maddaddam

(Maddaddam, by Margaret Atwood, 2013, McClelland & Stewart, $27.95)

Review by Nicholas P. Oakley

(This review contains some mild spoilers)

Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, is the final part of her post-apocalyptic trilogy and the much anticipated follow up to Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). Ten years after it began, readers finally get to discover the full fallout of the disease designed by Crake on the dwindling human survivors, and the picture it tells is bleak, at least for humanity.

But there’s something not quite right here. It all feels strangely familiar. Keen to distance herself from the label of science fiction writer, Atwood recovers a lot of very old, very worn ground. Gene splicing, nature-hating corporations, mad scientists, designer diseases, hackers, hypercapitalism, survivalist bands in a post-apocalyptic wasteland: these have all been done before, and, unfortunately, in many cases, much better too. And, while Maddaddam has received generally good press reviews, I’m not alone in making this observation. It doesn’t help that, aside from a short skit on religious evangelism, one feels that all of this, as they say in Battlestar Galactica, has happened before.

Where Atwood succeeded in Oryx and Crake and, to a lesser extent, The Year of the Flood, was to take these tired genre tropes and tell a really good story with some fascinating characters. That was the trilogy’s strong point, yet as Maddaddam slowly unfurls we’re left with a lot of those recycled Big Ideas but not much in the way of plot, and far too many wasted characters and opportunities.

In fact, the thin plot turns downright silly by the end, when the small band of survivors form an alliance with smart pigs to catch and kill a couple of ‘Painballers’, post-apocalyptic gladiators who now roam the wasteland Mad Max style raping and pillaging as they go. The way Atwood chooses to suddenly switch narrative styles to relate this crucial scene also leaves much to be desired.

Much of the rest of the story is told by Toby, a former Gardener and survivor. Bizarrely, Atwood has somehow managed to pick one of the least interesting characters of the whole trilogy to narrate the bulk of the story, and somehow contrived to make her even blander. Far too much of the story focuses on her personal relationship with Zeb, and Atwood pours on layer after tedious layer of sexual jealousy and angst only to leave the thing hanging after the melodramatic denouement (with the aforementioned pigs playing the part of the US Cavalry).

These particular quirks aside, the main problem seems to be that Atwood has simply left herself with too many loose plot lines from the previous two books, and seems compelled to tie them all up even when it makes for an unsatisfying read, heavily dependent on coincidence. For example, Jimmy, one of the most important characters from earlier in the trilogy, is left in a state of almost permanent unconsciousness throughout the entirety of the book, as if Atwood isn’t quite sure what to do with him. Another favorite, Ren, is reduced to little more than a walk-on role. Even the Crakers, the blue, genetically-modified post-humans of the previous books, who played such an integral part to the trilogy, feel like a bad hangover. They are mostly relegated to playing a homogeneous group of humorous side kicks (naively waving around their blue penises and singing all the time), and Atwood fails to really engage with them as anything but walking Ideas.

The best bits are undoubtedly the flashbacks, set in the time before and during Crake’s pandemic, rather than the present day elements of the narrative, which lack the keen edge of danger and impending catastrophe that it so desperately needs (and Atwood displayed in the former books). Maddaddam is at its most compelling when it tells the story of Zeb, Toby’s lover and the brother of Adam, the missing leader of the band of survivors. I can’t help feel that if Atwood had only focused on Zeb’s story, rather than giving so much over to the much weaker story of Toby and the Painballers, then this might have been a fantastic end to the series.

There are other parts that are constantly jarring. Like the ‘New New Yorks’ and similar neologisms some SF writers are so fond of, Atwood constantly coins ludicrous names for the technology and Corps in her not-really-all-that-brutal hypercapitalist world before the fall. Maddaddam also sends up dollar-obsessed televangelists in the form of Zeb’s father, a minister of the Church of PetrOleum, but by constantly taking it to ridiculous rather than hard-hitting extremes, she stereotypes rather than satirizes, and like many of those Big Issues Atwood attempts to grapple with throughout the trilogy, much is lost in this approach. These problems were forgivable in the previous two books because the Message was laden with a nice dose of plot and character sweetener, but because the plot of this novel is so thin it brings the world-building to the forefront of the reader’s mind where it wilts under closer scrutiny.

In the trilogy’s two previous installments, Atwood managed to walk the tightrope between mainstream engagement and genre fiction tropes by creating compelling characters in an interesting world, but by Maddaddam the plot spaghetti and flood of Big Ideas combine to make a disappointing end.

* * *

Nicholas P. Oakley is the author of The Watcher

watcher

http://www.twitter.com/npoakley
http://quercusrubra.co.uk

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