It's the end of the world as we know it, and readers will be feeling fine with Margaret Atwood's sharply satirical version of the Apocalypse.
The Booker Prize-winner's new “MaddAddam” is the third and final novel in her dystopic trilogy, in which a scientist offers the earth a reboot by getting rid of all – or at least most – of those pesky humans and repeopling the world with a new batch of post-homo sapiens.
“MaddAddam” picks up immediately after the events of 2009's “The Year of the Flood.” It's now been a few months since most of humanity perished during a pandemic bio-engineered by Crake, first introduced in “Oryx and Crake.”
The novel is narrated by Toby, a primary character in “Year of the Flood” who used to be part of the God's Gardeners eco-cult, whose leader foretold the destruction of humanity in a “waterless flood.” When it opens, she and her young friend Ren have succeeded in rescuing another woman, Amanda, from two Painballers, rapists and cannibals who once fought to the death in gladiatorial-style games.
Instead of killing the Painballers, Toby ties them up and makes soup for everyone. (It's tough to completely abandon years of conditioning to hold all life sacred.) Just then, Crake's new breed of quasi-humans – purring vegetarians who don't understand greed, jealousy, or clothes – arrive and free the murderers.
After a “major cultural misunderstanding,” the Crakers, renegade scientists called MaddAddamites, and the survivors of the God's Gardeners set up camp in an abandoned outpost, guarding against the Painballers, giant pigoons (human/pig gene-splices), and liobams (lion-lamb combinations in which the lamb's gentle tendencies didn't exactly win out).
“MaddAdam,” the bulk of which occurs over a period of weeks, offers layers upon layers of storytelling as the new society takes shape. Toby ends up serving as a cultural liaison with the innocent Crakers, telling them a story every night about the past. The Crakers are particularly struck by Toby's lover, Zeb, who turns out to be the brother of Adam One, the missing prophet of the God's Gardeners.
“Stick with that plot line, it's got legs,” advises Jimmy, from “Oryx and Crake,” who originally served as the Crakers' caretaker and storyteller. It's excellent advice. Despite readers' already knowing the bulk of what will happen, “MaddAddam” is a fast-paced, suspenseful novel. Atwood provides a helpful foreword to catch readers up on the events of the previous two books, but I'm not sure how satisfying an experience “MaddAddam” would be without having read at least “Year of the Flood” first.
Zeb fills Toby (and readers) in on his past as a hacker and environmental activist as well as his and Adam's hideously abusive childhood. Along the way, readers catch glimpses of Crake as a boy known as Glenn, see how the survivors of the plague are linked together, and learn the reasons behind Adam One's unusually accurate prediction of the end of humanity.
Every night, Toby tells the Crakers a fairy-tale like version of Zeb's story. (She also invents a hilarious invisible character whose name I can't type here to try and come up with an explanation for swearing the Crakers could understand.) Eventually, she bonds with a little boy and teaches him how to read and write, wondering at the same time if he wouldn't be happier without being burdened with the ability to record and carry the past.
“People need such stories,” a character once told Toby about tales about the afterlife, “because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”
For a book with a death count in the billions, “MaddAddam” contains a hefty amount of scathing humor.
Take Zeb's past as an activist with Bearlift – an organization that airlifted food to polar bears after the polar ice caps melted. The corporate rulers of society had no problem with the activists' mission.
“It served a function for them, sounded a note of hope, distracted folks from the real action, which was bulldozing the planet flat and grabbing anything of value,” said Zeb, describing ads where the Bearlifters exhorted people to “please send more cash or you'll be guilty of bearicide.”
Then there was the buzzword adapt, which had been a popular mantra.
“I remember adapt,” Toby tells Zeb. “It was another way of saying tough luck. To people you weren't going to help out.”
The science of “MaddAddam” is particularly interesting: When Atwood began the trilogy more than a decade ago, many of the inventions she described sounded much farther-fetched than they do today. While we don't have Mo'Hairs, goats that can grow human hair, the genetic splicing doesn't sound overly outlandish.
All stories must come to an end, and eventually, the God's Gardeners have to venture out of their compound. To search for Adam One, they have to take on the Painballers and find themselves with allies straight out of George Orwell. In the end, Atwood sounds a hopeful note, offering a broader definition of humanity and its ability to continue to evolve.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor's fiction critic.