Atwood begins the final installment of her apocalyptic trilogy with a brief summary of the first two novels, but this is insufficient to capture the complexity of the world she has created. I recommend re-reading the earlier works before tackling MaddAddam. It’s not that you’ll have a hard time understanding the plot, but rather that you’ll fail to fully appreciate the attention to detail Atwood has shown in weaving these three novels together to tell one epic story.
The trilogy takes place in a dystopic future in which ultra-powerful corporations have replaced nation-states. These corporations are greedy, ruthless and rapacious, and the world they rule teeters on the verge of ecological collapse. A brilliant, young genetic engineer named Crake believes humankind is nearing extinction and takes drastic action to save it: he unleashes a plague that wipes out 99.9% of the world’s population.
The novels tell the story of what happens before and after Crake’s “Waterless Flood.” Told from the point of view Crake’s best friend Jimmy, Oryx and Crake details the friends’ love triangle with the beguiling Oryz in the run-up to the apocalypse, as well as Jimmy’s life as the last man on earth. He is not alone, however, as Crake had also engineered a “perfect” race, the Crakers, complete pacifists who live in harmony with nature and have no sense of private property or sexual jealousy. The book ends with a cliffhanger as Jimmy learns he is not the only Homo sapiens to survive Crake’s plague.
The Year of the Flood is the story of two of those survivors, Toby and Ren. They are both accidental members of God’s Gardeners, a religious cult made up of extreme environmentalists. Their off-the-grid lifestyle protects them from the Flood, but pious tree-huggers aren’t the only ones to survive. In addition to wild animals and bioengineered creatures, the Gardeners must contend with Painballers. Painballers are convicted murderers who have earned their freedom through a Hunger Games-style competition so brutal that it erases the last vestiges of their humanity.
The Painballers loom terrifying large in The Year of the Flood, and remain a threat in MaddAddam. Atwood seems content to let the built-up dread from the second novel carry through to the trilogy’s climactic scene. It would have been better, though, to reintroduce these cunning and conscienceless foes to underscore the threat faced by our protagonists.
Told mostly from the point of view of Toby, MaddAddam is really the story of her lover, Zeb. He is a brawling hacker and the younger brother of Adam, the saintly leader of the Gardeners. The two share a hatred of their abusive father, the hypocritical leader of the Church of PetrOleum. The Rev embodies the fundamentalist theology and environmental denialism that seemed to dominate American politics in the Bush era. When conflict with the Rev and his corporate backers comes to a head, the brothers split up and go on the run. Fighting to keep one step ahead of his pursuers, Zeb hones his survival skills and finds himself drawn into a network of eco-outlaws that includes Crake.
In addition to providing Zeb’s background, MaddAddam is the story the fledgling civilization Toby and Zeb are trying to grow. They take responsibility for the care of the guileless Crakers, who seem to hold the key to a peaceful and harmonious future. Though Crake had tried to engineer religious belief out of his improved species, the Crakers wind up worshipping him based on the stories told by Oryx, Jimmy and Toby. Much like Will Self’s Book of Dave (2006), Atwood’s trilogy reveals the ridiculous origins of a future religion, perhaps suggesting that real-world religions emerged through similar means.
Taken together, these three books warn of the dangers of environmental degradation, runaway technology and insatiable greed. But the books focus on the lives of real people who experience love and jealousy, hope and fear, faith and regret. MaddAddam takes us deep into the lives of those who survived the Flood and struggle to right the mistakes of the past.