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Apocalypse & after

Lalitha Subramanian, Nov 10, 2013, DHNS: 19:47 IST
Maddaddam Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury 2013, pp 394 699
Will the world of the near future be genetically modified to a great degree? Does our dying earth’s salvation lie in genetic modification of man and animal companions?

So it would seem if one could willingly suspend disbelief and accept the inhabitants of Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood’s new work Maddaddam, final installment to her science fiction trilogy that started with Oryx and Crake (2003), followed by Year of the Flood (2009).

Significantly, the prolific Atwood terms her science fiction as speculative fiction, and contends that the trilogy’s detailing is based on researched scientific plausibility. Thus armed, Atwood populates the desolate post-apocalyptic world of Maddaddam with a few surviving humans, genetically modified Mo’Hairs (sheep with harvestable human-like hair), sundry animals, and importantly, Pigoons. These gene-spliced pigs are portrayed as potential bacon that can also be harvested for their brains and kidneys — but the crafty creatures have emotion enough to reject a meaty end, preferring to help or hinder man, as warranted.

You also have a group of genetically engineered humans — termed the ‘Crakers’, after their creator, Crake, the mad genius from the first book. They’ve been brought in to replace humans lost to the world through a plague unleashed by self-same Crake. And the Crakers, for all their bizarre risqu ways, are fairly acceptable in their gentle herbivorous vice-lessness, far preferable to degraded men like the Painballers (ex-prisoners-turned-killer-cannibals).

Maddaddam occasionally sports a near-biblical tone — an early chapter relates ‘events that set human malice loose in the world again’. It talks of consumerist selfishness, sin, punishing cataclysm and hopeful renewal. And, as the final installment to a trilogy, it sensibly offers a four-page summation of the first two books, titled, ‘The story so far’. It helps just enough and the third book manages to stand on its own — but one could also attempt a bit of reading/research of the earlier books. — and get a complete picture.

Apparently, the first and second books were set along parallel timelines. Book one took place in the ‘Compounds’ (‘fortified corporations containing the technocrat elite that controlled society through their collective security arm, the CorpSeCorps’). Its protagonists were Jimmy (the ailing prophet Snowman of the third book), Crake and Oryx, a haunting child pornography victim who partners Crake, teaches the Crakers, loves, dies.

Book two was set in the ‘Pleeblands’ — the suburbs and slums of the common people. It introduced wise, witty gentle Toby, an Eve attached to the God’s Gardeners group, a pacifist ‘green religion’ started by Adam One, son of a rogue preacher (the villainous Reverend with his Church of Petroleum). Adam’s brother Zeb, once part of the Gardeners, later splits to form his own band of anti-Corp insurgents, the Maddaddamites, a violent group that deals with corporate wickedness in their own special manner — as becomes evident in the third book, which basically tells back-stories from the first two books, and finally marches to a confrontation-conclusion.

The third and present book is effectively a wrapping up sequel where the trilogy’s characters are re-analysed, before new action can lead to a resolution. It starts and ends with violence, but in-between there is a calm accepting continuation of life as possible in the destroyed and disintegrating world of Maddaddam. Calm and sensible, Toby leads the story and the band of survivors, most holed up in a cobb-house refuge. Other characters include her lover, the tried and tested Zeb, rape victim Amanda, the provocative Swift Fox, ailing Jimmy, the perpetually puzzled Crakers, young Craker Bluebeard (Toby’s student and possible future historian), the two vicious Painballers-at-large, their surprise prisoner, others, humans, humanoids, animals, all. They forage, fight petty battles, laugh, survive.

While the plot as such is not too cohesive, there is unity of theme, mischievous word-play, philosophical reflection, acerbic satire, poetic story-telling. Through the book, ecological warrior Atwood mocks, warns, continuously inspires thought and laughter.

And Maddaddam particularly delights with its beautiful marriage of older story-telling tradition to modern writing. Zeb tells Toby all about his and Adam’s horrific childhood at the hands of a demented father; their escape, separation, Zeb’s adventures in the arctic tundra, his bizarre revenge on the father… these thrilling portions may also disturb the squeamish reader. Toby, ritualistically, unfailingly, relates to the persistent Crakers, her own and Zeb’s tales. Amusingly, the Crakers’ incomprehension of everyday terms often leads to quiet hilarity. An ‘Oh fuck’ from Jimmy sees Toby inventing a story about ‘Fuck’ being an invisible guardian angel!

Eventually, teamwork wins the day. Goodness survives. And finally there is a sense of hope even as the reader chokes up on the concluding Story of Toby.

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