The Madd Addam Trilogy
By Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake: Published 2003; Read 2011 and Oct 2017
The Year of the Flood: Published 2009; Read 2011; partly re-read Oct 2017
Madd Addam: Published 2013; Read 2013; partly re-read Oct 2017
By Margaret Atwood
Caution: in discussing my experiences with these book there will be spoilers.
Margaret Atwood is a remarkable writer who wove an interesting tale across this trilogy. I haven’t been able to find out if she planned to write all three books or even the second book but they work together very well. Her interest in the impact of technology on society and the planet are prominent themes here. She describes her work as “speculative fiction” and indicates accurately that much of the technology she includes isn’t made up—it’s already in laboratories. The question she explores is “where will this technology lead society if we don’t think about how we’re using it or about to use it”. This isn’t her first (or last!) set of books about the breakdown of society and the rise of secure Compounds where the “haves” live and work (here generally focused on using biological technologies in new ways for profit) and the wild, dangerous Pleeblands where the rest of humanity lives and works. In this set of books she also explores the theme of the role of spirituality and religious practice in our lives. As expected from Atwood, she shows the dark side of religion-for-profit. She also explores the ability of religious practices (note she differentiates this from religious beliefs) to provide a framework for guiding people through crisis. She also explores if the propensity for developing religious practice is an essential aspect of the human DNA and can’t be eliminated without eliminating humanness itself.
All three books use a structure a mix of action forward in the present and discussion of the history of the characters provided either through action/dialog or story-telling by a character to him/herself or another.
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood cover similar time periods. Each book opens in the same “present”–shortly after The Waterless Flood, a world-wide disaster of unknown origin to the reader initially. In each book, a survivor (Jimmy in Oryx and Crake) or survivors (Toby and Ren in The Year of the Flood) tell the reader how they are dealing with their circumstances following the apocalyptic pandemic. None of them are certain that there are any other (human) survivors. Jimmy is fully aware of other survivors—the “Craker children” which were created by Crake and with whom he shares an interesting relationship which is developed over the course of the book. The “present action” aspect of each book progresses the characters in this post-apocalyptic time to the same ending scene, whereby Jimmy, Toby, Ren, and others come together in the same place and time. Both books end with no clarity of what will happen next in this encounter or thereafter.
In Oryx and Crake, the primary character with whom the reader interacts is Jimmy. As Jimmy is dealing with the hostility of his current situation, he recalls his childhood and adolescence as son of scientists employed in a Compound. He meets Glenn while in high school in the Compound and who also is a product of a broken marriage, poor parenting, and the impacts of our current culture if it proceeds to coarsen unchecked. That is, they spend much of their time taking drugs, getting drunk, watching pornography and playing violent video games. They also share an interest in complex games and discover a web-based game, Extinctathon, run by MaddAddamm; Glenn takes “Crake” as his game name. Following graduation, brilliant Glenn goes to the well-funded Watson-Crick Institute and “word-guy” Jimmy goes to the run-down Martha Graham liberal arts school. Jimmy recalls his days at college and post-college which involve a continued amount of drugs, drinking, pornography, and sexual conquests. I frankly had some difficulty staying with the book, hearing about Jimmy’s “interests”, his lack of desire to do anything productive with his life, and the general terrible state of society. However, once Crake contacts Jimmy to join his well-funded project, over which he has sole control, at a company in a Compound, I became much more engaged with the book as it began to reveal what had happened. Crake’s life work is taking a different path than intended by the for-profit company for which he works. While the plan of his company and their competition at other Compounds is to take to a whole new level genetic modification, gene splicing, and development of new species (like the Pigoons)—tailor made babies, Crake is inventing a new species that will replace the current human species. Crake also recruited Oryx, a girl Jimmy and Crake had first encountered as a child in a porn show on the web and for whom Jimmy has carried a life-long crush, to teach the Craker Children what they need to know. My recent re-reading of this book, prompted by an upcoming book discussion of it, was much more positive than my first reading. Now not naïve of the overall story, I could see the seeds of various aspects of the story I missed initially—when I read it without the benefit of any “blurb” about the book that would have informed me about its plot.
In The Year of the Flood, there are two primary characters that are survivors of The Flood and whose history we learn: Toby and Ren They were both previous inhabitants of a Pleeblands complex created by God’s Gardeners did not die during The Waterless Flood. They now are trying to survive in the aftermath, also possibly as sole survivors on the planet. We learn that Toby’s parents were financially ruined while trying to deal with her mother’s failing health and she eventually loses both parents. She eventually becomes an employee of a vicious man who likely will kill her soon but she is whisked away from harm by members of the God’s Gardeners, a green sect building a community fed by the gardens they build on roof-tops, and doing other things that aren’t apparent to Toby or the reader until later in the book. Toby never becomes “a believer” but does begin to practice herb-based homeopathic remedies she learned at the Martha Graham liberal arts school, becomes an Eve in the sect, and continues Gods Gardner member Pilar’s bee keeping and mushroom growing after Pilar passes. Ren is a pupil of Toby after she comes to the Garden with her mother, Lucerne, who has left her Compound scientist husband, and Zeb, Lucerne’s new lover. Zeb is also clearly not “a believer” but is clearly associated in some way with Adam One, the sect’s leader. Zeb teaches a course on survival post-the Waterless Flood that Adam One anticipates. The flashbacks cover Toby’s time at the Garden as well as the departure of Ren, Zeb, and Toby from the Garden prior to The Waterless Flood.
An important, and in my opinion a delightful, element of The Year of the Flood are the sermons given by Adam One, and the songs the God’s Gardeners sing after the sermons. The sermons are given at celebration such as The Festival of Arks, Saint Euell’s Week, Mole Day, April Fish Day, and The Feast of the Serpent Wisdom. I listened to an audio-version of the book and the songs were set to music. Not being one to read poetry nor poetry within a novel, I might have otherwise missed Atwood’s wonderful words in these selections from the God’s Gardener Oral Hymn Book. Nearly every day in The God’s Gardener’s oral calendar is named for a saint (such as Saint Rachel Carsen). Adam One’s creation of a set of religious practices is fascinating and provides, to Toby’s surprise, grounding for her post The Waterless Flood.
MaddAddam begins immediately after the final scene in The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake. Atwood provides a several page summary of each of these two books so the reader has the required background to begin this part of the trilogy. The “present action” story in this book takes the reader forward post The Waterless Flood as a group of survivors from the God’s Garden sect and the MaddAddam group wrestle with building a new community which will now interact somehow with the Craker Children they’ve met through Jimmy. They are also working to heal the physical and mental wounds of Amanda, Ren’s friend from God’s Garden, who was abducted by the Painballers (men whose de-humanizing punishment when jailed was that of televised gladiator games), as well as protecting their community from the Painballers who still roam the area. The story also shows us more about the Craker Children. Atwood develops the character of one of them, Blackbeard, as he matures (very quickly per the species’ design) and describes his role in dealing with the Painballers and the pigoons, a man-made species we’ve learned about in Orxy and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
The historical part of this novel is that of Zeb and Adam One, who we learn are brothers and children of a corrupt for-profit minister who founded the PetrOleum Church and then pilfered great sums of money from its parishioners. Zeb’s voice tells his story to Toby. It connects together various strings of the overall history of Crake, God’s Gardeners, and MaddAddam.
Toby tells a few parts of Zeb’s story to the Crakers as she has been propelled into the role of providing them a daily story now that Jimmy is in a delirious state due to infection of a wound he received in Oryx and Crake. (Jimmy had been recruited into this role originally played by Oryx.)
As MaddAddam ends, we see that Crake’s vision has not played out as planned. In particular, he has not eliminated the propensity of human nature to develop religious practices that are important element of humanity and provide a humane grounding for individual and community growth. Atwood thus emphasizes her theme that unbridled technology always has unintended outcomes.
This trilogy is an interesting one. The first two books cover essentially identical time periods but from two perspectives—a boy/man growing up in a safe, privileged, wealthy Compound; a woman living in the unsafe, desperate Pleeblands. The third takes up from where each leave off, telling the story of two men dealing with rejection of for-profit religion and fighting against the current progression of society and its horrid results for the planet.
Of the three books, The Year of the Flood was most engaging for me from the very start of the book. Toby is a strong, independent, but not perfect, woman who frankly admits her lack of faith and her limitations, but preserves for survival in the Pleelands and post-The Waterless Flood. Ren’s story is interesting and provides a different view of Jimmy’s high school period as they were both at the same Compound. These voices, combined with Adam One’s sermons and the hymns, as well as the cast of interesting supporting characters and sub-plots within the God’s Gardener story make The Year of the Flood my recommendation if only reading one of the first two books and remains my favorite among the three books. I anticipate that the male perspectives in the other two books and their descriptions of drugs, sex, and pornography as part of their lives made these books harder to read. However, I do recommend reading the entire series. Atwood’s writing is tremendous—she creates a believable world that could be quite close in the future; she develops interesting characters, has interesting themes, and uses wonderful language to convey it all.