It’s Impossible to Read Margaret Atwood’s Trilogy Without Feeling Shaken

The final installment of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam series gives readers a brief summary of the first two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, then picks up where readers were left breathlessly hanging when The Year of the Flood concluded, in 2009. Five years ago, Jimmy, aka Snowman, thinking himself the last man alive, had stumbled onto the beach and spotted two men and a woman. Feverish and sick, he had no idea if these people were good or evil. The book ends just as he’s about to find out.

Unless readers have read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, reading MaddAddam with true comprehension and full appreciation is nearly impossible. If you have not read the first two books of the series, I envy you the pleasure that awaits.

Jimmy, who in MaddAddam becomes Snowman-The-Jimmy, is far from the only human left alive. There are a few God’s Gardeners, chronicled in The Year of the Flood, including Amanda, Ren, Shackelton, and Crozier. Other survivors include former players of the internet game Extinctathon, a cover for people who perpetrated acts against the elite Corporate Compounds and the ruling security force, the CorpSeCorps.

Players of Extinctathon, as part of the game’s rules, had to take the name of an extinct species. These people were rounded up by one of the players, Glenn, aka Crake, and forced to work for him creating a perfected race of humans. Crake was also hard at work on a pill he dubbed BlyssPluss, guaranteed to give users birth control, sexual ecstasy, and youthful vigor.

Unfortunately, BlyssPluss also contained a nasty microbe that wiped out most of mankind in what God’s Gardeners called “the waterless flood”. Crake and his lover, Oryx, perished in the “chaos” following the waterless flood. Jimmy and Crake were best friends; Jimmy was in love with Oryx and longs for her.

The “humans” Crake and his colleagues created survived the waterless flood, along with Jimmy, who Crake was careful to inoculate, ensuring his creations, nicknamed Crakers, would have a caregiver. Jimmy shepherds the Crakers from their biological birthplace to the seashore, which he hopes is comparatively safer. Here they live free of fear, anger, the need for clothing, agriculture (they are herbivores), or insecticide. They mate seasonally and are free from sexual jealousy, kinship structures, or hierarchies of any kind.

Oryx and Crake is the only Atwood novel with a male narrator. The Year of the Flood,however, sees the author in a more conventional mode: though Jimmy still has a main role, he is joined by characters Ren (Brenda), a young dancer locked up in strip club, and Toby, a wry, wary older woman.

Toby spends much of The Year of the Flood holed up in AnooYoo Spa, where Zeb, a God’s Gardeners leader and builder of Extinctathon, has placed her for protection. When the waterless flood comes, she also thinks herself alone, having no idea the ex-Extinctathoners, Jimmy, or Ren are all within walking distance. Secretly in love with Zeb, she fears him dead.

When Painballers — violent convicts — kidnap Amanda and Ren in The Year of ohe Flood, Ren manages to escape and find Toby. The women set out for the beach, where they find Amanda and the two Painballers. It is then that Jimmy bursts through the brush.Toby quickly takes over the situation, only to be stunned by the Crakers, whose existence she was unaware of. The Crakers view Jimmy as their prophet and follow him everywhere.

What follows is mayhem. The initial human/Craker interaction is high comedy, for Crakers are completely literal beings lacking any concept of pain or violence. To Toby’s horror, the Painballers escape into the woods. MaddAdam begins here.

* * *

MaddAdam, though dystopian, is in many ways a hopeful novel. The survivors band together at the parkland cobb house where, not so long ago, the God’s Gardeners sold soap and honey to Pleeblanders and Compound wives out slumming for an afternoon. Rebecca, the former God’s Gardeners cook, is trying to feed the group creatively with limited animal protein, plants, and the occasional foraged Oreo, now a luxurious treat. Craving meat of any kind, the group is guiltily eating dog ribs and pigoon chops. They are trying to garden and build onto the cobb structure, which was never intended to house people. And they’re all trying to get along.

The narrative moves from Jimmy, whose injured foot in The Year of the Flood has left him comatose and feverish, to Toby, who is slowly nursing him back to health. Toby is older than most of the women at the cobb house; we’re given to understand she is past menopause. This, along with her formidable healing powers and extensive knowledge of mushrooms and other plants, lends her respect, but her newfound relationship with Zeb is a source of jealousy. She does her best to remain controlled, even as Swift Fox, a biologist before the waterless flood, flirts outrageously with Zeb.

All mankind tell stories—as Joan Didion puts it, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. And so it is that Zeb lies in Toby’s arms and tells her the story of himself. This story includes Adam. A little later, it includes Pilar, and a young, strikingly bright boy named Glenn, who Zeb teaches computer coding. A little after that, Adam creates a game called Extinctathon, and invites Glenn, barely a teenager at the time, to join.

Glenn shows Extinctathon to his friend Jimmy, but Jimmy isn’t impressed. Jimmy misses Extinctathon’s implications. Jimmy’s self-centeredness means he misses the implications of everything Glenn does until it’s too late. He blunders through life, hapless, smart enough to know better, until he finds himself alone on a destroyed beach with Crake’s bioengineered humans, who beg him for stories of Crake, their creator, and Oryx, mother of all the animals.

* * *

Each night Zeb tells Toby a little more, a male Scheherezade spinning out a web of characters: a difficult childhood with a corrupt and abusive father, a greedy mother, his complicated relationship with and to Adam. His early adulthood wandering the pleeblands, becoming streetwise, meeting people like Katrina WooWoo, owner of the original Scales and Tales. How he ended up in a Compound, where he met Pilar and Glenn. Meeting Glenn’s mother, Rhoda. Working with Adam on what becomes a “game” called Extinctathon.

Toby listens carefully. She distills some of Zeb’s stories into a simplified format and repeats them to the fascinated Crakers. If Jimmy is their Prophet, Oryx and Crake their Gods, then Zeb is a source of awe.

Stories pitting good against evil require the evil element be persistent. After the waterless flood, the survivors are left with the escaped Painballers. Men who emerge from the Painball prisons are monsters without empathy, violent, barely human. Their presence is hazardous to the mini-community at the cobb house and the Crakers, who have no concept of danger. Worse, Adam has been missing since the waterless flood, and Zeb fears the Painballers may have him.

The humans must also deal with two transgenic species: the Crakers and the pigoons. Initially the Crakers are annoying in their naiveté; everything is a source of endless questioning. Atwood has great fun with “fuck”. Hearing this expletive, the Crakes mistake “fuck” for a person. Toby corrects them: “fuck” is a spirit called upon for guidance in times of need. The Crakers accept this. Through the rest of the story, whenever help is necessary, they helpfully suggest calling on fuck.

A young Craker named Blackbeard becomes attached to Toby, often creeping into her room while she’s asleep. Amused by his questions, she teaches him to read and write. He shares his newfound knowledge with the other Crakers, who rapidly acquire symbolic knowledge. Crakers have always longed to hear stories; now they can tell them.

Then there are the pigoons. Originally engineered as organ hosts, their brains house human neocortex tissue. They’ve been waging war with humankind since the waterless flood, fighting over scarce resources. They tunnel repeatedly into the cobb house gardens; the humans return the favor by making bacon of them, which they eat uneasily. The pigoons are able to communicate with the Crakers, who in turn communicate with the humans. A much-needed negotiation ensues.

Though it’s clearly too late to get ourselves back to the garden—too much was destroyed in the waterless flood, and the current inhabitants are very different from the originals—humans persist, even is this highly altered state. Many of the surviving God’s Gardeners were children in The Year of the Flood. Now they’ve reached the age of marriage and reproduction, and even in this post-apocalyptic mess, where everything must be remade, they are pairing off. And the gene pool is mixing happily: women are getting pregnant, babies are being born.

Every individual, biologically human, engineered, or a bit of both, carries within the longing for stories: to be told stories and to tell them, both orally and in writtem form. This wish transcends eye color, mosquito resistance, and sexual drive, unifying all humanity: we tell ourselves stories in order to live.

No reader can finish the trilogy without feeling shaken. Yet this final novel closes on a surprisingly upbeat note. Humanity, in all its permutations, is moving forward. Love is still possible, and not just for the young. It’s heartening to hear from this frighteningly prophetic author that hope is among the possibilities.

RATING 9 / 10