Saturday, 29 June 2013

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

The simply-worded opening pages of MaddAddam form the perfect introduction to this crazy world (or not so crazy?) that Margaret Atwood first introduced us to ten years ago in Oryx and Crake. 'The Story of the Egg' recounts how the Crakers were born in the Egg, brought to life by Oryx and Crake, surrounded by the Chaos until Crake washed the Chaos away, and perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Crakers and of the storyteller, Toby. The Crakers' history, their penchant for singing and praise, and their idealised view of the world is laid out alongside Toby’s frustration with the Crakers’ quirks and yet simultaneous desire to maintain their innocent view of the world.

Simultaneously bringing the reader up to speed with previous events whilst giving us a taste of where the story is going to go - the Crakers’ world and the Crakers’ worldview - even if you haven't read any of the series before you'll surely be hooked, wanting to find out what it all means and what on earth the author is thinking. MaddAddam is everything I expected and hoped it would be - the continuation of this strange, potential future world that in some ways is a warning alarm for our own suspect future, whilst also being a proper kick-ass read and a thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction from one of the masters of the genre.

Unlike The Year of the Flood, the 'sisterbook' which ran alongside Oryx and Crake, detailing the same world and the same timeframe, but with mostly different characters, MaddAddam ties the two together, the stories from the first two books converging here into a single narrative; like two forks in the road becoming one path. Although, actually, to describe MaddAddam as having a single narrative would be entirely wrong. Rather, it is a collection of stories and perspectives and pieces of the jigsaw:

Toby continues the narrative in present time, keeping us apprised of the events going on in and around the new MaddAddam compound, where, a little less than a year on from the Waterless Flood, the survivors have converged – a mixture of God’s Gardener’s, MaddAddamites, Crakers, and Snowman-the-Jimmy. Woven into this timeline is Zeb’s story, the man whom Toby loved from afar in The Year of the Flood, and as he tells his history, we begin to see how intimately linked it is with everything that has happened so far. And then there are the stories the Crakers persuade Toby to tell them each evening - they want to know the histories too, how Zeb ate a bear, of Zeb’s birth, of Zeb and the Snake Women. And so we hear the ‘real’ version, or Zeb’s version, and then the simplified version that Toby tells the Crakers.

Through Toby's narrative we see how this band of survivors are trying to make a new life, to find food, to protect themselves in the aftermath of the Waterless Flood. Alliances and dalliances are formed, jealousies diverted, human assumptions are challenged. But fears are ever-present: fear for the future, fear of the Painballers, the roaming Pigoons, and whatever else might be lurking outside the compound they’ve set up home in. And Zeb is sure that Adam is still alive, but can he find him?

The backbone of MaddAddam, though, are the Craker stories; there is the distinct sense that, continuing on from where Snowman-the-Jimmy began in Oryx and Crake, Toby is creating a mythology for the Crakers, something they will hold onto and repeat through the generations. But myths, of course, twist and turn the truth, building gods and heroes out of ordinary people, creating explanations for un-understandable events – if these are the tales that will be passed into the future, then the kernels of truth from which they began will be lost as Crake and Oryx, Zeb and Toby and Jimmy become new beings, beings to be semi-worshipped rather than beings whose actions are, by Toby’s standards and by ours, questionable, morally debatable and, sometimes, fearsome. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

And for every new thing that Toby tells the Crakers, every new thing she introduces them to or tries to explain to them, is she changing who they are and who they will become? Is she removing their innocence? Would it be better to leave them uninfluenced? It's just one of Toby's many worries, and a relevant one, but in the end it’s perhaps irrelevant because from the moment, at the beginning of MaddAddam, that the Crakers and the humans begin to properly interact with one another, the Craker evolution is inevitably set on a new path.

I would have liked there to have been a bit more about Adam and the beginning of MaddAddam and the God’s Gardeners, as I don't feel completely aquainted with the history of this part of the story - but in the long run perhaps these inner details aren’t relevant, or aren’t relevant to the formation of the Craker mythology, on which MaddAddam is focused. Or perhaps if I re-read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood again, the pieces will be filled in for me there. What I especially enjoyed, though, was the way in which Atwood challenged our human assumptions about certain aspects of this new world and how, gradually, the Crakers, instead of relying on Snowman or Toby,  begin to take over the formation of their stories for themselves. Towards the end of the book we see 'The Story of The Battle' and 'The Story of Toby' only through Craker eyes, a subtle reflection of the new world order as it gradually comes about.

I could have gone right back to the beginning and started reading MaddAddam all over again as soon as I finished it. But what I want to do even more now is go to the very beginning, back to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood and read all three parts of the trilogy again, to see how all the dots connect up, how the threads of all the different stories and characters weave and warp together. MaddAddam is a wonderful conclusion to this immense and foresightful story. It is full of human drama, human weakness, and human strength. By turns humorous and poignant, I can't for all my friends to read it as well so that we can gather round and 'discuss'...

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