A weird and still-wonderful sci-fi trilogy from the marvellous Margaret Atwood.
Recently I decided to re-read them to see if I still liked them as much as the first time. The answer has to be: yes, I did. In equal measures I find them gripping, deeply fascinating and even more deeply disturbing. In an afterword to the last book Margaret Atwood says [slightly paraphrased]: ‘Although these books are works of fiction, they do not include any technologies, or bio-beings, that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory.’
This statement needs a bit of an explanation. The books are sci-fi of the dystopian kind, with which Atwood has a lifelong fascination. At Harvard she studied the Victorian ancestors to the genre and has since explored it both as a reviewer and as a writer of fiction, the best-known of which is probably her acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments.
In Oryx and Crake, we meet a man, once named Jimmy, now calling himself Snowman, who lives in a tree, wrapped in an old bedsheet. Around him is a strangely altered world: the sun is blisteringly hot and lethal and the human race has been wiped out. Instead we have intelligent pigs, genetically engineered wolves and racoons, and the green-eyed Crakers, an altered breed of humanoids for whom Jimmy is responsible. Jimmy who can’t even look after himself.
As the story progresses, we learn through Jimmy’s dreams what went before. Jimmy grew up in a world where gene-splicing and gene-modification for increasingly commercial purposes abound; where the rich, the powerful and the bright scientists like Jimmy’s parents, live within compounds, ruthlessly exploiting the natural world, while the rest of humanity lives in what is known as the Pleblands – a form of slums. In this world we meet Crake, Jimmy’s friend, a brilliant young scientist with a twisted mind, and Oryx, a woman, whom Jimmy loves and loses. As the story of Jimmy’s past catches up with his present, we learn what happened to leave him so utterly alone.
In The Year of the Flood, we hear the same story but from a diametrically opposite viewpoint. The first thing we learn is that not all of humanity perished. A few (a very few) have survived. Among them, Ren, a young dancer, trapped in isolation in the upscale sex club where she worked, and Toby, a former member of a green group called God’s Gardeners, who watches and waits on her rooftop garden, both of them wondering: is there anyone else out there? They both grew up in the dangerous Pleblands and only knew the Compounds as rather distant places. We also meet another few survivors, a group of scientists who call themselves the Maddaddam-ites. At the end of the book the story of Ren and Toby meets the story of Jimmy and the Crakers.
MaddAddam takes up the tale immediately. By Toby’s side sits Blackbeard, an innocent young Craker, to whom Toby is trying to explain the puzzling world around him and which he in turn tries to explain to the other Crakers. They are bewildered; Jimmy is in a coma, so to make sense of it all they have chosen as their new prophet Zeb, a street-smart former member of God’s Gardeners, whom Toby loves. As we read on, we learn about Zeb’s past and his escape from a cult hell-bent on destroying the last remnants of the world’s resources for their own profit, and of his inclusion in God’s Gardeners, founded and run by his brother, Adam One. The ending is in equal measures both sad and upbeat.
Three into one
I see these three books as one. A great story, full of adventure, of frightening possibilities, but also of humour, love and humility. Most of the characters are just ordinary, not all bad, not all good. But some of them are evil through and through, and a few are thoroughly good and decent.
There is so much more to this story than I can describe and I realise the books will not be to everybody’s taste. They are grim, shocking and utterly frightening, but also fascinating, and well written.
When they came out, they all received many accolades and have been called moving, fierce, funny and outrageous. One reviewer wrote: ‘They are not prophecy, but eerily possible’ and it’s hard not to agree with that.
I would give them between 4 ½ and 5 stars. The first book deserves a full 5, the other two almost 5 each. And this distinction is only because the first book is so mysterious and tense as we work our way towards an understanding of what is happening. In the other two we’ve been told what went before and what brought a stop to the human race, so in those the mystery lies in speculating on what the future holds for the characters we have come to know.
Review by: Freyja
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