Life after the plague
By Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury, 416pp, $35 (HB)
IN 2003, three years after winning the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, an overtly science fictional cautionary tale about scientific hubris, environmental despoliation and unfettered capitalism set in the aftermath of a genetically engineered pandemic.
In 2009 Oryx and Crake was followed by The Year of the Flood, a second book set in the same world featuring bioterrorists, psychopathic survivors of the criminal justice system’s version of reality television and a delightfully nutty religious cult, God’s Gardeners, founded in the works of Darwin and EO Wilson.
Now, four years after The Year of the Flood and a decade after Oryx and Crake, comes MaddAddam, a third and final volume in the series, a book that seeks not just to chart the fate of the characters in the first two novels, but to close the narrative circle of the entire trilogy by unravelling the connections between the central players in the first two parts.
Like Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam begins in the aftermath of the pandemic engineered by Crake in the final pages of the first book. Yet where Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are probably better understood as companion volumes exploring the same events from different perspectives, MaddAddam is a sequel in the traditional sense, its action picking up in the immediate wake of the events at the end of The Year of the Flood.
As the novel opens the survivors of the first two books have retreated to the compound inhabited by the remaining Gardeners and a handful of MaddAddamites, a group of bioterrorists and scientists headed by the charismatic Zeb. Accompanying them are the Crakers, a band of blue-skinned genetically engineered post-humans.
Created by Crake as part of his plan to remake the Earth, the Crakers are a sort of prelapsarian fantasy of a humanity without sin, their minds and bodies programmed to make them nonviolent, immune to sexual jealousy, vegetarian (and, in a pleasant twist, capable of excreting a natural insect repellent, thereby negating the need for clothing).
Holed up in the compound, the group begins to build a life together, planting crops and attempting to educate the Crakers (many of this extremely funny book’s funniest moments are to be found in the deadpan onesided transcriptions of conversations with the ever-curious and incredibly literal-minded Crakers). Yet even as they do they are threatened both by the increasing boldness of the genetically engineered pigoons and, more worryingly, by the continuing threat from other, less peaceful human survivors.
Atwood has a lot of fun with the bickering survivors, deftly dissecting their petty disagreements and ponderous vanities. In a way this shouldn’t be surprising: Atwood has always possessed a keen eye for the absurdities of human nature, and a particularly wicked understanding of the way small groups interact, in particular those of an ideological bent. But in MaddAddam there’s an energy and ferocity that lends her wit a force that is often surprising and always exciting.
Given the distinctly Swiftian edge to the MaddAddam trilogy as a whole it’s probably not surprising this third and final book frequently exhibits something of the various-
Genetically engineered pigoons are one of the threats in the