MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Margaret Atwood clearly enjoyed writing the conclusion to her most recent post-apocalyptic trilogy. Her enthusiasm is sometimes palpable. There are mini-jokes and obscure references, and at times you can almost hear her snort with amusement at a turn of phrase. It’s a fascinating conclusion to a possible future, but the story is uneven and ends with a fizzle rather than a bang. (Perhaps that’s the way a story about “life finding a way” should end, however.)
MaddAddam completes the story begun with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood. The post-human creatures known as the Crakers are developing in ways their mad-scientist creator hadn’t anticipated, but they are still fundamentally helpless against hostility and don’t truly comprehend fear. The group of former cult members known as the God’s Gardeners and the big-brained MaddAddam scientists who helped create the Crakers are the only (known) humans left: except for the delirious Jimmy and two less-than-human Painballers, men who survived a man-eat-man prison game and now feel nothing but a need for violence.
The story mostly follows Toby–the ultra-practical former God’s Gardener to whom the Crakers gravitate–and Zeb, the man who bridged the gap between the God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddamites. Frustratingly, even though this feels like it truly ought to be Toby’s story outright, much of the interesting action is left to Zeb. The reader finally understands (most of) what happened with Jimmy and Crake and God’s Gardener leader Adam One.
It turns out that the day-to-day mechanics of survival are pretty mundane, and though that is the part o the story left for Toby to recount, there’s just not a lot that hasn’t already been covered. Besides, unlike Jimmy/Snowman in “Oryx and Crake,” Toby and Zeb are pretty good at basic survival. Though it isn’t glamorous, the basic needs are met. That leaves Toby with little to actually tell the reader.
Zeb, on the other hand, turns out to be a bountiful mine of information, as he (beyond believability) was present for just about every critical juncture in the Story of How The World Bit It. Zeb is not just Adam One’s right-hand man; he’s his brother. From their twisted abusive childhoods up through the discovery of super-genius Glenn/Crake and the founding of the God’s Gardeners cult, Zeb knows everything interesting, and he recounts his life story to Toby as they slowly allow themselves to fall in love.
For an otherwise intense and compelling story, the touches of romance between the two come off as cloying and unnecessary. Toby frets over “does he love me or not” more than I cared for. Frankly, it seemed a bit unlike her–though of course that could be the point. It felt like the romance was not there because it developed naturally, but because Toby needed something else to talk/think about beyond “are we going to survive today?” (Personally, survival alone would have been enough reason for me to read more.)
The best parts are undoubtedly when Toby recounts watered-down versions of Zeb’s stories to the incredulous and trusting but incredibly naive Crakers. Here we see one way myths could have been founded: trying to understand something that is beyond our scope. These parts are hilarious and frustrating and awe-inspiring all at the same time.
(Some spoilers below)
Personally, I’m frustrated with the way historically feminist writer Margaret Atwood handled the female characters. Sometimes it seems like Toby is the only useful female in the whole story, and that, apparently, is only because she is post-menopausal and otherwise, apparently, useless. Rebecca, who–while certainly a secondary character–at least had a distinct personality in “The Year of the Flood,” was reduced to scenery. Ren and Amanda are vehicles for other peoples’ trauma; they were not only assaulted by the Painballers, but raped by the Crakers, in a confusing scene that is later referred to only as a “cultural misunderstanding.” I didn’t even BELIEVE a rape had actually happened until Amanda turned up pregnant; some clearer, less vague, writing at that pivotal scene would have been helpful. And then, in a final affront, when it comes to the critical battle, ALL the women–except for Toby, who as we said “did not count”–are excluded because of concerns over their well-being. It is ridiculous, to me, that so many would have spent their time getting pregnant, and all at roughly the same time.
And after the final battle, the story just…sort of stops. Toby loses all her voice, and the story shifts over to one of the Crakers, a character who grows from a boy to a man during the novel. While this transition is perhaps inevitable, as the Crakers represent the “next phase” of humanity, it is unsatisfying. This is Toby’s story, and for it to be passed off without her even having a say in it feels incomplete and unfair. Rather than the “drop the mic” ending we got in “Oryx and Crake,” this ending feels like sneaking offstage while the audience isn’t looking. It feels like Atwood just didn’t know what to do so she just…stopped.
The book isn’t bad–certainly not–but I admit to being a touch disappointed in this final story in this rare post-apocalyptic survival story. I’d give it 3.5 stars.
This book could probably be read alone, but you’ll get a lot more out of the series as a whole if you read them in sequence. Or you could just read “Oryx and Crake” and be satisfied; that’s the best of the series, anyway.
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