The label “science fiction” is one which many authors have sought to avoid being trapped within. The great John Wyndham referred to his own works as “a modified form of science fiction,” and indeed while his greatest works may have been triggered by extraterrestrial events, a meteor shower which caused endemic blindness in all but a few of the population or an alien invasion which caused catastrophic sea rises, cutting off populations and destroying food supplies, these were stories of people, of humanity in times of global crisis, of how quickly society collapses, how even those who strive to behave with dignity and honour are inevitably compromised in order to survive.
So it is with the great Margaret Atwood, who has stated firmly that everything depicted in her recently completed trilogy, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, is not science fiction but is firmly within the realms of terrifying possibility. Like Wyndham, her books are warnings of that which is all to close to reality.
Possibly best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, upon publication in 1985 it would have seemed outrageous speculation that the United States of America could become a fundamental religious state where women were relegated to second class citizens, their reproductive cycle governed by the state, where daring to question the ruling militarised regime was treasonable, yet time has shown how closely America has slipped towards the vision of the Republic of Gilead.
Published ten years after the first volume of the trilogy, MaddAddam opens with a gratefully received refresher covering the key events and characters of the first two volumes, an inclusion that many other authors might wish to consider even when not working over such an extended period before the action resumes moments after the finale of that summary.
America, and very likely the world beyond, has been decimated by a plague, the “flood without water,” and the few human survivors share their world with the genetically modified Crakers, protohumans who can subsist entirely on vegetation but with the minds of children, and also other more dangerous transgenic creatures such as the pigoons, designed to grow human brain tissue for transplants but whose enhanced intelligence has moved them from herd animals to strategic hunters, resentful of the survivors who once looked on them as little more than “Frankenbacon.”
Told in an interweaved narrative, Toby keeps a diary as she struggles with the daily routine of life without the most basic amenities, caring for the Crakers, dealing with the shuffling attempts at powerplays within the survivors and her growing attachment to Zeb, who recounts to Toby his own story of how his path lead him to be a to witness the prelude to the flood.
The mature relationship between Toby and Zeb is gentle and atypical in modern dramatic fiction, a romance which isn’t about hormonal teenagers, recognising that it’s not only the trouble of establishing a relationship after the apocalypse, making the best of what is to be had, it’s maintaining it, though some of the adults – and the Crakers – can be just as hormonal.
MaddAddam is very much a novel looking at the past, Zeb’s history recounted in tangled flashback. The son of a vicious Reverend of the Church of Petroleum, whose beliefs include that “Solar panels are Satan’s work,” it becomes a tale of the road, the tarmac crumbling as he morphs from one dead end personality to the next, yet retains his humanity as all around him the world grows worse and people turn cold and cruel. The ruling classes having abandoned any pretence that they are not using those below them as fodder, as prey, it was a society utterly rotten to the core and ripe for extinction when the flood was unleashed.
Reflecting Atwood herself, Toby is a writer, even though she is not sure who her diary may be for if there is no future generation? Forced to deal with what is now, what is ahead, Toby and the others have no time for regret or recriminations -“Repair what can’t be repaired, mend what can’t be mended, shoot what needs to be shot.” – and her diary keeps her sane, the same as it does for any writer, because there is too much inside, and she must get it out. Writing is magic to the Crakers, their outlook that of children despite their physical maturity, and the novel periodically lapses into direct conversation with them, attempting to communicate with those half evolved, half engineered, half baked, dangerously inquisitive trouble seekers.
Despite the accumulated history of the characters and their weary perspective, the feeling is not of a novel written by a woman in her seventies; it is absolutely current, modern and relevant, encompassing global warming and the movement resisting it, fracking, genetics and information technology, nor is it without humour, even when Zeb is on the run for his life, assailing passing cyclists and impersonating Bigfoot.
Beyond the unexpected role the Crakers play in the plot, they also serve a narrative purpose in the structure of the novel and because there are some things they simply will not understand, the decisions Toby makes about how she recounts it to them shapes her own viewpoint. “There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story, too.”