There’s something awfully thrilling about an apocalypse. In the far-off, dystopian future of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam a character recalls that back in the 21st century there had briefly been a time when “speculations about what the world would be like after human control of it had ended had been a queasy form of popular entertainment”. The only trouble was that people eventually got tired of “earnest experts lecturing about all the wrong turns taken by the human race”.
Atwood herself occasionally struggles with the same problem. She writes brilliantly but her storytelling instincts are sometimes undermined by the desire to scold us, none too subtly, for the way that we’re abusing the natural world. MaddAddam is the third in a trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). According to Atwood the books are not sci-fi but “speculative fiction” because while “science fiction has monsters and spaceships”, speculative fiction “could really happen”.
In this particular vision of the future, animals have been genetically modified to provide human body parts for transplants and people worship at the Church of PetrOleum, which preaches that “Solar Panels Are Satan’s Work” and only “Serial Killers Believe in Global Warming”. Suburban malls are all full of Feel-iT-enabled porno installations — “say goodbye to faked screams and groans, this is the real thing” — where punters can rape and behead their simulated partners. Society’s civilised mask of compassion is rotting away, revealing a savage, grinning skull of greed and violent desires.
Or that’s what was happening until Crake, a mad scientist with a God complex, decided to wipe out the human race with a biochemical plague, leaving the planet to be enjoyed by the Crackers, a race of peaceful, humanoid creatures that he created from scratch. MaddAddam takes place in the wreckage after the plague, where the 15 or so humans left on Earth are trying to rebuild some semblance of society, while learning to coexist with the new, strangely guileless race that Crake left behind. Toby — an older woman who is secretly in love with the survivors’ sarcastic, danger-loving leader Zeb — has been somewhat unwillingly adopted as the Crackers’ spiritual leader and it is her experiences that narrate the novel, as she translates the chaos of events into stories that the child-like Crackers can understand.
But it’s Atwood’s readers who may initially struggle to follow the plot as they encounter a barrage of futuristic language on every page. At its best this invented vocabulary carries you along with the same invigorating energy of the droogs’ slang in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, but at other times it feels laboured, distracting you from the narrative instead of immersing you in it. Readers familiar with the first two books in the series will find their footing more easily; but while MaddAddam completes the trilogy, it can also be read as stand-alone novel and those readers coming to Atwood’s dystopia for the first time may find it takes a while to acclimatise themselves.
Luckily, learning the lexicon is worth the effort because the world that Atwood has created is fascinating and the narrative — which jumps back and forth between the intensity of the survivors’ makeshift community and scenes of the vast, decaying society that existed before the plague — is unpredictable and gripping. But the most engaging part of the novel is the way that Atwood explores the idea of storytelling itself.
“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told,” she reflects. We watch as Toby lies in Zeb’s arms late at night, listening to the complicated and violent episodes that have made up her lover’s life and then, at the start of each chapter, we see how she simplifies the tangle of truth into stories that the curious Crackers accept as the foundations of their evolving folklore.
We are separated by so many millennia from the poets and fireside storytellers who first created versions of the mythologies and folktales that we are steeped in, that it is difficult to imagine what real events, if any, might have inspired their origins. So it is a thrill to watch that process unfurl before our eyes — to see how a botched kidnapping that led to Zeb nearly starving to death in the mountains becomes the trickster-like tale of “How Zeb Ate a Bear”. Or how the Crackers overhearing the exclamation “Oh fuck” necessitates Toby inventing an invisible winged deity of that name, who flies to our side in times of need. Conjuring up fanciful or plausible visions of the apocalypse might be attention-grabbing, but until it happens it’s just another story that we tell ourselves to try and make sense of the world — to understand where we came from and where we might be going.