One sentence plot
In a dystopic but disturbingly possible speculative future, our compelling protagonists take polar opposite approaches in their attempts to halt Earth’s destruction by the human race, and make the world a better place.
I very nearly was unable to review Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, by not finishing it. The first time I picked up Oryx and Crake, I admit I was prejudiced. I had just finished Atwood’s brilliant A Handmaid’s Tale, and was very much bewitched by that particular vision of the future. I just couldn’t get my head around a brand new dystopia by the same author, and I so struggled to get into the world of Oryx and Crake when it was first published. I resented it. I wanted Handmaid’s Tale 2. Then, when The Year of the Flood came out, I decided to try again, but it was so long since I’d read Oryx and Crake by then that I had forgotten lots of details, and found it confusing. So when Maddaddam came out, I had pretty much resolved that it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to buy it at all. But then my friends kept going on about how much they loved the books, and then I heard Atwood talking about it at the National Book Festival in September, and I decided to bite the bullet. That meant reading the whole trilogy, back to back, from scratch. And thank goodness I did because this time I loved it.
The trilogy paints a world that’s initially split into those working for big corporations and living on compounds, and those living in polluted, crime-ridden slums. The rich compound dwellers, living literally in a bubble, are mostly valued for their science skills, producing profit for the companies based on ways to ‘improve’ humans’ lifestyle, while their bored, science-widow spouses buy expensive spa treatments and ogle the gardener. Life outside the compounds are very much the sordid badlands, where nobody from inside wishes to go – or is allowed to go. Everyone seeks longer life and guzzles vitamins which, while lucrative for companies, may not be quite what they seem.
While most people accept the status quo, Atwood builds a compelling cast of characters who seek to change it. For some, the answer is science and innovation. For others, an eco-warrior religion, God’s Gardeners. For others, they’ve just fallen in for the ride and get involved. Since the first book starts after the almost end of the world, it’s no spoiler that some of these characters succeed in their ambition to change the world, in a dramatic way that transforms life on the planet. What is compelling is why, who and how.
The books flit backwards and forwards in time, introducing characters briefly, then later delving into their backstory, their complex motivations, relationships, and affiliations. You think you know a character, then a whole new facet is revealed. At times you need to really use your memory (eg pay attention to a brief character called Brenda in the first book) but Atwood impressively creates not just a new and believable world (complete with many new species) that stands up to scrutiny, but a web of disparate characters that are all linked in impressively and pleasingly complex ways. People who seem minor later recur as stars. The characters I cared about in one book were not the ones I loved in the next book. Everything is shifting, but somehow, read back to back, it all makes sense. It works.
There are important ethical questions in the book, and Atwood does not take a position; she presents the circumstances, and opens the space wide for thought and debate. Of the three books, I preferred the middle one, The Year of the Flood. But Oryx and Crake is an essential scene setter. And the final book, Maddaddam, pulls things together in just the right way. It’s not a happily-ever-after cut-and-dry ending – rather it explores the meaning of the concept ‘ending’. A fascinating piece of speculative fiction. Atwood’s writing skill is spectacular. I’m sad there won’t be a fourth book in the series, according to its author. Because I really want to know what happens next!
The verdict: 5/5 stars (if you read them one after the other)