Home  /  The Big Issue Magazine  /  Reviews  /  MaddAddam


13 September 2013 Books


Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake arrived in 2003,The Year of the Flood arrived in 2009, and now, a decade after Canadian writer Margaret Atwood published the first volume in this darkly absurdist dystopian series, comes MaddAddam. At just under 400 pages, it’s clear from early on in the trilogy’s utterly engrossing final instalment that Atwood has written yet another inventive novel. MaddAddam depicts a world that, while futuristic, also details events that slyly reference the European early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries, when science and superstition vied for supremacy. 

Myriad events and creatures subtly allude to that struggle via startling biotechnical developments. There is a population kept in permanently drug-enabled servitude; there are pig hybrids that are smarter than humans; and there are creatures called crakers that wander the planet en masse, purring like post-apocalyptic cats. 

Atwood, of course, first explored dystopian fiction in the mid-1980s, when the chilling The Handmaid’s Tale, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was published, and MaddAddam shows she’s lost none of her passion for the genre and none of her desire to expand its boundaries. The book unfurls in the third-person, a narrative approach that differs from that used in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Curiously, rather than distancing the reader from the characters, it fosters a strange sense of intimacy and emotional connectedness. Toby and Zeb (protagonists of both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) remain, but the world in which they live is one where they cohabit with a genetically engineered species of creature. They live in perpetual uncertainty, inhabiting an environment where “past and present do not matter…history is over”. Each day brings more pestilence and deprivation to the already exhausted inhabitants of this world. It’s a place where people do not truly live, but merely exist, in the aftermath of the plague, deliberately engineered by the brilliant scientist Crake. He alone is responsible for creating a sphere where there is nothing that even vaguely approximates comfort or respite. Food shortages are de rigueur and frightening genetic experiments abound. Meanwhile deprivation means materialism has run amok, privileging physical goods over human life.

With its satisfying accounts of characters and geographies, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion to Atwood’s trilogy than MaddAddam. In Oryx and Crake, she expertly parsed the psychological perspective of the male-dominated, technological domain, while Year of the Flood focused with razor-sharp precision on its direct opposite – the female-centred parallel narrative.

In the emotional closing chapters of MaddAddam, Atwood reiterates what she wrote in Oryx and Crake: that no matter how futuristic or improbable it seems, her narrative alludes to nothing that has not been done, is not theoretically already possible, or is not about to be done. Atwood spins a fine yarn, to be sure, but she also issues a timely real-world warning. It’s part pandemic parable and part fable interspersed with a foreboding caveat.

Heidi Maier