In a recent review of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the third book in the trilogy that began with 2003’s Oryx And Crake and continued with 2009’s The Year Of The Flood, The Guardian’s Theo Talt takes the huffy view that the series is bad science fiction, that apocalypses, their survivors, and the roving gangs who plague them have all been done before. He implies Atwood doesn’t know science fiction well enough to dodge the clichés, and thus has no business writing it. It’s an oddly protective view of a genre that’s largely built on exploring existing tropes in new ways; the existence of a familiar element doesn’t invalidate a book. The issue isn’t that MaddAddam covers familiar SF ground, it’s that it covers ground trod firm by the series’ two previous books, and doesn’t bring enough new to the table.
Oryx And Crake revealed how Atwood’s apocalypse happened: A fanatical genius operating under the pseudonym Crake released a virus that wiped out the majority of humanity, clearing the way for an improved humanoid species of his own design. His Crakers have beautiful bodies, unflappably placid minds, and a variety of strange improvements. They purr over each other to heal injury or illness, their urine repels predators, their skin repels insects, and they only have sex when they go into heat. Enduring in the wreckage of the oppressive consumerist dystopia that Crake washed away, Crake’s old friend Snowman observes the Crakers and reflects on the events that produced them and ended the human world. The Year Of The Flood then flashes back to cover the same time period via different characters, particularly the members of an anti-consumer cult run by a low-key guru named Adam One.
MaddAddam again loops back to cover that same era, filling in the life of Adam One’s brother Zebulon: Both men were raised by an abusive, hypocritical preacher who built his well-funded church around supporting oil-profiteering and painting environmentalists as satanist obstructionists. Adam and Zeb escaped together, with Adam disappearing into activism among the increasingly rapacious and powerful corporations, and Zeb trailing along behind, taking orders and disappearing into a series of new identities for espionage work. In the post-apocalypse present, Zeb relates his history to Year Of The Flood co-protagonist Toby, and she attempts to translate it for the eager but politely uncomprehending Crakers. Meanwhile, her small group of survivors—the remnants of Adam One’s separatist group and Crake’s “MaddAddam” geneticist team—worries about how to deal with a couple of Painballers—former professional gladiators who may be stalking their colony, and have already raped and brutalized some of their members.
The problem with MaddAddam isn’t that it draws on familiar speculative-fiction staples, from genetic engineering to corp-ruled hellscapes, it’s that here, they don’t cohere into a particularly insightful or effective story. Zeb’s backstory is compellingly written, with the kind of closely detailed characterization that makes Atwood’s books remarkable, but it brings relatively little new information into her existing world. Zeb is a dutiful foot soldier, contributing small, unilluminated bits to a larger plan he can’t see—a plan already thoroughly enacted earlier in the series. Toby’s attempts to translate his story into forms the Crakers can understand are entertaining and sweetly funny, but mostly defuse the mysteries of how the Crakers think and see the world, which was one of Oryx And Crake’s more appealingly alien elements. The Painballer subplot adds a slight tinge of narrative tension and eventually develops into a conclusion, but it’s underused and underexplored, a convenient jack-in-the-box waiting to pop up for eventual scares. And when the Painballers turn up with a surprise prisoner, it’s simultaneously an unlikely coincidence and a profound anticlimax.
With books like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin, Atwood established herself as a sympathetic, thoughtful author who plunges deep into her characters’ psyches and emerges with thoughtful, beautifully realized observations—particularly about women’s relationships with people of both genders, about point-of-view conflicts and failures of communication, and about social pressures and dominance struggles. MaddAddam avoids all these predictably rich veins. It’s a surface-level book that follows Zeb through adventures that seem relevant only to him at this point. The bricks of this world’s story were laid in Oryx And Crake; two books later, Atwood is mostly still filling in the mortar between them, and the results feel minor by comparison.
Strangely, it feels like this trilogy might be best read in reverse order of publication, since the series’ key mysteries are revealed by the end of the first book, defanging everything that comes afterward. Reading them in order feels like listening to a shaggy-dog tale by someone who has trouble keeping track of threads, someone who keeps cycling back to add, “Oh, but I should have told you where so-and-so was at the time…” An ambitious editor might interpolate all three volumes into a single massive novel that would make every moment feel relevant, and use Flood and MaddAddam’s after-the-fact stories to postpone revelations and add richness to the world. But as a separate volume, MaddAddam feels inessential. It doesn’t have as much trouble staking a claim in the speculative-fiction field as Talt suggests, but it never finds its feet within this particular series.