Set in a world destroyed by biochemical and cyber engineering, MaddAddam completes Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy. She spells out consequences of greed in the ruined cities and overgrown countryside where nature runs amok and hybrids hatched in labs (called pigoons) threaten the few humans left.
Although it sits on a foundation established in Oryx and Crake and expanded in The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is sharp, witty and strong enough to stand alone. It’s so good that I had to reread Oryx and Crake to find out why it left me so cold.
That first novel is one long establishing shot. This novel, set after the pandemic that has ravaged humanity, belongs to Toby, who finds herself in charge of the Crakers. Sweet-natured innocents genetically engineered to be free of human character flaws, they’re named for their creator. Crake ruled out the need for animal products — Crakers graze — and clothing, no problem because although procreation is built in, lust, jealousy and rage are not.
In a private lab deep inside a tech community sealed off from what’s left of the world, Crake also perfected a Blyss compound that started by making users euphoric, then addicted and and infected them with a plague that wiped out almost everybody. Of the love triangle — Oryx, Crake, his best friend Jimmy — only Jimmy the Snowman survives.
This isn’t a spoiler: Atwood prefaces this third volume with a dizzying summary of events in the first two, and all three novels shuttle back and forth between past and narrative present.
Holed up in the stronghold of God’s Gardeners — a colony of agrarian activists founded by Adam One — Toby’s in love. MaddAddam turns on her push-pull relationship with Adam’s half brother, craggy, taciturn Zeb. As Zeb opens up to Toby, his backstory unfolds. It’s a good one, including beatings by his father, sadistic leader of The Church of PetrOleum; his complex relationship with his half brother; killing and eating a grizzly bear whole. A brilliant hacker, he’s searching for Adam in the cybercorridors of a dying society.
With the Snowman laid low, Toby puts on his red baseball cap and his watch to dispense wisdom to the childlike Crakers. She has to eat the fish they bring — and sugar-coat the facts. Their exchanges are a delight:
"In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you.
"Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on... Yes, it rained inside the Egg.
"No, there was not any thunder.
"Because Crake did not want any thunder inside the egg..."
Two Painballers, murderous remnants of the high tech militia, kidnapped and assaulted Toby’s friend Amanda. Zeb’s group captured them — until guileless Crakers let them go. Toby softens the blow: “You didn’t understand... It is not your fault they ran away into the forest. Don’t cry.
“Yes, Crake must be very angry with the bad men. Perhaps he will send some thunder...
“Yes, good, kind Crake.
“Please stop singing.”
Framed by these lyric passages, the story zips between past and present, in which the community fights off assaults by the Painballers and other brutes (remember those pigoons?) alike. Toby deals with sexual jealousy and — in a significant development — teaches a Craker child to read and write.
Peppered with witty neologisms (Happicappucino, Truck-aPillar, Bearlift) Atwood’s character-driven novel is terrific precisely because of close attention to detail, to voice, to what’s in the hearts of these people: love, loss, the need to keep on keeping on, no matter what. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood was too busy world-building to engage me. But this novel sings.
Kit Reed is the author of “The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories.”