MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: Living in the end times

This final installment of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy shows a master artificer inventing nothing less than a cosmogony, one shining constellation at a time.

MaddAddam
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, 416pp, £18.99

Margaret Atwood does not call herself a writer of science fiction, preferring the term “speculative fiction”. Certainly the writers whose tradition she has inherited – H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell – were not limited by such reductive categories and the invidious cultural hierarchies they now suggest. Yet it is not entirely clear how speculative fiction differs from other kinds of fiction: all fiction is speculative. If writing is not speculative, it is non-fiction.

Atwood surely has earned the right to dispense with categories altogether. Her novelistic worlds, depicted in a kind of slipperyslope realism, are exercises in imaginative extrapolation that point to the dragons at the end of our cognitive maps. If we keep on the way we’re going, we will fall off the edge of the known world and into monstrous depths.

Science, politics, religion, myth, jeremiad, cautionary tale, satire, realism – all have their place in Atwood’s fiction. Her books do not merely defy categorisation; they tell stories about the importance of defying categorisation. MaddAddam, the third and final instalment in the trilogy that began with the triumphant Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood, is a satire about the way we live now, a warning about our future and an exploration of the question of what makes us human.

Oryx and Crake opens in a recognisably post-apocalyptic landscape with a traumatised man, known as Snowman, who fears that he is the last human being to survive an unnamed catastrophe. As he tries to navigate his new world, he remembers his childhood as an ordinary boy named Jimmy and his friendship with the extraordinary Glenn, a genius hacker and biogeneticist who adopts the code name Crake and becomes a kind of Frankenstein, inventing another type of human and deciding to wipe out the old ones so his “Crakers” can succeed them: apocalypse as reboot, Humanity 2.0.

The inspired conceit of Oryx and Crake is that Jimmy’s lost paradise looks to us like a dystopian future, giving Crake’s decision to annihilate the human race a provocative ethical and environmental dimension: he wants to save the world by destroying its current inhabitants. One dystopia replaces another, all in the name of creating utopia. One can see why Crake might think his society is not worth saving. Governance has been completely privatised; science corporations rule the world and privileged geneticists and engineers live in walled compounds. Everyone else inhabits a blighted urban sprawl known as the “pleeblands”, where crime flourishes and where the few who resist the private police (“CorpSeCorps”), constant surveillance, galloping consumerism and genetic engineering try to live under the corporate radar or to mount a futile resistance.

Meanwhile, Crake and Jimmy have both fallen in love with the mysterious Oryx, a woman sold as a young girl into sexual slavery. This being a story of plague and apocalypse, it all ends badly – although the novel ends brilliantly.

The Year of the Flood retells the same story from the perspective of two women in the pleeblands whose lives intersect with those of Jimmy and Crake. Where the first novel concerns men, hacking and science, the second focuses on women, environmentalism and religion. A New Agey eco-activist group called God’s Gardeners is working with the mysterious network MaddAddam, which practises a kind of bioterrorism against the corrupt biomedical Corps. God’s Gardeners, led by the idealistic Adam One, save a young woman named Toby from sexual violence. The Year of the Flood alternates between the story of Toby and that of a Gardener girl she knew named Ren. Both have survived the plague and Ren has been in love with Jimmy for years. Her best friend, Amanda, also a Gardener, dated and loved Jimmy. Ren and Amanda have bit parts in Oryx and Crake, while Jimmy is relegated to cameo appearances in The Year of the Flood.

MaddAddam, told primarily from Toby’s perspective, brings them all together at last, alternating the tale of God’s Gardeners (and their relationship to MaddAddam) with the current struggles of our protagonists to survive, post-plague. Once again, subplots and minor characters from the first two books become the main plot, as Atwood turns the full force of her satire against the bastardisation of religion in capitalist America (the Church of PetrOleum is a highlight).

She also takes a more affectionate view of humanity’s need for mythology. The Crakers come to full, humorous life in MaddAddam, demanding stories to understand the world they have inherited and insisting on the deification of what they cannot comprehend. The humans’ weary, confused attempts to explain the devastated world to the innocent Crakers provide much gentle comedy. In the meantime, they must battle freely roaming bioengineered animals, including the ferocious liobams (half-lion, half-lamb, invented by religious fundamentalists who were tired of waiting for the lion to lie down with the lamb) and the frighteningly intelligent pigoons, giant pigs with the cerebral cortex of humans: a walking, snorting tribute to Animal Farm. There are a few dangerous human beings left wandering about, too – dehumanised prisoners who kill and rape for sport, whom our ragtag band must defeat.

A penchant for coincidence began to emerge in The Year of the Flood and by this instalment it’s running as amok as the pigoons. All the survivors have known each other for years and keep bumping into each other in the post-apocalyptic landscape, while rarely encountering anyone who didn’t appear in the first two books.

One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all of Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly. Though it remains inventively imagined and compulsively readable, MaddAddam offers a kinder, gentler dystopia than the more brutal and challenging world of Oryx and Crake, to my mind the tour de force of the trilogy.

MaddAddam provides a satisfying end to the tale – perhaps, ultimately, too satisfying. But read as a whole, the MaddAddam trilogy shows a master artificer inventing nothing less than a cosmogony, one shining constellation at a time.

Sarah Churchwell’s latest book is “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’ ” (Virago, £16.99)

A portrait of Margaret Atwood by Deborah Samuel.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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