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Atwood’s “MaddAddam”: the future, after we’re gone
Margaret Atwood’s new novel “MaddAddam” is the inventive conclusion to her dystopian trilogy that began with “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood.” Atwood appears Oct. 4 at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “MaddAddam” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Town Hall Seattle. Co-sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400). Tickets are $5; for more information go to townhallseattle.org).
by Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, 390 pp., $27.95
The palm-out hand printed on the egg on “MaddAddam’s” cover seems meant to warn potential readers away. And the table of contents lists obscure, stylized chapter headings such as “The Story of when Zeb was lost in the Mountains, and ate the Bear” and “Intestinal Parasites, the Game.” Despite these daunting preambles, this third book of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed near-future dystopian trilogy is its best.
Named for an eco-terrorist group featured throughout the series, “MaddAddam” begins shortly after the near-simultaneous ends of “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood.” To make its connection with the previous action clearer, a foreword sums up humanity’s fall, which was seen in the trilogy’s first volume through the eyes of a man of the elite class, and in the second from the viewpoints of two working women. The protagonists of both books slowly came to realize that they weren’t the sole survivors of the pandemic that dealt homo sapiens its deathblow. The two books closed on unresolved questions as Snowman (a friend of the bioengineer Crake, unleasher of the plague and creator of humanity’s replacements) and Toby (one of the eco-pacifist “God’s Gardeners”) speculated in parallel about how they’d guide each other’s fates.
The chapter following these synopses is in the voice of a storyteller addressing members of the childlike new race. It reads a bit like a creation tale, which it is, in part. Most of the rest is a flashback to — yet again — the final days of humankind’s dominion over the Earth, but it also encompasses some action that has taken place since Snowman and Toby put on their thinking caps. Eventually it becomes clear that the bulk of these tales are told by Toby. They’re interspersed with more conventional accounts of the survivors building and defending a community in alliance with their intended replacements and another bioengineered species.,
This is a complicated scenario. Atwood handles it well. Repetition becomes recursiveness, and she writes with insight and no pretension about how narratives work with and through one another: “There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told.” She tells all these sorts of stories in “MaddAddam” satisfyingly, and of course, beautifully. Her description of evening coming to two old lovers: “Purple darkness wells up from the earth, bats flit past like leathery butterflies, night flowers open, musking the air.”
Atwood’s extrapolations — an ineffective “Save the Polar Bears” charity, blimps with flapping wings — seem totally plausible, even when she pokes fun at them. As well as its ideas, science fiction is known for its neologisms: the names authors invent for their inventions. Here, too, Atwood excels; “rakunks” and “liobams” roam the woods near the fledgling MaddAddamite community’s home, solar-powered “violet biolets” compost waste before succumbing to technology’s inevitable degeneration.
Eventually, toward “MaddAddam’s” conclusion, birth and decay, death and growth bring about quite a different world than the one in which the trilogy began. But tales are still told, and in this, the third and final book, Atwood presents a moving and convincing case for our stories’ continued existence long after we’re gone.
Seattle author Nisi Shawl recently edited “Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars,” a fundraising e-book anthology for the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship.