What if? Margaret Atwood loves this question, and her nimble imagination means her explorations of it are a joy for readers, whether it’s a complex generational narrative or a parable of the world to come. She can peer into the dark depths of humanity and always find a ray of light; she can make us think about the path humankind is taking without preaching; she can create a vision of the future and fill it with horrors and injustice, and yet find room for beautiful stories.
Stories are at the heart of Atwood’s latest speculative novel, “MaddAddam,” the conclusion of a trilogy that began with “Oryx and Crake” and continued with “The Year of the Flood.” (While there’s a summary at the beginning of “MaddAddam” of what’s come before, full appreciation of this book will come if a reader has already read the first two.)
“MaddAddam” picks up where both “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” left off: “History is over” and the remnants of the God’s Gardeners sect who survived the plague that wiped out most of society are regrouping and trying to find a way forward; the Crakers, the genetically engineered new species intended to take over where humans left off – without the bad human habits of domination, deceit and destructiveness – are establishing their society and traditions. And they’re sharing this new world with genetically engineered animals (think sapient pigs and luminescent rabbits) and renegade human Painballers who know only violence.
It’s difficult to summarize what this book is “about” in terms of what happens, because a lot of little, yet interconnected, things happen, and some loose ends are tied up. But because this is Margaret Atwood, the book draws a reader in from the start and doesn’t let go until the end. Most of the book centers on Toby, a former Gardener trying to hold together the ragtag group, and Zeb, her lover, whose search for his brother opens the door to a complex family history.
As Toby nurses Jimmy-the-Snowman, the Crakers’ only link with their creators, Oryx and Crake, back to health, she is called on to fill his role as the Crakers’ de facto prophet. They’ve already created rituals and established their own creation stories. Toby’s embellishments of these stories and her additions of parts of Zeb’s history and adventures begin to form the foundation of Craker theology/mythology.
Atwood has a great talent for hiding – “hiding” may not be the right word; perhaps “nesting” is more appropriate – the complex in the simple, and doing so with trenchant observations, multifaceted characters and more than a little humor. In her vision of the world in “MaddAddam,” humanity isn’t doomed; we’ll just need a pretty significant attitude adjustment. And, without downplaying her cautions, Atwood never doubts we could do it.