What Margaret Atwood’s Speculative Fiction Has to Say About Storytelling & Humanism: Book Review of “MaddAddam”

The final installment of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction trilogy finally arrived this year, thus concluding her series which functions as a hypothetical answer to what may happen if we don’t find solutions for the current moral, social, and ecological issues we face.

Atwood Books

MaddAddam—preceded by Oryx & Crake (2004) and The Year of the Flood (2010)—takes place in a not-too-distant future where most of the human race has been wiped out by a deadly virus engineered and spread by a man called Crake. Disenchanted with a world where the ruling bodies are corporations, where eugenics are the norm and parents “order up DNA like pizza toppings”, and where the internet is rife with live executions and child porn, Crake takes it upon himself to “clear away” the world’s population.

In its place he leaves a race of humans he has genetically engineered to suit his idea of perfection. These “Crakers” have luminescent eyes, are naturally insect-repellent and resistant to sunburn, and physically turn blue indicating when they are ready to mate.  We are first introduced to this world in Oryx and Crake, which takes place in the immediate aftermath of the extinction of most of the world’s population. The protagonist of this first installment is Jimmy, whom Crake spared from the plague so that he could serve as the Crakers’ caretaker. Much of the story is told through Jimmy’s flashbacks, which juxtapose the overstimulating, oversaturated, sex- and capital-crazed world he came from against the desolate, wild world that remains.

The second book in the series, The Year of the Flood, follows the same timeline, but from the points of view of new protagonists: two women, Ren and Toby, whose stories mainly took place in the criminal pleeblands, which introduces a broader scope to Atwood’s world than we previously were exposed to through the gated, surveilled, wealthy, and suburban community in which Jimmy grew up.  Eventually Ren and Toby find sanctuary in a spiritual survivalist cult known as the God’s Gardeners.

MaddAddam picks up in the present, where the first two books left off. More self-conscious of its role as a conclusionary chapter within a series, MaddAddam relies less on exposition than the first two books, and its plot is more focused on the characters’ present circumstances. The question now is, now that the world has ended, how will it regenerate? How does one survive (at least) and establish a quality of life (at most) under such circumstances? What new stories will emerge in this new world?

This trilogy is Atwood’s only series (her other works being stand-alone novels, and collections of poems and essays), and arguably her most significant contribution to the genre of speculative fiction. Although Atwood may be most well-known for her first foray into the genre with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the MaddAddam series is arguably her magnum opus in its scope, complexity, and more direct concerns with issues of ecological and societal sustainability.  Indeed, such themes are prevalent throughout the Atwood canon, and her ability to marry literature and activism is what earned her the award for Humanist of the Year in 1987, where she was praised for her “courage involving the devotion to enhancing the status of women, encouraging a critical look at the religious right, promoting freedom of thought, skepticisim, and the philosophy of humanism.” These themes not only surface in, but are absolutely central to the MaddAddam trilogy.

Although one of the greatest strengths and points of interest of the series is its topicality and Atwood’s deliberate use of literature as a call to action, a prevailing but subtle narrative theme throughout all three novels is exploration, criticism, and celebration of storytelling. In MaddAddam, where the characters are faced with the tedium of rebuilding society, of finding meaning in their days without certainty of their future, Atwood’s maxim, “we must narrate or die”, is more true than ever. Crake and other figures from the plot take on epic proportions as their stories are embellished, abridged, and mythicized for the sake of the Crakers, who look forward to the daily storytelling ritual.

Later, Toby begins keeping diaries—partly out of habit, and partly as a way of staying sane—and even begins to teach one of the Craker children, Blackbeard, how to write. And although passing down stories undoubtedly aids in sustaining mental health, Atwood speaks in the video below about how it can have even more concrete and practical purposes as well.

But there is an uneasy tension in this novel between storytelling and the written word. When Blackbeard begins to excel at writing, Toby worries, “What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?”

Literary scholar Hannes Bergthaller identifies a viewpoint in these books that he calls a “qualified humanism”, or an approach to humanism that is “informed by evolutionary biology and disenchanted with human nature”. He directs our attention to the humanist dilemma epitomized by Cartesian dualism, here manifest as a conflict between artistic expression and biological impulse.

One might also frame this as a conflict between love and sex. It is fitting, therefore, that one of the primary conflicts within MaddAddam is the subtle plotline of Toby falling in love with Zeb, and her insecurities about whether or not he has slept with someone else. It is within this feminine sphere, as well, that Atwood resurrects some of the horror evinced in The Handmaid’s Tale, when discussion amongst the characters in MaddAddam leads to the realization that the only way to discover if humans and Crakers can breed together is through trial and error, an experiment which would require the “co-operation of the ladies” (an uneasy suggestion, which literally objectifies the female-bodied people present).

Literature (and the humanities overall), Bergthaller posits, is part of the humanist motive to “tame” the human animal – a necessarily paradoxical aim, if we take for granted the ecologist’s assumption that we must tend to nature because we are a part of nature. On the contrary, that which separates humans from the rest of sentient life on earth is precisely that which makes us unnatural, and to cultivate the pursuits of the mind is to cultivate that essential humanness. In fact, drawing on Peter Sloterdijk, Bergthaller goes so far as to assert that

For all of its professed harmlessness, and largely unbeknownst to itself, humanism was thus engaged in what amounts to a eugenicist project avant la lettre. That humanism continues to deceive itself about this act is the reason why it finds it so difficult to muster an adequate response to the challenges of the dawning biotechnological age.

It is precisely this uneasy territory with which Atwood-who admires and respects the Humanist cause, but does not call herself a “card-carrying” Humanist-engages in MaddAddam. And in the end, she does point to a somewhat believable and possibly even viable solution, leaning on a “qualified” humanism, and relying on hybridization of two sorts.

As the conclusion to a trilogy, MaddAddam is more self-conscious of its role within a narrative arc than the previous two books, and its pace is more restrained and its action more introspective. Unlike Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, it does conclude. Satisfactorilly, and even with much hope for the future of literature and humanism.

Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Emma WaldronEmma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor.  She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research.  Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”.  Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.

2 responses to “What Margaret Atwood’s Speculative Fiction Has to Say About Storytelling & Humanism: Book Review of “MaddAddam”

  1. Pingback: Review: MaddAddam | Sharp and Pointed·

  2. Pingback: Review: Maddaddam | Rip Roaring Reviews·

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