With her weird, wistful new novel MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood completes the apocalyptic trilogy she began with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Like its predecessors, MaddAddam is a blend of satiric futurism and magic realism, a snarky but soulful peek at what happens to the world after a mad scientist decimates humanity with a designer disease. That mad scientist is the brilliant bioengineer Crake, whose story is retold in this novel by the Crakers, the post-humans he designed to experience no sexual jealousy, and to eat nothing but plants.
Like Year of the Flood, MaddAddam deals with the question of how to rebuild a better civilization in the ashes of what came before. In Year, we met the Gardeners, a group of eco-spiritualists who practice a kind of environmental animism. Now, in MaddAddam, we discover that the Gardeners are among the only survivors of the pandemic — partly because their religion taught them survival skills, and partly because many of them worked with Crake on the destruction of humanity.
Either way, they were prepared. But as the novel opens, all their enemies in the evil nature-destroying corporations are dead. Without any target for their wrath, the Gardeners are searching for meaning. Plus, their leader Adam has disappeared, leaving no instructions for how to deal with the world after the "waterless flood" he predicted. The only other creatures they have for company are the strange, childlike Crakers, who worship their all-too-human makers as gods.
What's delightful about this novel is that Atwood always balances philosophically weighty topics with a humorous realism. Yes, there is a search for meaning and spiritual sustenance here, but there are also petty jealousies among the Gardeners and arguments over who will do the chores. Post-apocalyptic life, observes our Gardener protagonist Toby, is kind of like high school. At times, Atwood's prose becomes so bitingly satirical and whimsical that it's reminiscent of literary science fiction writer Joanna Russ, whose book The Female Man is an astonishing blend of multiverse hopping and bitter feminist comedy.
The novel moves between Toby's everyday life among the Gardeners, and the story her lover Zeb tells about his past and that of his brother Adam, founder of the Gardeners. Like many of the characters in these novels, Zeb and Adam have been horrifically abused – and they supported Crake's apocalyptic project because they believed humanity needed a good culling. When Adam wasn't leading the gentle Gardeners, he used the codename MaddAddam online to bring together a group of dangerously smart gene hackers to infiltrate biotech corporations.
So beneath every anti-tech eco-terrorist there lurks a tech-obsessed mad scientist, perhaps. There are a lot of satisfyingly realistic paradoxes like this in the novel — at one point, Toby remarks sardonically that humans are brilliant at believing in contradictions. But there's a chance that the Crakers have been engineered not to have that self-deluding capability. The other thread in the novel takes us into the Gardeners' relationship with the Crakers, whom Toby has reluctantly adopted as her responsibility.
Each night, the Crakers beg Toby for a story about their origins, and we listen in as she mythologizes the genocidal Crake, as well as Zeb, the Gardeners, and even a spirit called Fuck. (She has to invent Fuck when the Crakers keep asking why all the Gardners utter the invocation "oh fuck" when they are particularly upset.) MaddAddam dives deeply into the art of myth-making, both deliberate and accidental, and its role in creating a new world. Of course, we never quite know whether these new humans will be any better than Homo sapiens. And that's the nasty little tweak at the heart of this often-moving story.
Atwood relishes a good apocalypse, and there is no nostalgic invitation to mourn the loss of humanity here. The waterless flood that pulped our species is never portrayed as anything but the clearcutting we deserved. As a result, there's no ambiguity about the apocalypse bringing about a utopia. Genocide is the best thing that could have happened to us. The only ambiguity is whether that Utopia can be maintained in the long run, by our GMO progeny.
For those who have followed the whole trilogy, there's also an intriguing and sneaky shift in Atwood's portrait of those GMO creatures. Oryx and Crake often read like a screed against genetic engineering, but in MaddAddam our greatest hope comes from the new species that were born in labs. Not only do we come to understand and even love the Crakers, but we are also invited to view the Pigoons (human/pig splices), the Mo'Hairs (human/goat splices), and other GMO creatures as part of a new natural order of things. So the spiritual environmentalism of the future will include even the most artificial products of the world that Crake wanted to destroy.
Thoughtful, sardonic, and full of touches that almost resemble a fairy tale, MaddAddam will stick with you long after you've put it down. It's an apocalypse story about new life, and a condemnation of humanity that ends, however uneasily, with a celebration of it.
Annalee Newitz writes about the intersection of science and culture. She's the editor in chief of io9, and the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.