ATWOOD HAS ALWAYS BEEN POSSESSED OF A KEEN EYE FOR THE ABSURDITIES OF HUMAN NATURE
ness and glittering mutability of an 18th-century novel, not least in its deliberate mingling of satire, the fantastic and the allegorical.
As in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood there are places where the tension between these various elements can be frustrating, perhaps most obviously in the mismatch between the satirical and speculative elements. In interviews Atwood has made much of the research behind the books, and her determination to restrict herself to technologies that are either already extant or theoretically possible, a point she reiterates in the afterword to MaddAddam.
It’s a claim that can’t be read in separation from Atwood’s continuing attempts to enforce a division between what she describes as speculative fiction, which explores things that might actually happen, and science fiction, which is about stuff that cannot (as she notoriously put it, ‘‘ talking squids in outer space’’).
But it’s also a claim that makes the crudeness of the speculative elements of the trilogy all the more peculiar. Certainly it’s difficult to reconcile the curiously identikit nature of her futuristic landscapes with the acerbic brilliance of her human observation, or the careful attention to scientific detail with the heavy-handedness and implausibility of the awful neologisms that litter the series (‘‘AnooYoo’’, ‘‘ VegiVows’’, ‘‘ CorpSeCorps’’).
Yet ironically it’s this same tension and, more particularly, Atwood’s refusal to resolve it that make the books so powerful. As the title of the latter suggests, both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood derive much of their energy from the way they manage to operate simultaneously as satirical science fiction and something closer to allegory, a process that reaches its apotheosis in the final moments of The Year of the Flood, when the singing Crakers approach from the lake, bringing with them mystery and the possibility of salvation.
Despite its many pleasures there’s nothing in MaddAddam to rival the exquisite power of that moment, or indeed the sheer strangeness of the Gardeners’ songs in The Year of the Flood. To a degree this is inevitable: while Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are overtly allegorical, retellings of the stories of Eden and the Fall, in MaddAddam religious allegory has been superseded by a broader critique of religion, and of the ambivalent power of stories more generally: as Gardener Toby finds herself worrying after one of the Crakers begins to learn how to write, What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How long until they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret?
Yet it’s also because this strange, occasionally frustrating, frequently dazzling novel is itself a sort of testament, not just to the passing away of things, but to the fact that even in the midst of death, we are in life.