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

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution