AT­WOOD HAS AL­WAYS BEEN POS­SESSED OF A KEEN EYE FOR THE AB­SUR­DI­TIES OF HU­MAN NA­TURE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

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.

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