MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddam is the concluding part of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction trilogy that started with Oryx & Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood. Chronologically, Year of the Flood and Oryx & Crake happened vaguely in parallel, but MaddAddam is a direct sequel to Flood, picking up right where Crake and Flood left off.
It adopts broadly the same sort of structure as the previous books in the trilogy. Each of those have been told from the perspective of a character in the dystopian future, following the release of a plague that has killed off most of mankind, with plenty of reflections back upon the character’s past, and how they were involved in the release of the plague and the fall of society.
Oryx & Crake focused on Jimmy (who, in the future, is known as Snowman, prophet of Crake) and his relationship growing up with a childhood friend called Glenn (who, in the future, would be known as Crake, creator of a new race of genetically engineered humanoids known as “Crakers”). Year of the Flood was focused upon Toby, a member of the religious group God’s Gardeners, and Ren, a former student of the Gardeners, turned stripper.
MaddAddam focuses on Zeb, a member of the Gardeners from Year of the Flood. Zeb is really a fringe member of the Gardeners, in that he hangs around with the Gardeners, but doesn’t tend to agree with their beliefs. The Gardeners, for example, are staunch vegetarians. At one point in MaddAddam, Zeb kills and eats a bear.
MaddAddam does have a slight difference in structure, in that while the focus is on Zeb and the flashbacks are from his perspective (with interjections from Toby), the present day story is told from Toby’s perspective, although generally framed around her anxieties about where Zeb might be. The third (and perhaps most entertaining) perspective is a sort of quasi-speech perspective, of Toby telling the Crakers stories (generally about Crake). These tend to be used to start chapters, and are usually funny, as Toby responds the regular interruptions and questions from the Crakers. This mirrors the use of Gardeners’ parables that were inserted at the start of chapters in Flood, which is a cool little idea.
While I enjoyed MaddAddam, it felt like a bit of a step back from Oryx & Crake and Year of the Flood. I think this is probably because the plot didn’t feel quite as self-contained as either of those, but more reliant upon the events of the previous two books. This is probably illustrated by the title itself. With the previous books, the title is explained by the plot within those books: Oryx & Crake refers to the pseudonyms of the two most important people in Jimmy’s life; Year of the Flood refers to the God’s Gardeners’ belief of a “waterless flood” coming to wipe the earth clean of sinners (and Toby’s and Ren’s survival of said flood – the plague). Neither of these were predictable before reading the book. But MaddAddam refers to the vaguely ethical eco-terrorist group that’s appeared in passing in the previous two books. With the title leaning heavily upon the plot of the previous books, I guess it’s fair to expect the plot of MaddAddam to rely upon them too.
The present day plot is about the efforts of a group of survivors from God’s Gardeners and MaddAddam (two organisations with some overlap in membership) trying to continue to survive in the post-plague world, particularly from the threat of a group of former Painballers (a kind of Running Man-esque prison/entertainment bloodsport). The plot within the present isn’t hugely strong (and gets weird in pretty unexpected ways), but then the present day plots haven’t ever really been the strength of the series. But here the historical plot of Zeb’s life just isn’t as compelling as the historical plots of Oryx and Flood.
There’s nothing specifically wrong with Zeb’s life story. It is interesting, exciting at times, feeds nicely into the wider history of the series, and does an excellent job of explaining Zeb’s presence with the God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood, something that didn’t really make a huge amount of sense during Flood. I think it does tend to suffer from a feeling of being forced to fit into the wider history though.
One of the weaknesses of a flashback heavy series is that after a while, the flashbacks can lose much of their sense of mystery, because you know what the outcome is. There are some interesting parts of Zeb’s story and how it feeds into the future (particularly the identity of some characters), but overall it’s a little unsatisfying. It feels like Zeb at times is fitting a role in an event of which we already know the outcome – he loses some of his agency in these situations. In some ways that rounds out his character, because it shows that the seemingly independent and forthright Zeb isn’t necessarily so (depending on who is telling him what to do), but in doing so also seems to go a little against his character in a way that doesn’t initially make sense.
On reflection it could be that Zeb’s present day character is informed by these experiences of being asked to play a role, rather than defining his own; by the present day he wants to define what he does, rather than let other people tell him what to do. But then his early life is marked by his independence (which, in fact, is the catalyst for not only his life, but also for some of the major events in the trilogy). In the end, his overall character veers between independent and passive depending on who he’s listening to, which feels a little odd. He’s been established as independent to the extent that his periods of passivity seem out of character.
That being said, I still really enjoyed MaddAddam, even though it’s probably the weakest in the trilogy. That’s a little odd, because typically the weakest entry in any trilogy is the second, as that entry usually has to operate without the benefits of creating and introducing new main characters or the world (which the first entry has) or a big finale (which the third entry has), but instead is forced to set things up for the finale while still fitting in with the world and characters established in the opener. This might actually be the reason that MaddAddam is weaker than Oryx or Flood: with the focus mainly being on the past rather than the present, the finale (the release of the plague) has already mostly been done, and MaddAddam is forced to limit itself to putting extra bricks into explaining how that finale came about.
I think my conclusion for MaddAddam is that it’s a fine end to an excellent trilogy, but loses a bit for just not matching up to my expectations that the previous two books has created.
Why you should read it: It’s Margaret Atwood, and therefore beautifully written.
Why you shouldn’t read it: well, you should read Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood first, both of which are great, and MaddAddam isn’t quite as good as either of those.
Up next: Ace of Skulls by Chris Wooding