Beyond Good and Evil

Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam

Bloomsbury, 416pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781408819708

reviewed by Robert M. Detman

Margaret Atwood suggests that her works, grounded in science, posit a possible reality, and thus she prefers to call them ‘speculative fiction’ in lieu of ‘science fiction’ or any other popular alternative. The MaddAddam trilogy exemplifies her notion that ‘We’ve always been good at letting cats out of bags and genies out of bottles, we just haven’t been very good at putting them back in again.’ The sentiment is particularly relevant today as technology continues to advance before we have time to qualitatively assess its effects on good or bad—or rather, helpful versus detrimental—terms. Technology is somehow always conceived of as either useful or not, but rarely as good or bad.

Atwood is in the vanguard of contemporary novelists who embrace technology. She is active and accessible on Twitter and other social media, and takes an optimistic view on the topic as she continues to contribute in Nobel proportions to literature. Among her novels are the Booker Prize winning The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter the recipient of Britain’s first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. Both novels offer versions of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale portraying women’s subjugation in an imagined Christian theocracy and The Blind Assassin offering a disorienting science fiction tale embedded within a realist novel. Like her late contemporary Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, The Handmaid’s Tale is frequently invoked as a feminist milestone—though such labels came against their respective authors’ demurrals.

Atwood has packed her recent ‘speculative fiction’ trilogy with a creation myth and the shadow of a second coming. From the mysteries of Oryx and Crake, with their whiff of tabloid, to The Year of the Flood’s survival 101 and MaddAddam, all of the respective skeletons have tumbled out of their closets. For several ‘MaddAddamites’ who have escaped the ‘pleeblands’ (exactly what they sound like) and joined forces with the remnants of ‘God’s Gardeners’—treehuggers who believe in the healing arts, and are, so far as we may infer, the only humans left on the planet—life goes on. In contrast to ‘God’s Gardeners’, these ‘Maddaddamites’ use technology to control, even thwart, nature.

Folded into the trilogy’s themes are Atwood’s concerns for the environment—under assault even in the midst of the plague, or more aptly, holding its own—and for the dangers of meddling with genetics. Atwood’s writing is engaging, unfettered by a potentially dark narrative, and though the plot defies easy synopsis Atwood provides guidance in evocative chapter headings and replenishing re-tellings. The audacious narrative is occasionally told in strategic flashback and dialogue, as well as omniscient narrative, which become necessary for the many wormholes of the story. And, as the reader discovers, there is a method to Atwood’s Madd-ness.

In Atwood’s irredeemable future, monstrous corporations reign, serving both as the state and commonwealth, and in the growing chaos of the world these corporations cast an influence over individuals that lies somewhere between servitude and enslavement. In volume one, Oryx and Crake, Crake attempts to perfect life by creating the children of Crake, or Crakers, in a lab known as the Paradice dome. Crakers embodied innocence and the best traits of humankind, and have highly distinct physical characteristics—such as a variety of skin hues and an eerie ability to provide healing through song. Crake’s madness resulted in a calamity, treated in volume two, The Year of the Flood. In that book, the two very different groups, God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddamites, set to establish bulwarks in what remained of the world. MaddAddam casts light onto how these disparate groups’ eventually conspire for survival, and provides a stunning conclusion to the trilogy.

In the trilogy there is something of Atwood’s understanding of the Canadian literary identity at work. She provided a textbook in defining this very concept, as informed by Northrop Frye’s concept of ‘garrison mentality’, in her 1972 work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. In that book she established the notion of survival as vital to Canada’s literature (as opposed to Britain’s and the United State’s well formed literary identities, the island and the frontier, respectively) and imbued in it the character of the victim—a position she finds rife in Canadian literature.

That combination of a victim struggling to survive is rife in MaddAddam. Toby, the protagonist, is the ostensible den mother of cobb house, where the youthful gather, survive and procreate. In a wonderfully convoluted tale, Toby pines for a man named Zeb, and plays interlocutor for his ribald adventures with his half-brother Adam. At cobb house, Toby becomes a reluctant stand in prophet to the straggling Crakers while Zeb (and another ‘prophet’ – Jimmy) disabuse the new age adepts of the evil ways of Crake.

The clash of cults and cultures that ensues occasionally blurs the line between good and evil, though this may be incidental. Adam and Zeb are literally A to Z diametrically fashioned, from the pious saint to the impish devil. Furthermore, as Crake’s environmental activism and concern about carbon footprints and the depletion of forests leads to his own demise, his genocide ultimately facilitates the world’s hopeful reboot.

Focusing on Toby brings the story down to earth and grounds it in the human. Toby is pleasingly fallible. Her appeals are never far from our understanding; though the end is nigh, she still has to figure out dinner, or when she can wash her hair. Yet Atwood isn’t mocking her characters—their fallibility is part of their charm. Toby’s thoughts drift over everything from nursing Jimmy back to health to whether Zeb is getting involved with Swift Fox, a MaddAddamite vixen whose name is treacherously apt.

Atwood is a fan of apt monikers, riffing on clever product names long after their single note novelty wears off. Characters drink Happicappucinos, gobble Joltbars and crave SecretBurgers’ meat of indeterminate origin. As well, the criticisms of the internet in this world could spring directly from the present: ‘The net had always been just that—a net, full of holes, all the better to trap you with; and it still was, despite the fixes they claimed to be adding constantly, with the impenetrable algorithms and the passwords and thumb scans.’ Though some of her approaches can seem already past their use-by date—a popular video game is ‘Three Dimensional Waco’—she manages to astutely meld realism with the contingencies of her invented genre.

At the outset of volume one, the Crakers have no agency. They believe, and learn, through what is told to them. By the time of MaddAddam, however, the precocious Craker Blackbeard befriends Toby and establishes an emotional link to the MaddAddamites which allows him to become more like them, if not one of their kind. This is functional for the plot, as Blackbeard interprets the communications of the cross-bred creatures they must deal with.

Atwood cleverly weaves this plotting into the source of the story’s narrative itself—which is carefully left ambiguous. Atwood uses Toby’s narrating of events, storytelling within the narrative, as well as indeterminate addresses to a reader (who may be Toby, the Crakers—or the reader of the novel) to effect her story’s aims. This begins with Toby’s explanations of events to Blackbeard, through Blackbeard’s curiosity about Toby’s journal and his attempts to write. Ultimately Blackbeard takes over the narrative, explaining Toby’s absence in a suggestive, simplistic tone: ‘If you look at this writing I have made, you can hear me (I am Blackbord) talking to you, inside your head. That is what writing is.’ The seamless move from Toby’s story into Blackbeard’s (besides a frequent inability to spell) highlights Atwood’s facility with and keen understanding of narrative modes, and their adaptability to conveying a complex story.

Atwood’s interest in neuroscience also provides an intriguing foundation for her novel, and informs the way the Crakers learn language. As researchers have discovered, narrated storytelling can activate brain functioning; reading about a vivid experience—or in the case of children, having it read to them aloud—can be as significant to the brain’s development as experiencing it outright. This is reflected in the way that Blackbeard learning to write eventually causes him to take over the narrative from Toby. Atwood’s reworking of language acquisition theory is essentially the portrayal of artificial intelligence:

And she showed me, Blackbeard, how to make such words, on a page, with a pen, when I was little. And she showed me how to turn the marks back into a voice, so that when I look at the page and read the words, it is Toby’s voice that I hear. And when I speak these words out loud, you too are hearing Toby’s voice.

Atwood seeds hope into this imagined world through storytelling. Ultimately, the rationale of our humanity will out, and through narrative, that humanity is carried forth on the drive of those who inherit the earth. This conceit is evoked through realism’s mirror, with complex, endearing characters in ebullient prose. The MaddAddam Trilogy, besides a generous, large-hearted and fascinating work of speculative fiction, can be considered an expression of Atwood’s sanguine and cheerful hope for the whole of humanity, against the depredations of a few.
Robert M. Detman writes fiction and reviews, and is based in Oakland, California. His short story collection was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press.