Review: MaddAddam Trilogy

My last Fangirl Friday post was about the post-apocalyptic, dystopian books I’d been reading, and it ended with a prediction that I’d need a dedicated post to rave about the trilogy I’d just begun. Well, I was right!

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which she prefers to call speculative fiction, presents a deeply disturbing, poignant, and mesmerizing view of a not-too-distant future that is all too easy to believe might happen.

This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology run amok. About rampant disregard for the environment and all forms of life. About corporate greed and scientific hubris. But also about profound grace, astonishing beauty, and the very essence of what it means to be human.

The story initially centers around two dissimilar young men who befriend each other while living in a corporate compound where their parents work. They head off to different colleges, then meet up again for an engrossing sequence of life-altering events. They team up with a mysterious young woman who is important to both of them in different ways. By the later books, there are a maze of intersecting stories and a large cast of characters that includes snake ladies of the evening, a commune of nature worshipers, predatory survivors of gladiator-style prison games, and a tribe of petite, genetically engineered humanoids whose genitals turn blue when they want to have sex.

Many colorful characters recount their tales, jumping around chronologically until you begin to fully understand what has happened to decimate the world they once knew. These are not straightforward narratives, they require concentration and analysis, but you’re richly rewarded with eloquent prose, riveting stories, and ingenious creations that might burrow into your dreams and never leave.

For more about this wondrous and quite possibly prophetic series, with minimal spoilers, join me after the jump.

Book 1, Oryx and Crake, is told through the voice of a young man named Jimmy. He wanders around, often hallucinating and half incoherent, describing a world that has fallen apart around him. (I had a fever myself when I read the first half of this book, which made it doubly hard to follow his ramblings.) This world is populated by an extensive array of gene-splicing experiments, which have replaced many of the natural species that have died out, but as far as Jimmy can tell, he’s the only human left alive.

He reminisces about his childhood and college days, an unrequited first love he still pines for, and his friend Glenn at the corporate compound where he grew up. Glenn was a scientific prodigy with whom he played a subversive, online game called Extinctathon, complete with secret code names and this logon screen:
EXTINCTATHON, Monitored by MaddAddam. Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play?
By the end of the book, I had a tenuous understanding of how and why many of the people had died — with a lot of gaps left to fill in. I also figured out that Oryx and Crake were pseudonyms that stood for ... if I explained that to you here, you’d get a better feel for why this is such a compelling story, but it would spoil all the head scratching fun of trying to figure it out as you read!

Through Jimmy’s memories, we see what the world was like before it fell apart, a world ruled by corporations and their private security forces. Corporations segregated the population into the elites who worked for them and “pleebs” who didn’t. Technology companies with names like OrganInc and HelthWizer safeguarded imprisoned their employees intellectual properties with their families in secure compounds. Rivals frequently kidnapped overachieving competitors to suck their knowledge out of their brains. Literally. Suck. Out. Their. Brains.

Jimmy rescues a child-like group of humans known as Crakers, who were genetically engineered by Crake to be “perfect”. Crake gave them traits from various animals that he thought would be helpful, such as the aforementioned blue genitals from baboons and the feline ability to heal each other by purring. Crakers graze on simple vegetation, like leaves and kudzu. (Speaking as someone who grew up in the southern U.S., eating kudzu was a stroke of genius! That stuff can grow a foot a day in all directions.) They are naïve and gentle. They know nothing about the real world outside the ruined building where they were created. They have lost their creator, so Jimmy becomes their protector and they call him Snowman. He establishes a ritual of putting on his Red Sox baseball cap, eating a fish they cook for him, and telling them bedtime stories to answer their existential questions about who they are and what happened to Crake and the world around them.

The genetic engineering in this book is mind-boggling and completely grossed me out. Species are spliced in combinations that range from intriguing to downright cruel, often merely for fun or to incite mischief as tools of the resistance. Some interesting ones are rakunks (raccoon/skunks), liobams (lion/lambs, perhaps inspired by biblical scriptures), and Mo’Hair sheep, which grow human hair of all different colors and types. Some spliced animals are designed for food. Meat protein is also grown in labs as amorphous blobs or headless body parts, like ChickieNobs. As appealing and utterly undisturbing (!) as that sounds, it still beats SecretBurgers, the ultimate in fast-food mystery meat, an unspecified mix of whatever was found lying around (you know, roadkill, murder victims, and missing pets or relatives).

Most notably, there are highly intelligent, giant pigs (pigoons) gifted with human neocortex tissue and human organs for harvesting — also used by some, of course, for bacon. So much ethical ickiness here.

And people pay for all sorts of bizarre anti-aging genetic mumbo jumbo and parts replacement in spas and for new genetic identities to evade the law. What’s scary is that all this stuff is not far fetched; it’s either already in the works or could be soon, though consequences can be enormous and ethical guidelines often lag far behind.

This was a challenging book for me, hard to follow (in part due to the flu) and very depressing. The flat-out amazingness of the world Atwood created powered me through. If Wench Merit and others hadn’t recommended this series very highly, I would probably have checked reader reviews online before deciding whether to continue. But as it was, I plowed right into book 2, and I really enjoyed it from the beginining.

Book 2, The Year of the Flood, covers the first book’s time period through the eyes of other characters, before eventually dovetailing with the ending of book 1 and moving beyond. We get to know the God’s Gardeners, an eco-religion sect hiding out from the rest of the world. They are peaceful, vegetarian hippie-types (mostly) who grow their own food, eschew technology, and try to live in harmony with nature, but their mythology is really over the top — and quite entertaining!
We should not have allowed Melissa to lag so far behind us. Via the conduit of a wild dog pack, she has now made the ultimate Gift to her fellow Creatures, and has become part of God’s great dance of proteins.

Put Light around her in your hearts.
They are at least smart enough to save seeds and preserve traditional methods of farming so they can help restore the food supply if when it’s destroyed.

This book is structured around the Gardeners’ holy feast holidays, recounted during various years since mankind was wiped out by The Waterless Flood (a biblical reference to God promising Noah that he’d never kill mankind with water again). Each holiday celebrates a saint, an animal, and a seasonal activity. The Gardeners’ leader sermonizes about the meaning of the holiday and relates it to whatever has been going on around them. This gives you a brief glimpse of what has happened to the world in the years since The Waterless Flood, and how it has changed since the last time we checked in for a holiday feast.

Some of the feasts made sense to me, like Pollination Day and Predator Day, and some were just silly, like Podocarp Day and Feast of Crocodylidae. But I really got a giggle out of some of the saints, an interesting assortment of environmental champions and spokespersons for flora and fauna, such as Saint Bridget Stutchbury of Shade Coffee, Saint Linnaeus of Botanical Nomenclature, Saint Stephen Jay Gould of the Jurassic Shales, Saint Jacques Cousteau, Saint Rachel Carson and All Birds, Saint Karen Silkwood, and Saint Stephen King of Pureora Forest in New Zealand.
Today is Saint Dian’s Day, consecrated to interspecies empathy. On this day we invoke Saint Jerome of Lions, and Saint Robert Burns of Mice, and Saint Christopher Smart of Cats; also Saint Farley Mowat of Wolves, and the Ikhwan al-Safa and their Letter of the Animals. But especially Saint Dian Fossey, who gave her life while defending the Gorillas from ruthless exploitation.
I’m old enough to remember when people made fun of natural foods spokesman Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, for eating “twigs and tree bark” when he appeared in commercials for “healthy” cereals:

This day marks the beginning of Saint Euell’s Week, during which we will be foraging for the Wild Harvest gifts that God, through Nature, has put at our disposal.
Each holiday sermon is followed by a hymn written just for that occasion (sung to musical accompaniment in the audio book!), and then by a new tale told by one of the characters. Eventually, the Gardeners find a very sick Jimmy and his Crakers, from book 1, and welcome them into their community.

As a gardener, I am NOT a fan of tunes 5 and 6

This book introduces Toby, who comes to live with the God’s Gardeners and befriends the resident herbalist and healer, Pilar, also known as Eve Six. (The group’s leaders have official names that are numbered versions of Adam and Eve. The group’s founder is known as Adam One.) When it is Pilar’s time to die, she asks Toby to assume her duties as the next Eve Six. These include beekeeping and honey gathering, and in this regard Pilar asks her to “go tell the bees that I am gone”. This is the title of the next book in the Outlander series, and I had never heard of the tradition before this title was announced. So I found Toby’s evolving partnership with her bees over the years to be fascinating. Not fascinating enough to try it myself, but I am a bit envious of her loyal garden assistants and occasional protective army.
“Bees,” she said. “I bring news. You must tell your Queen.”

Were they listening? Perhaps. They were nibbling gently at the edges of her dried tears. For the salt, a scientist would say.

“Pilar is dead,” she said. “She sends you her greetings, and her thanks for your friendship over many years. When the time comes for you to follow her to where she has gone, she will meet you there.”
Yes, they know her. They touch her lips, gather her words, fly away with the message, disappear into the dark. Pass through the membrane that separates this world from the unseen world that lies just underneath it.
If you didn’t tell the bees everything that was going on, Pilar said, their feelings would be hurt and they’d swarm and go elsewhere. Or they’d die. The bees on her face hesitated: maybe they could feel her trembling. But they could tell grief from fear, because they didn’t sting. After a moment they lifted up and flew away, blending with the circling multitudes above the hives.

Book 3, MaddAddam, is named after an online game monitor/Internet hacker and a resistance group of gene-splicing geeks. It unfolds as an oral history told from various points of view, about past events, to fill in missing pieces of the timeline, and the present, as they are forced to flee their communities and then regroup and rebuild. They face some unexpected foes, but they gain some very intriguing allies along the way, too!

One of the primary points of view is Toby’s. While Jimmy (now Snowman-the-Jimmy to the Crakers) convalesces, she continues his ritual of telling bedtime stories to the Crakers. Like Jimmy, she makes up bullshit that paints their creator as benevolent rather than sociopathic, their origin as wise and well planned rather than impulsive and narcissistic, and The Waterless Flood as a thoughtful Great Rearrangement or “clearing of the chaos” by their protector rather than mass murder. (In other words, she is bringing order out of the chaos for them.)
In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you.

Yes, good, kind Crake.
He made your bones out of the coral on the beach, which is white like bones but not smelly. And he made your flesh out of a mango, which is sweet and soft. He did all this inside the giant Egg, and he had some helpers there. And Snowman-the-Jimmy was his friend — he was inside the Egg as well.

And Oryx was there too.
[snip] And she laid two smaller owl eggs, inside the giant Egg. One smaller owl egg was full of animals and birds and fish — all her Children. [lengthy diversion moved below]

The other egg she laid was full of words. But that egg hatched first, before the one with the animals in it, and you ate up many of the words, because you were hungry; which is why you have words inside you. And Crake thought that you had eaten all the words, so there were none left over for the animals, and that was why they could not speak. But he was wrong about that. Crake was not always right about everything...
On one hand, these conversations are absolutely hilarious and I LMAO all the way through them. Crakers are blank slates, with no education, no exposure to the “real world”, and little knowledge of negative human emotions that were engineered out of them. Everything she tries to tell them elicits so many questions that she can’t finish without gently telling them, over and over, to STFU. I liked Atwood’s one-sided conversational style, which let me merely imagine the questions in my mind. Toby has the patience of a saint.
Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story.
In response to the tale of Oryx’s egg full of all her children (removed from quote above):

Yes, and bees. And butterflies too. And ants, yes. And beetles — very many beetles. And snakes. And frogs. And maggots. And rakunks, and bobkittens, and Mo’Hairs, and Pigoons.

Thank you, but I don’t think we need to list every one of them.

Because we would be here all night.

Let us just say that Oryx made very many Children. And each one was beautiful in its own special way.

Yes, it was kind of her to make each and every one of them, inside the smaller owl egg that she laid. Except maybe the mosquitoes.
...[Zeb] 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.

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. Everyone.

Yes, you as well. Sometime. Not yet. Not for a long time.

I don’t know why. Crake made it that way.

Because... [snip]

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 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. [snip]

Zeb put on the bear’s fur to keep warm.

Because he was very cold. ...Because of the mountains all around, with snow on the top.

Snow is water that is frozen into little pieces called snowflakes. Frozen is when water becomes hard like a rock.

No, snowflakes have nothing to do with Snowman-the-Jimmy. I don’t know why part of his name is almost the same as a snowflake.
Snowman tells stories to the Crakers
in Oryx and Crake [Source]
On the other hand, they’re thought provoking attempts to explain complicated and often frightening concepts and events to child-like minds. Or naughty words. When they overhear Snowman-the-Jimmy say “Oh, fuck”, the Crakers want to know who Fuck is, which inspires an ongoing tale about an invisible helper named Fuck, who flies quickly to the side of those who call his name.

“Who is this Fuck?” says Abraham Lincoln. “Why is he talking to this Fuck? That is not the name of anyone here.”

“We would like to hear the story of 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.”
Sometimes Fuck is handy for answering the deep questions:

Why were the bad people doing that? Because of Money. Money was invisible, like Fuck. They thought that Money was their helper; they thought he was a better helper than Fuck. But they were wrong about that. Money was not their helper. Money goes away just when you need it. But Fuck is very loyal.
Toby’s worries about the power her words give her over the Crakers provide some examination of the nature of oral histories and creation myths: how they are created and passed down, how they can shape a culture and a future.
People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.
There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.
This book introduces and gleefully eviscerates the Church of PetrOleum. Which is a prosperity gospel that exalts fossil fuel profit as a gift from God to be exploited for the wealth of a few elites without regard for the destruction it wreaks on the flora, fauna, and human population. Needless to say, it has a large part in bringing on the apocalypse. Nail. On. The. Head.
The Rev had his very own cult. [great stuff deleted here due to space] You had to give the guy some credit. He was twisted as a pretzel, he was a tinfoil-halo snot-nosed frogstomping king rat asshole, but he wasn’t stupid.

(I couldn’t resist that little gem of hilariously crafted word salad that inspires the most colorful images in my mind!)

The Rev had nailed together a theology to help him rake in the cash. Naturally he had a scriptural foundation for it. Matthew, Chapter 16, Verse 18: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

It didn’t take a rocket-science genius, the Rev would say, to figure out that
Peter is the Latin word for rock, and therefore the real, true meaning of ‘Peter’ refers to petroleum, or oil that comes from rock. ‘So this verse, dear friends, is not only about Saint Peter: it is a prophecy a vision of the Age of Oil, and the proof, dear friends, is right before your eyes, because look! What is more valued by us today than oil?’ [snip]

‘My friends, as we all know,
oleum is the Latin word for oil. And indeed, oil is holy throughout the Bible! What else is used for the anointing of priests and prophets and kings? Oil! [snip] The Holy Oleum must not be hidden under a bushel — in other words, left underneath the rocks — for to do so is to flout the Word! Lift up your voices in song, and let the Oleum gush forth in ever stronger and all-blessed streams!’
...anyone who liked smelling the daisies, and having daisies to smell, and eating mercury-free fish, and who objected to giving birth to three-eyed infants via the toxic sludge in their drinking water was a demon-possessed Satanic minion of darkness, hell-bent on sabotaging the American Way and God’s Holy Oil, which were one in the same.
Can I get an Amen!

A garden on every roof,
and wall, and balcony
I love that the entire series is a glowing testament to the value of growing healthy communities and gardens, both real and metaphorical, and living in balance. There is a stark contrast between the peaceful God’s Gardeners conclave and the groups they are hiding out from. The sterile, sequestered, and strictly authoritarian corporate compounds, despite all their luxuries, see natural law only as something to conquer and exploit for company profit. In the seemingly lawless “pleeblands” overrun by hucksters and felons, survival is paramount and no one has the luxury of contemplating nature. For all their overzealous deification of nature, the God’s Gardeners attempt to honor natural patterns and to welcome all of the world’s inhabitants as equals. And the Crakers live in complete harmony with the natural world and each other, free of the human foibles of jealousy, greed, selfishness, and dishonesty — and unable to protect themselves.

The MaddAddam trilogy invents a remarkably creative world that is different enough from our modern reality to relentlessly fascinate and yet similar enough to terrify. Its message is unreservedly bleak at (many most) times. The future of this world might not be what we want, and might not include humans in a form we now recognize — a theme I also found recently in the Wayward Pines trilogy. Yet Atwood, the consummate wordsmith, manages to tease out a wealth of beauty where you least expect it, tiny miracles of rebirth and rhapsodies of rhetorical splendor, even amidst the atrocities. And thereby gives us hope that life will go on, one way or another, in the direction that’s ultimately best for it.

I was curious why no one has put this on screen yet, and read that Darren Aronofsky has been working on creating a television mini-series. His deal with HBO fell through in October, but he’s still looking for a network. I’m not sure it’s possible to do justice to this series on screen, but I admire his dedication to trying to make that happen. It would be a monumental accomplishment ... and (pun intended) monstrously good entertainment.

This Wench rates the MaddAddam series:


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