Review: MADDADDAM TRILOGY, by Margaret Atwood
Reviewed by Alison Doherty
Oryx and Crake, 2003
The Year of the Flood, 2009
I think many people don’t believe that fantasy or science fiction novels can be considered great literature, but the MaddAddam Trilogy, by Margaret Atwood, firmly proves this assumption wrong. In the series, Atwood describes the before and after of an apocalyptic, near future. In the before, except for a few outliers in society, corporations and science rule the world. Families are grouped on compounds depending on where the parents work, animal hybrids both dangerous and domesticated roam the planet, and food has become so bioengineered it is unrecognizable. The after is still undefined. It is a rapidly spreading illness, the collapse of civilization, the end of an important friendship, a waterless flood.
The first book in the trilogy, Oryx and Crake, shows Snowman/Jimmy’s before and after. Here’s the summary from goodreads:
Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
I found this book delightful, but somewhat hard to follow (in a way I think/hope was intentional). The next books are what made me fall in love with the series. The Year of the Flood tells the before and after of two women from a back-to-nature cult who get wrapped up in Jimmy’s story. It was especially emotive and beautifully written that it made me want to cry. MaddAddam brings all the characters together and shows their attempts to reconnect, survive, and understand what caused the plague.
What elevates the books from genre fiction isn’t just the spectacular writing, even though it is some of the best, if not the best, contemporary writing I’ve ever encountered. Most speculative fiction relies heavily on premise, often at the expense of character, but Atwood’s trilogy puts character development center stage. Understanding how the characters became the way they are, how they make their choices, and how they are connected to each other is more important than the scientific discoveries or apocalyptic details present on the page.
The books are clever, funny, and well written – but it is their ability to tap into almost every facet of cultural anxiety through both individual and communal lenses that set these books apart. These anxieties range from sex and pornography to nutrition to oil dependency and the environment. The span subjects from the justice system to education to gender roles, and the books handle these issues in a way that is interconnected. The issues all lead back to the central questions of: (1) what does it mean to be human, and (2) how could humanity be improved?
These books go beyond a question of “what if?” and instead illuminate our current world and the society we live in. As my friends know, at times I have a tendency to exaggerate about how much I like something, but these books live up to my appearingly hyperbolic praise. So if you generally read sci-fi, but don’t like literary fiction, or visa versa, I suggest you pick up this series and experience the amazement for yourself.