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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era