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A wonderful blending of the dystopian and the literary - but doesn't add much to its predecessors
on 28 December 2013
I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood. he quality of her prose, her characters, and her imagination is such that she writes some of the few realistic, contemporary tales that I'm happy to read, but I think she's at her best when she's writing full-blown science-fiction with a literary edge. While the Handmaid's Tale is probably the best known example of this, I actually prefer Oryx and Crake and its sequel, the Year of the Floor. The series presents one of the most intriguing and well-developed futuristic dystopias I've ever come across, combined with an interesting plot set both before and after the plague deliberately designed to wipe out humanity and replace it with a race of genetically modified perfect beings.
Oryx and Crake dealt with the upper-echelons of society and the scientific genius who created the plague and the new humans, while Year of the Flood told the interlocking story of the underclass and the God's Gardeners environmentalist cult. The two books worked well together to fill in each other's blanks, give various different perspectives on the world and the plot, and create a fully rounded universe. I was therefore unsure what else this third book could add.
As with the earlier books, MaddAddam presents both a linear narrative of life after the "Waterless Flood" for the handful of survivors, and flashbacks to life in the pre-plague world of genetic engineering, stark class divides and armed corporations.
The "modern-day" sections focus on Toby, who is holed up with a combination of God's Gardeners, former MaddAddam affiliates, a (mostly unconscious) Jimmy from the first book, and a large group of Crakers, the new humans, to whom she tells selective stories of the past as a sort of creation myth. The focus is on the story-telling sessions, on the group defending themselves against Painballers and the world's strange man-made animals, (though there is very little action), and on Toby's relationship with Zeb. The storytelling concept and the development of the Crakers was interesting, but otherwise, these sections, while redeemed by Atwood's writing skills and characterisation, were ultimately quite dull.
The storytelling sessions and Toby's diary, which ultimately become a sort of Bible, are well done, playing with ideas of folklore, origin stories and the development of a shared culture. Though this premise was intriguing, I ultimately felt it was a little laboured and overdone. Constant Craker interruptions and misunderstandings of Toby's stories became trying when I just wanted to immerse myself in the tale, and the sections told by the Crakers felt a little twee. Cloud Atlas did a similar thing much more succinctly and subtly, by showing how one character's police interview became a religious text in the future. Still, I'm a firm believer that there shouldn't be a solid divide between literary and genre fiction, so it's refreshing to see such complex ideas being explored in this sort of story.
The best parts of the book were the flashbacks. The dystopian world is so well developed that it's fascinating to spend time there. That said, I didn't feel that these sections, focussed on Zeb and Adam One this time, added much to what readers have seen in earlier books. Zeb has lots of adventures, but doesn't really seem to do much. And while it's heavily implied that Adam is heavily embroiled in various plots, I was no clearer on his actual role in events by the end.
In essence, I don't think this book needed to be written in order to make this a complete series, and I don't think it's as good as its predecessors. That said, the writing, the imagination on display and the fascinating world still make it a pleasure to read, and I raced through it, complex ideas about storytelling and exciting tales of fights with mutant bears alike. I'd definitely recommend to fans of the author and the series, and if you haven't read the earlier books yet, do so now. If you have, a quick re-read may be in order - at times I struggled to remember the details of earlier plots and it would be interesting to see how they all merge together.