After Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, I was expecting an action-packed end to Margaret Atwood’s end-of-the-world trilogy, but I should have known better. This novel is not trying to do what Philip Pullman’s third novel failed to do well—tying together the threads of all the different plots and sub-plots. It is rooted in the present, as we’ve come to know it in the previous two novels. It is narrated by a character we’ve come to know well. And in order to tell a story that matters to the whole world, it is a story about making oral and written history; as Andrew Sean Greer points out in his NYTimes review, “gradually, we realize that this is how we ourselves understand our own world.”
One of the foremost pleasures of this novel is the delicious morsels of satire scattered generously throughout. Here is one of my favorites:
“Bearlift was a scam, or partly a scam. It didn’t take anyone with half a brain too long to figure that one out. Unlike many scams it was well meaning, but it was a scam nonetheless. It lived off the good intentions of city types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving something—some rag from their primordial authentic ancestral past; a tiny shred of their collective soul dressed up in a cute bear suit. The concept was simple: the polar bears are starving because the ice is almost gone and they can’t catch seals any more, so let’s feed them our leftovers until they learn to adapt….
I remember adapt….It was another way of saying tough luck. To people you weren’t going to help out.
….feeding trash to the bears didn’t help them adapt, it just taught them that food falls out of the sky. They’d start slavering every time they heard the sound of a ‘thopter. They had their very own cargo cult.”
The satire gets less delicious as it hits closer to wherever you call home, however. This one hit me squarely where I live:
“The least said the better online, even if you thought your space was secure. The net had always been just that—a net, full of holes, all the better to trap you with; and it still was, despite the fixes they claimed to be adding constantly, with the impenetrable algorithms and the passwords and thumb scans.
But what else did they expect? With code serfs like him in charge of the security keys, of course the thing was going to leak. The pay was too low, so the temptation to pilfer, snoop, snitch, and sell for high rewards was great. But the penalties were getting more extreme, which was a counterbalance of sorts. Online thieves were increasingly professional….Few were hacking for the pure lulz of it any more, or even to register protests, as they had in the golden years of legend that middle-aged guys wearing retro Anonymous masks got all nostalgic about in the dim, cobwebby, irrelevant corners of the web.
What good would registering a protest do you any more? The Corps were moving to set up their own private secret-service outfits and seize control of the artillery; not a month passed without the arrival of some new weapons law pretending to safeguard the public. Old-style demonstration politics were dead. You culd get back at individual targets such as the Rev using underhanded means, but any kind of public action involving crowds and sign-waving and then storefront smashing would be shot off at the knees. Increasingly, everyone knew that.”
The genius of the novel lies in the plausibility of the timeline, the way some of these things have already begun to happen, and how terrifyingly close the end of the line of dominoes could be.
There’s so much of the kind of satire in this book that can really make you think, especially if you’ve just watched John Green explain the American healthcare system:
“They’re using their vitamin supplement pills and over-the-counter painkillers as vectors for diseases—ones for which they control the drug treatments. Whatever’s in the white ones is in actual deployment. Random distribution, so no one will suspect a specific location of being ground zero. They make money all ways: on the vitamins, then on the drugs, and finally on the hospitalization when the illness takes firm hold. As it does, because the treatment drugs are loaded too.”
It would take so little for our world to become like the world of MaddAddam. So very little. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, it could happen so suddenly that something like the sight of an ordinary dishtowel could trigger a memory of the time before the end of the world. This is why Toby, the protagonist of MaddAddam, thinks “she needs to post a Boil Water advisory….Seeing water actually coming out of a tap, some people might get carried away.”
The world goes on, though. A few people survive, and in this novel they begin interbreeding with the “Crakers” from Oryx and Crake. After telling them stories out loud for the length of the novel, Toby finally teaches one of the young Crakers to write, and he says, “Oh Toby, when you are too tired to do it, next time I will write the story. I will be your helper.”
The inevitable omissions and misunderstandings about what is clearly destined to become an origin story for the Crakers’ Brave New World are apparent in the tale from its beginnings; the Crakers revere Crake as the Creator and Oryx as the mother of all beasts, both natural and bio-engineered. The stories Toby tells are always punctuated with interruptions from and qualifications to her Craker audience:
“After Zeb came back from the high and tall mountains with snow on top, and after he had taken off the skin of the bear and put it on himself, he said Thank You to the bear. To the spirit of the bear.
Because the bear didn’t eat him, but allowed him to eat it instead, and also because it gave him its fur skin to put on.
A spirit is the part of you that doesn’t die when your body dies.
Dies is…it’s what the fish do when they are caught and then cooked.
No, it is not only fish that die. People do it as well.
Yes, you as well. Sometime. Not yet. Not for a long time.
I don’t know why. Crake made it that way.
Because if nothing ever died, but everything had more and more babies, the world would get too full and there wouldn’t be any room.
No, you will not be cooked on a fire when you die.
Because you are not a fish.
No, the bear was not a fish either. And it died in a bear way. Not in a fish way. So it was not cooked on a fire.
Yes, maybe Zeb said Thank You to Oryx too. As well as to the bear.
Because Oryx let Zeb eat one of her children. Oryx knows that some of her Children eat other ones; that is the way they are made. The ones with sharp teeth. So she knew that Zeb could eat one of her Children too, because he was very hungry.”
The occasional additions to the way we humans might have intended to tell the tale are amusing, like the character called Fuck:
“But Fuck kept him company and gave him advice. Fuck lived in the air and flew around like a bird, which was how he could be with Zeb one minute, and then with Crake, and then also with Snowman-the-Jimmy. He could be in many places at once. If you were in trouble and you called to him—Oh Fuck!—he would always be there, just when you needed him. And as soon as you said his name, you would feel better.”
Toby simplifies some things as she shapes her story to her Craker audience, but the simplification augments the truth, which is that if humans keep going on the way we’re going, the end is near. Once you’ve read Atwood’s character telling the tale, you won’t be able to pass it on without the occasional pun or joke, either. In the end is the beginning, as you can see from reversing the title.