A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I once read The Handmaid’s Tale, probably at the wrong age, and it freaked me out so much I didn’t want to go near a Margaret Atwood novel again. This year, one of my students announced that he was working on three of her novels and what did I think about Oryx and Crake? This was clearly a sign that Margaret Atwood needed more attention from me. Or that I would benefit from paying her novels some attention. I began reading Oryx and Crake, and could not put it down, sad and dark and strange though it is, about the making of a suicidal apocalypse in a hideously recognisable corrupt world. I began reading its sequel, The Year of the Flood, and could not put that down either. I liked it better than its predecessor: less dark, more fighting back, deeply absorbing in its detail of how to survive the man-made apocalypse with common sense and knowing how to garden. I began MaddAddam, the last in the trilogy, and was devoured, and did not put it down until the end. It gave me dark dreams but it was a satisfying ending to a survivalist trilogy about human catastrophe.
All these books would be categorised as science fiction, social science fiction,speculative fiction, or, as a literary journalist suggested recently, transrealism. The point is, their plots could all happen, so they’re absolutely not fantasy novels. They’re about surviving, and struggling to get past loneliness and lovelessness in horrible childhoods and dreadful jobs in corporations run by profit margins and no ethics whatsoever. The good parents die much sooner than the bad ones, and orphans and street children grow up under the geeky but sturdy guidance of a street preacher called Adam One, head of God’s Gardeners, a bunch of organic freaks who eschew meat and won’t touch chemical products. They keep bees and scavenge for wild food in the burnt-out lots in the pleeblands, while the brainiacs design modern labour-saving and profit-making things in the Corps zones, under lavish conditions but strict security.
Obviously it all goes horribly wrong, and we first encounter the awful aftermath in Oryx and Crake with Snowman, aka Jimmy, who is trying to keep the Crakers safe, a new species of human designed to survive through biological adaptation and modern specifications. In The Year of the Flood, back in the deserted city, Ren is trapped in the sex club where she was waiting out her quarantine period when the plague hit, and Toby is trapped in the spa resort by the giant pigoons, hybridised pigs who think like people. Amanda comes back from the badlands where she’s been hiding out with Zeb and the rest of the guerrilla genesplicers to try to get Ren out before the beyond-psychotic Painballers break in to take the women apart, kidneys first. Luckily Toby has a rifle, and knows how to use it, because they’re all going to need her knowledge and sanity to keep the human remnant going in this nervous new world. In MaddAddam the different species start to come together for survival, and the people have to learn to adapt to the only existence they have left.
I loved these novels, because their stories are practical and recognisable, showing how hope survives amidst the most desolate of times. The characters are immediate and believable, and most of them are lovable: the Gardeners are a strangely alluring community of sanctuary. There is heroism and endurance, familiar storylines told with inventive genius that remakes the world we are in now to just a few decades further down the line to self-destruction. Atwood is the most persuasive of speculative writers because she doesn’t take us very far into the future. If anything, MaddAddam is practically written in the now, because she uses neologisms in current use to produce a most unsettling effect in the back of our minds: if this is also there, there where are we now? If any of the above made sense to you, or sounded like the kind of thing you could get into, I advise you get hold of all three novels and read them in sequence, because you won’t want to stop at just one.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), MaddAddam (2013).
Kate also enjoyed very much watching her daughter play Odysseus in a school performance of Atwood’s The Penelopiad some years ago. She podcasts about the books that wow her on reallylikethisbook.com.