Most mainstream speculative sci-fi follows a handful of basic storylines, roughly speaking, the efforts of Good Guys to prevent, survive, overthrow or reverse social orders or apocalyptic events, typically caused by Bad Guys. America’s latest favorite, The Hunger Games, is first about surviving and overthrowing. The Matrix trilogy is about overthrow and reverse. The Terminator franchise has explored all of these areas with varying degrees of success.
In literature, George Orwell’s 1984 is, on its surface, about overthrowing. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is about surviving. Margaret Atwood has a well-deserved reputation as a master of the form, and while her works are typically a cut above the rest, they still fall into the usual categories. Her best known book The Handmaid’s Tale is, in its unique way, about surviving and overthrowing. More recently, she has written a trilogy of speculative sci-fi about the collapse of a near future dystopia. The first two entries fit into the broad categories of prevention and survival. But the final book, MaddAddam, is an exception — to the trilogy and the sci-fi mainstream. What makes MaddAddam different is where it begins. Another commonality of popular sci-fi stories, including the books and movies above, is that they tend to wrap up with a slightly hopeful glimpse of the newly re-ordered world. But if you look closely, you realize that the credits roll just as our heroic survivors have to bury their dead or somehow get home from deep space or rebuild billions of dollars in destroyed infrastructure. It is at this approximate point in the plot that MaddAddam opens. In the beginning, “the end” has already come.
“The end” happens in the previous two books of the series, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and is quickly summarized in the opening pages of MaddAddam. Oryx is about the mad genius who unleashes a deadly virus on humanity, and The Year of the Flood follows the members of a small, vegetarian, eco-religious sect as they prepare for and ultimately survive the “waterless flood” that decimates the population (in North America at least, where the events in all three books take place). In addition to eliminating humanity, the mad genius has also tried to repopulate the planet with a genetically “perfected” species of socially innocent, sexually prolific, and physically spectacular blue-skinned vegans called Crakers. It is in this setting that a small group of human survivors must survive and rebuild.
What the book has in common with traditional sci-fi is that it is a quick and gripping read. Despite the peacenik Crakers, there is plenty of action. MaddAddam is equally as fun as the previous two entries in trilogy. But the stories here serve a dual purpose, as they are translated into origin myths for the world to come.
A strange effect of this approach is the realization that the decimation of human kind is pretty much okay with us. In fact, the one major task we root for our protagonists to accomplish is the capture and/or killing of a few remaining humans who are, admittedly, extremely dangerous. Atwood’s sympathies are unambiguously with the state of nature. It’s an easy side to take in these days of climate change, rain forest devastation and mass extinction, but it’s still somewhat surprising to realize that you feel like the world wiped clean of humans is the one you would prefer.
Technological and scientific “progress” has led to a catalog of shitty behaviors far too vast to capture here, but suffice it to say that Atwood has taken most of the worst things you can find in society today — greed and inequality; religious fervor and hostility; GMOs and genetic engineering; environmental indifference; corruption and collapse of public institutions — and translated them into a grim future where corporations run their own churches and police forces, hybrid beasts roam kudzu-covered wilderness, and the masses of poor people, who are forbidden access to the compounds where corporate employees live and work, patronize a place called Secret Burgers, where the secret is what kind of meat you’re getting. Atwood makes it hard to regret that all of this has been wiped out.
The strength of MaddAddam is in watching something take shape to replace the old (dis)order, and spinning your own speculations into a future where the actions of a few remaining humans are due to be passed down as the mythology of a re-formed world. Any of MaddAddam‘s missed opportunities or too cute ideas from the old world — AnooYoo Spas; The Church of PetrOleum — are overshadowed by fascinating developments in the new. For instance, the new meaning taken on by the word “Fuck,” in which an offhand reference transforms into something that will be forever treated with deep reverence. It may give you something to consider the next time you casually utter “Holy fuck,” or any of the many words and meanings we take for granted as sacred or profane. In its best moments, MaddAddam is a deeply entertaining speculative sci-fi story that leaves you thinking about how we know what we know, how we got where we are and, maybe, where we might be headed.
– Michael Moats