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Andrew Tate

Margaret Atwood


Twenty-first-century culture has become very skilled at imagining its own downfall: in recent fiction, film and television the human race is frequently on the brink of breathing its last following pandemic, alien attack, drunken bar crawl or any number of other extinction level events. Whether the world will end with a bang, whimper or sigh of relief is a matter of perspective. Are homo sapiens the apogee of a loving creator's work or a plague on the planet? Many post-apocalyptic narratives, from Cormac McCarthy's The Road to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games sequence, offer a very dark account of human behaviour. In some of these stories, we simply don't seem to be a species worth saving. Margaret Atwood's fiction is rarely so despairing but neither is it dewy-eyed about civilization. Atwood has been sharing her distinctive dreams of our ruined future since The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a dystopian classic that continues to warn its readers that oppression often wears respectable clothes and is not uniquely found in far distant worlds.

MaddAddam, Atwood's 22nd novel, is the closing volume of an end-of-the-worldas- we-know-it trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and was continued in a semi-sequel, Year of the Flood. The first volume is a compelling portrait of a world inhabited by one lonely human soul, Jimmy aka Snowman (no man?), hanging out in a tree to avoid genetically engineered animals who seem to be quite peckish. He remembers the horrifying reality that preceded this world and - spoiler ahead for those new to the series - the fact that his best friend, a brilliant but narcissistic scientist nicknamed Crake, deliberately brought about the end of humanity. By the time of this finale, the north American landscape is one of 'dead houses, dead malls, dead labs, dead everything'. We discovered, in Year of the Flood, that Jimmy and the uncanny 'children of Crake' - laboratory bred, genetically enhanced post-humans - are not alone. And MaddAddam picks up the story of another band of survivors who are struggling to find a way - and a reason - to live after the end of, well, everything. The series resonates with Atwood's interest in the relationship between spirituality and environmental consciousness. In a 2010 interview with Third Way, she argued that 'Christianity needs to regreen itself, don't you think?'. Where Oryx and Crake was a story of a last man, the new novel is partly about the search for a first one, of sorts: Adam, the founder of God's Gardeners, an ecological sect that balanced belief in God with respect for nature. This closing narrative focuses on two former 'gardeners': the kind-hearted, nature loving Toby and her saturnine companion, Zeb, brother of the absent Adam One. Much of the story is told in a gradual, chopped-up flashback structure that worked well in the first book as the plot headed towards a devastating denouement but is less gripping in MaddAddam. This is partly because the real fireworks of the narrative were lit in Oryx and Crake: where to go after the end of the world? The only logical place is to find a new beginning and that is a much tougher phenomenon to imagine.

Atwood writes as one steeped in the deep grammar of literary apocalypse including that of biblical literature. The trilogy echoes texts by Swift, Mary Shelley and HG Wells. Indeed, the wide-eyed, guileless Crakers are reminiscent of Wells' Eloi who inhabit the far future world of The Time Machine: they are vulnerable creatures, descendants of a decadent era, not quite adapted to survive a violent world. These innocent creatures were supposedly designed to be free from the human burdens of art and faith - too dangerous, apparently - but, intriguingly, they have swiftly evolved their own form of faith. They worship the figure that made them and destroyed the previous 'chaos'. Religion, interestingly, persists in this future world where consumerism has singularly failed. Toby, somewhat reluctantly, has become a kind of ministering priest to the new society and its practices, compelled to tell the Crakers a daily story that will instruct and enlighten. Offering 'reassuring' metaphors of the life to come, Toby suggests that 'the dead were not entirely dead but were alive in a different way'. 'People need such stories,' she was taught, 'because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void'. MaddAddam represents such stories as both childish and necessary, a ritual that shapes meaning and sustains community. Is it, however, a deceptive activity, one that keeps people sedated in the face of otherwise intolerable truths? As the often blunt, former deceiver, Zeb, observes: 'Lying's more work than the barenaked truth'.

Atwood's visions of the near (or noir) future are wild and troubling but not, unfortunately, without ruthless logic. She prefers the term 'speculative fiction' to 'science fiction' because her work is always rooted in extrapolations of technology and political practices that already exist. MaddAddam, for all its palindromic fun and linguistic playfulness, is not, I think, a great novel by her high standards. The book, for me, lacks the combination of urgent tone and dark comedy of its earlier episodes. And, without spoiling the end of the end, I was disappointed with the capitulation of the protagonists to an old, old story of redemptive violence. However, in a world of ersatz, storybook endings which are anything but revelatory, Atwood's apocalypse is one worth witnessing.