I have a love/hate relationship with Margaret Atwood. I know that she is a very talented writer and has produced some very memorable books. In fact, I would even say she is one of Canada’s most important poets in the last 50 years. However, I don’t love her science-fiction, sorry her speculative fiction. It might just be that her insistence that she does not write science fiction is what irritated me into dislike. But I also think that she is just not a great sci-fi writer; she is a literary writer and this does not necessarily make her good at all genres.
MaddAddam is the final book in her post-apocalyptic series that includes Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Most of the characters in MaddAddam come from these two novels, but it is not necessary to have read them to understand the events of Atwood’s latest novel. In fact, she gives a good summary at the beginning of her novel to catch readers up. Toby, the novel’s main character and a former God’s Gardener, narrates most of the novel as the last survivors of a devastating plague attempt to keep themselves safe from two murderous ex-criminals. I mention God’s Gardeners because they form the core of The Year of the Flood and were the feature that set that novel apart for me when I read it. They are a cult-centred on a mixture of environmentalism, organic farming, and anti-capitalists. Atwood constructed a detailed mythology around them and even interspersed Year of the Flood with several of their hymns. In MaddAddam, she brings the two main groups at the core of each novel together by having former God’s Gardeners band together with MaddAddamites, an anti-corporate group who became involved with Crake in the first novel. Crake, by the way, was the genius renegade scientist who engineered the apocalypse and wiped away most of humanity. Not before creating a hybrid, gene-spliced humanoid race called the Crakers, whom also feature prominently in MaddAddam.
I guess part of my problem with Atwood’s science fiction is that it seems too mundane. Atwood insists that all of the technologies and events in her novels are rooted in reality. The first line of her acknowledgements read: “Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory” (392). While I applaud Atwood’s desire for realism, I found that the first half of this novel was hard to get through. Something about its mundaneness, its depressing attachment to reality, left my imagination wanting. Yes, there is an element of escapism in much science fiction, but this element is part of what draws me to science fiction.
There were two things that I did really like about MaddAddam though. One, Atwood is really funny in this book. There were a number of scenes where I laughed out loud and found myself impressed by Atwood’s writing. Atwood can sometimes be a downer to read (I really like her Cat’s Eye, but it doesn’t make me too excited for getting old), but here she is raucously funny. Second, Atwood works with reading and writing in a really interesting way. Toby ends up teaching Blackbeard, a young Craker, to read, and this allows her to raise important questions about human knowledge, culture, and beliefs. I think this is where her abilities as a literary writer really shine through, and it is only a matter of time before someone writes a Master’s thesis on this topic.
So, all in all, MaddAddam is not a terrible book. In fact, it is quite good and a fitting conclusion to her series. I just was not that in to it. If you like either of the earlier novels, you will find plenty to love in this offering. If you are more like me and did not feel especially compelled by the earlier books, then it’s best to pass this one over.
Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2013. Print.