of how Zeb became Zeb. His bildungsroman begins, in classic fashion, with an abusive childhood, which is mitigated only by the companionship of an older half brother, Adam. We are not surprised to learn that this Adam grows up to be The Year of the Flood’s “Adam One,” the leader of a religious sect called God’s Gardeners, whose members practice vegetarianism and nonviolence and avoid using new technology. Atwood details the sadistic treatment the boys suffered at the hands of their father, who leads a fundamentalist megachurch devoted to the worship of fossil fuels, and the revenge they exact before fleeing home.

The novel then traces the picaresque wanderings of Zeb through the varied wildernesses of the pre-apocalyptic Western hemisphere. He works as a pilot for Bearlift, a well-meaning but misguided save-the-bears operation high in the mountains of the Canadian Yukon and then as a magician’s assistant in Southern California’s Floating World, an urban district whose name evokes both illicit pleasures (a reference to the “floating world” culture of fashion, entertainment, and prostitution in Japan’s Edo period) and rising sea levels. Zeb next works as a hacker-for-hire, employed by various criminal enterprises and based in Rio de Janeiro, now known as “the Wild West of the web.” In this novel, as in the two previous volumes of the trilogy, Atwood’s satirical portrayal of the near future is as entertaining as it is incisive in its critique of our contemporary moment’s volatile mix of religious fundamentalism, neoliberal profiteering, and environmental degradation.

The fraternal relationship between Adam and Zeb—Zeb attributes their “cute A-Z name symmetry” to their father, who “liked to theme-park everything”—is deliberately conventional. Light versus dark, methodical versus impulsive, saintly versus sinful: the formulaic polarity of MaddAddam’s brothers recalls the paired brothers (Charles and Adam, Cal and Aron) in Steinbeck’s generational chronicle East of Eden, and, like Steinbeck, Atwood allegorically—or perhaps just flat-footedly—invokes that originary pair of belligerent brothers, Cain and Abel.

Adam and Zeb also echo the male antagonists of Oryx and Crake, similarly yoked by loyalty, manipulation, and betrayal. Their agonistic bond, however, is much less compelling than the one at the heart of that earlier volume. Despite Atwood’s attempts to invest Zeb with internal complexity in the form of passion and doubts, he remains a kind of action figure, an adventure romance hero largely defined by feats of derring-do at the computer keyboard, in mortal combat with man and beast, and in the sack. His physical prowess and survivalist skills come in especially handy at the novel’s climax, which features an epic battle between Zeb’s band of survivors and a violent remnant of the old human society—the two Painballers who were captured at the end of The Year of the Flood but manage to escape at the opening of this volume.

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told.”

Although Zeb’s character remains fairly two-dimensional, the way that Atwood alternates between the pre-apocalyptic past and the post-apocalyptic present puts a far more interesting frame around Zeb’s ultimately superficial tale. MaddAddam filters the story of Zeb’s past through two post-apocalyptic viewpoints: that of Toby, a former God’s Gardener who joins forces with the few other human survivors of the pandemic, and that of the Crakers, the gentle tribe of transhuman hybrids who avidly weave Zeb’s personal history, as retold by Toby, into a creation myth.

MaddAddam’s narrative is thus split between Zeb’s story as he relays it to Toby, who becomes his lover, and the version of that story that Toby tells the Crakers, who insist that she become their bard and protector-in-chief. “There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.” That is how Atwood’s third-person narrator reflects upon the difference between what Toby hears from Zeb and what she sees fit to tell the Crakers, whose childlike curiosity outstrips their understanding of abstract concepts such as evil, or even such fundamental notions as human aggression or private property. This meta-reflection on the limits of narrative representation and the vicissitudes of its transmission joins MaddAddam to the two novels that precede it in the trilogy and to Atwood’s novelistic oeuvre as a whole.

Although Atwood’s metafictional bent allies her with postmodern heavy hitters such as Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon, she has more often been considered in the company of writers such as Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin who have used the conventions of fantasy to explore the gendered norms and sexual desires that shape women’s lives. From her earliest, more realistic work, beginning with The Edible Woman in the late 1960s and Surfacing in the early ’70s, Atwood’s fiction has highlighted the challenges of telling stories of identity and connection in a world of unequal power relations.

While these tensions inflect her entire oeuvre—more than 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays—they are most vividly dramatized in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). This dystopian speculative novel is narrated by a reproductive surrogate slave who describes her subjection and resistance to a fundamentalist authoritarian regime, a future era that is a throwback to a nightmarish Puritan past. The fictional world of this “handmaid,” replete with her flashbacks to a pre-apocalyptic “time before,” forms a significant precursor to the post-apocalyptic world of Atwood’s 21st-century trilogy. The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted for stage, opera, and radio, and film, including a 1990 Hollywood movie that was disappointing despite a stellar cast and a screenplay by Harold Pinter. The most brilliant, best-selling, and canonical of Atwood’s 14 novels, there have been repeated attempts to ban Handmaid from high school and even college curricula—an ironic fate, given the novel’s searing critique of censorship.

The framing of the story draws together the narrative and the criminal senses of what it means to frame or be framed.

Atwood was nominated for the Booker Prize for Handmaid, and again for each of the three novels she published after that, but she did not win this honor until The Blind Assassin in 2000. Set in 1930s and ’40s Canada, The Blind Assassin might well be categorized as historical fiction, though this label does not adequately account for its nested, multi-generic structure. Its framing family saga contains a love story, which, in turn, contains a science fiction story that culminates in an attack on the planet Zycron by the Lizard Men of Xenor. The pulpy tale embedded at the heart of the novel is precisely the sort of sci-fi—complete with “talking squids in outer space”—that Atwood infamously distinguished from her own brand of “speculative fiction.”1 Her brand, she claimed, extrapolates from actually existing conditions into the near future. According to Atwood, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”2 Her dismissal of SF roused the resentment (still simmering) of that genre’s fans, but Atwood ultimately downplayed the contretemps as a mere matter of nomenclature: “In short, what Le Guin means by ‘science fiction’ is what I mean by ‘speculative fiction,’ and what she means by ‘fantasy’ would include some of what I mean by ‘science fiction.’ So that clears it all up, more or less.”3

Though diehard SF fans have not been mollified by her efforts at rapprochement, it is worth noting that the real crisis in The Blind Assassin does not hinge on pinpointing the genre to which the intergalactic story belongs, but on the identity of the sister who authored the love story nested within the novel and, hence, on the question of which sister actually had the illicit love affair that the tale describes. The framing of the story draws together the narrative and the criminal senses of what it means to frame or be framed. In this regard, The Blind Assassin resembles Atwood’s other work of historical fiction, Alias Grace (1996), which is presented from the complex and ultimately irreconcilable viewpoints of a convicted murderess and that of the “alienist” doctor who researches her case. “There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

The narrative framing of MaddAddam is what gives this novel, like Atwood’s other novels, its vitality. The satirical realism of Zeb’s life story—as told to Toby in the form of postcoital pillow talk, and as relayed to readers by Atwood’s third-person narrator—stands in counterpoint to Toby’s rendering of the story as myth. She picks up where the character Snowman left off in the first volume, fleshing out his story of the “good, kind Crake” who created the Crakers and “cleared away the chaos” of the world for them. Whereas Snowman’s storytelling was primarily in the service of cynical self-interest, to induce the Crakers to bring him food, Toby’s motives are decidedly more altruistic.

Though she is aware of the risks of sugarcoating the story of a man bent on destroying the human race, Toby is also conscious of her moral obligation to help the Crakers develop an origin myth that will serve them for the future. Atwood’s portrayal of Toby’s storytelling, along with her dramatization of the Crakers’ development of an oral and written tradition, thus expresses her underlying faith in what Wayne C. Booth called the ethics of fiction.

Atwood sometimes plays it too much for laughs—one particularly awkward bit involves Toby’s attempt to explain to the Crakers the identity of the godlike “Oh Fuck!” that the surviving humans keep invoking. But, at its best, the mythos she limns through Toby’s storytelling is both satisfying and powerful. “The Story of the Two Eggs,” for example, portrays Oryx as an owl who laid two eggs, one filled with all the animals of earth, the other filled with words.  The Children of Crake got the gift of language, Toby continues, by eating most of the second egg, but she notes that the animals, too, ate some of the words, contrary to what Crake believed would happen. Toby explains that “Crake was not always right about everything,” leading them to the idea of a creator who is benevolent but not infallible.

Together, the Crakers and the Pigoons signify what Atwood calls “ustopia”: “[a] word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia …”

The animals that ate most of the leftover words were the Pigoons, a genetically engineered species of pig inadvertently released into the wild during the chaos after the pandemic. Whereas the Crakers are essentially humans with a suite of animal add-ons (such as built-in mosquito repellent and sunblock, the ability to soothe and even heal via therapeutic purring, and baboon-like sexual display to facilitate non-pair bonded reproduction), the Pigoons lie closer to the animal end of the continuum, albeit with some notable human mix-ins. Bred to grow extra kidneys for xeno-transplantation to humans, the Pigoons are not only extra fierce and extra large but also extra smart, a side effect of the human prefrontal cortex tissue in their brains. Gifted with strong problem-solving abilities and good memories, they can hold a grudge and are dangerously omnivorous.

The Crakers are the product of a benighted utopian vision of a genetically engineered human future, while the Pigoons evoke H. G. Wells’s techno-dystopian vision in The Island of Dr. Moreau, with shades of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Together they signify what Atwood calls “ustopia”: “[a] word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.”4 Her insight that utopia gives rise to dystopia—and that dystopia also gives rise to utopia, or at least to utopian desires and projects—informs her depiction of the Promethean Crake, the evangelical God’s Gardeners, and the MaddAddamite underground. All are visionaries who attempt to perfect the world, or at least to resist some of its worst tendencies.

Atwood is neither anti-religion nor anti-science. She insists, rather, that practitioners of both must be subject to ethical self-reflection and social accountability, and that the making and sharing of song and story and image—in other words, the arts—are among our most revealing mirrors.

The Crakers and the Pigoons represent the two different faces of the post-humanity that has inherited this blighted earth. They are, quite literally, brother species to humanity—family members who embody both self and otherness—with whom the surviving humans must learn to coexist. Tellingly, the singing of the Crakers allows them to serve as intermediaries between the humans and the Pigoons. If the “digital-keyboard theremin sounds” of their “eerie waterglass voices” make them seem profoundly otherworldly, their singing, along with their dreaming and their symbol-making, is what makes them most recognizably human. Significantly, their singing is something they share with Zeb, though his repertoire tends more toward obscene ditties. To sing is to be human in Atwood’s novel, where it is equally human to be irritated, at least sometimes, by the singing of others. Hence Toby’s patient but exasperated recurrent request to the Crakers, “Please don’t sing,” when they repeatedly interrupt the stories they demand from her.

Atwood cautions against a complacent acceptance of technology for technology’s sake and highlights the risks of taking the bottom line as our sole guiding principle.

Atwood’s trilogy insists that we balance the human desire for scientific experimentation and technological innovation with the values of community and the greater good. We can see this balance in her own embrace of the digital revolution. While MaddAddam, like its two predecessors, satirically targets the pornographic violence and immersive addictiveness of much of what is available online, Atwood is herself an innovator in the virtual realm. To promote The Year of the Flood, she supplemented her official website with another site dedicated to the book that offered unusual tie-ins such as sheet music and CDs featuring the hymns of the God’s Gardeners. Atwood has, moreover, taken to Twitter like a digital native. With more than 400,000 followers, she uses this platform to promote both her own work and the political, environmental, and artistic efforts of a cohort of like-minded Tweeters. She has also experimented with brave new online platforms. She recently published a four-episode, online only, dystopian serial called Positron on, and she found a venue for Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, written collaboratively with Naomi Alderman, on Atwood has even launched a couple of online start-ups of her own: first, Long Pen in 2007, a device that allows authors to sign their books remotely, then, its next-generation sibling, crowd-funded in 2012 but still in production. This virtual event space will allow artists and their fans to meet, talk, interact, and sign collectibles—cards, T-shirts, paper books, even e-books—on the Internet.

All of which is to say that Margaret Atwood is no Luddite. She sees the possibilities of advanced technology, and avails herself of its power with gusto. But she also cautions against a complacent acceptance of technology for technology’s sake and highlights the risks of taking the bottom line as our sole guiding principle.

Her feminist and environmentalist politics offer a sharp corrective to the force of neoliberalism in an increasingly globalized world economy and a damaged world ecosystem. In the MaddAddam trilogy, she dramatizes the dire stakes of a cavalier disregard for the well-being of the planet and the species that inhabit it. In telling and retelling the story of the Crakers’ origins, MaddAddam reveals the blurriness of the lines that separate the human from the non-human, and illuminates the fine but strong thread that joins the fate of all species. This final volume of Atwood’s trilogy signals the end of the end of a fictional world she has been creating for over a decade, an ending that emphasizes the possibility of post-apocalyptic revelation as much as it does our drive toward self-destruction. icon

  1. According to David Langford’s column “Bits and Pieces” in SFX, no. 107 (August 2003), Atwood made her remark about “talking squids in outer space” on BBC1 Breakfast News.
  2. Robert Potts, “Light in the Wilderness,” Guardian, April 26, 2003.
  3. Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2011), p. 7.
  4. Atwood, In Other Worlds, p. 66.
Featured image: Biochemisty lab. Photograph by Baitaal / Wikimedia Commons