Most stories about the past have an element of pain

Maddaddam

Maddaddam
by Margaret Atwood

This is the third instalment in Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, following on from Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, so this may review contain spoilers for the previous two books. Once again we are in a post-apocalyptic future that feels at once entirely alien and all too possible.

Like the previous two books, this novel looks back to a pre-“flood” story, while also dealing with the post-flood present, but there is more of the present than there has been previously, because really here that’s the emphasis – is this the new way of things? Can humanity survive and if so, how?

The pre-flood story that is slotted into the narrative is mostly about Zeb, who was a fairly minor character in The Year of the Flood but turns out to be an important link between everyone and everything else. However, this wasn’t clear at first and it seemed strange that the flashbacks should linger for so long on him. In particular, there’s an early episode about him having killed a bear that frankly dragged a bit. But once the pace of his back story picked up and some of the links to the wider story became clear, I did enjoy getting to see all the same events again from yet another fresh perspective.

“Will this be a painful story? It’s likely: most stories about the past have an element of pain in them, now that the past has been ruptured so violently, so irreparably. But not, surely, for the first time in human history. How many others have stood in this place? Left behind, with all gone, all swept away.”

The post-flood story is less contemplative than it had been in the previous two books; in fact there’s quite a bit of action. The plague-surviving humans (a mix of God’s Gardeners and Maddaddamites) and the Crakers are learning to understand each other and co-exist, and this raises a lot of issues. Are the Crakers human – and indeed, what is the nature of humanity? Are culture and storytelling innate or taught? Can/should the humans protect the Crakers from bad stuff and teach them knowledge, or should their innocence be maintained as Crake intended? Are the Crakers the only hope for the future?

“He could sense words rising from him, burning away in the sun. Soon he’d be wordless, and then would he still be able to think? No and yes, yes and no. He’d be up against it, up against everything that filled the space he was moving through, with no glass pane of language coming between him and not-him.”

One of the recurring scenes in this book is the Crakers’ story time. The Crakers insist on the daily ritual that Jimmy/Snowman began in Oryx and Crake, and though the storyteller now varies, the style is the same – a somewhat stilted, sanitised version of the truth. These sections are at first odd, irritating even, but gradually become familiar and often humorous, and finally they become the backbone of the whole novel.

“In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story…All around the Egg was the chaos, with many, many people who were not like you. Because they had an extra skin. That skin is called clothes.”

This was a satisfying end to the trilogy but it didn’t quite match up to the high point of The Year of the Flood for me.

Published 2013 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Bought at an author event run as part of Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Margaret Atwood at Bristol Festival of Ideas

Maddaddam
St George’s Hall, Bristol, 28 August

It seems whenever I book tickets for something months in advance, life conspires to try to spoil it for me. Like last night. Once again, Tim wasn’t able to come with me (thankfully some friends from work also had tickets so I wasn’t alone for the journey there at least) and my knee was randomly super painful, particularly on steps. And St George’s Hall has a lot of steps (it is very pretty though). But on the plus side I got to see Margaret Atwood in real life and hear her speak and get her to sign not one but two books for me! So that part was pretty good.

I met Margaret Atwood today

The event was primarily about the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and in particular the third book Maddaddam, which was published in the UK yesterday. So obviously I bought the brand new hardback and got it signed even though I have the other two books in paperback and now they won’t match or even fit on the same shelf. Oops. But it seemed like it would be silly not to, while I was there and she was there. Right?

The interview started with the influences on the trilogy, which is perhaps an easy list to guess for anyone who’s read any of the books, but Atwood embellished with interesting facts and plenty of dry wit. There really are glowing green rabbits (created by splicing jellyfish genes with rabbit), which she says were originally developed for a magician, and spider-goats, developed to create bulletproof silk – “people have opened the genetic toybox and they’re mixing and matching”. When asked if she sees herself as a critic, observer, satirist or optimist of issues such as gene-splicing, Atwood replied that she’s all of those things (which is interesting as I thought the books came down firmly against, but perhaps I misread the tone). She went on to say that people are afraid of what they don’t understand and we’re right to be afraid of our own power but wrong to be scared every time.

Anthropology and psychology seem to be big influences on Atwood (indeed, she subscribes to New Scientist and devours all the popular science, especially biology and epidemiology, she can). When asked about how she was able to describe people living after the, ahem, event of this trilogy, she made the acute observation that basic human traits, “our essential smorgasbord”, have not changed since the days of the caveman – we’re all susceptible to love, rage, jealousy, etc, therefore no changes in technology – or loss thereof – are going to change human emotions.

Talking more generally about storytelling, Atwood said “the reader is the violinist of the text…I’m just the originator”. She also touched on a subject that fascinates me: the link between memory, language, storytelling and religion. Memory evolved to allow us to anticipate the future. And once a language has a past and future tense, we start telling stories, and an important part of that is a theology of where we came from. And that brings us back to Maddaddam, which apparently develops the religion of Crake’s children.

There were many more highlights that I scribbled down but I’ll finish with the story that Atwood seemed most eager to tell: the cover design. The first cover she was sent was flowers and a bee: totally girly and not at all reflecting the content of the book. Inspired by Maureen Johnson’s excellent Coverflip challenge Atwood asked for something different, something dynamic and maybe even scary. It took a lot of revisions but you have to admit that the new cover may have pink on it but it sure isn’t girly. Freaky, unnerving and intriguing, yes.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

It burned through cities like fire

Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book in Atwood’s trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and will conclude with Maddaddam, out next week. I suspect you don’t need to have read Oryx and Crake to enjoy this book, but that said I did really love spotting all the connections before they became explicit.

The story follows two women who, separately, have lived through the “Waterless Flood”, some form of apocalypse that has left both women struggling to survive and wondering if they are the only human left alive. So far, so much like Oryx and Crake, but unlike that book’s hero, these women are not going mad and their memories are more coherent.

“In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the water-pipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.
‘Go to sleep,’ she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she’s been alone.”

Ren is an exotic dancer trapped in the high-end sex club she worked in. Toby has created a rooftop garden on her former workplace, safely away from the prowling animals out to steal her food. Both women used to belong to God’s Gardeners, a group of outsiders who strove to heal the planet through vegetarian self-sufficiency and reuse/recycling. Pretty much hippies, but in the name of religion and at a time when the Earth depicted is far along the road to destruction, the two being linked by the fear of an imminent tipping point when human society will collapse – the Waterless Flood.

“This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners had so often warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery…It looked like total breakdown, which was why she’d needed the rifle.”

I wasn’t sure at first where I was in the timeline as compared with Oryx and Crake but it comes together, in fact more so than I had expected. Of course this means many of the issues dealt with are the same or similar, but I felt that The Year of the Flood was far more emotionally engaging. Maybe I connected better with Ren and Toby than I did with Snowman, or maybe the overall storyline cut closer to issues I care about – this book really did put the emphasis on the environmental angle rather than the bioengineering and I know I said in my review of Oryx and Crake that that could get preachy but actually it did the opposite – it made it all more real.

“It’s daybreak. The break of day. Toby turns this word over: break, broke, broken. What breaks in daylight? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?”

I think I also liked that most of the characters in this book really cared about things, rather than floating through the world. I know both types of people exist and are equally capable of good or bad but I am a carer, so I guess I empathise better with characters who care. I even forgave them all the God stuff (which was in any case heavily loaded with irony in places) because, after all, facing imminent apocalypse who knows what I’d turn to?

I found this a thrilling, wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to Maddadam and to hearing Atwood talk about all three books in Bristol next week.

Published 2009 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Human society was a sort of monster

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood

When I saw that Margaret Atwood was coming to Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas I got very excited about it and bought tickets. Only then did I realise that she is coming here to talk about her new book Maddadam, which is the third part of the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, and I had read neither of those. Cue a hurried purchase of both…

This dystopia is hauntingly desolate, a lonely existence for our hero Snowman, who may be the only human left, though not the only person. The devastation of society appears to be quite recent, as Snowman not only remembers the world as it was before, but played a key role in the tragedy, something that is gradually elucidated by his unreeling memories.

“The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest – clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.
‘You did this!’ he screams at the ocean.
No answer, which isn’t surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash.”

However, the world as it was, the world Snowman knew before, back when he was Jimmy, was also a place that might be called a dystopia. Global warming was wreaking havoc, claiming coastal cities and changing climates unrecognisably, with widespread droughts and species becoming extinct with alarming frequency. Society in North America had become unruly and dangerous, with only those living in heavily guarded compounds safe from crime and disease.

“Too many things were coming back to him, too much of what he’d lost, or – sadder – had never had in the first place. All that wasted time, and he didn’t even know who’d wasted it.”

But how did the world change from there to here? Who are or were Oryx and Crake? Who are these people who look human but aren’t, called the Children of Crake, whom Snowman feels compelled to protect? And can he keep them safe in this post-civilisation Earth?

There’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a pretty complex set-up and I can see why it’s a trilogy, because there’s so much more that could be said with this setting. The central theme is an environmental one, pressing home the point that the Earth will go on, it’s humans who will lose out and risk making ourselves extinct if we continue to mess with our habitat. And in this respect it’s a very sad story, because what’s depicted is so believable.

“Maybe there weren’t any solutions. Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain.”

However, there is another major theme that is, perhaps, less believable, more sci-fi conceptual idea (and possibly saves the whole from being too preachy or moralising, or perhaps is actually more of the same). The pre-disaster society depicted is a world where genetic modification/bioengineering has gone to sometimes ludicrous extremes. I found this sometimes annoying, often strange, but ultimately it all makes sense.

The world we are left with is a beautiful but terrifying devastation, with nature reclaiming control, and I look forward to seeing where Atwood is going to take this next.

“Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see, however. That was the trouble.”

Published 2003 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Future terrors

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

My immediate reaction on finishing this book was “Oh wow” (in fact, I think I tweeted exactly that). I am so grateful to my book club for getting me to read it and suspect it will be a book to come back to, time and again.

This is an amazing, intense, important story that is also gripping and immensely readable. Atwood cleverly dripfeeds information about what exactly is going on, which makes it a little difficult to describe without any plot spoilers, and because of this I’m extra glad I was able to have a book club discussion about it.

The book’s title and the Bible quote at the start of it (Genesis 30:1–3) make reasonably clear at least one element of the story, even if the details are only slowly filled in. The society in which this book is set, the Republic of Gilead, designates certain women as handmaids and their sole purpose is to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to a married couple who have been unable, for whatever reason, to have children themselves. The handmaid is stripped of her former name and must wear a uniform that immediately identifies her role and hides her body and face, as well as obscuring her view of the world. It is a curiously old-fashioned situation in what appears to be a near-future North American setting. But it is of course far more complicated than just this and has its reasons for being as it is.

One other thing that is clear from the start is that there is a great fear of the state, via hidden spies or cameras or just loyal citizens willing to speak up about any trangressions of the many rules. One of these rules is that handmaids may not read or write at all, a rule so strictly enforced that the heroine obsesses over one written word that she sees every day. This society places a lot of emphasis on role and status, with the privileged as well as the less so immediately marked out by their clothing. It is a terrifying vision of a totalitarian state (and not just because of the reading and writing thing) partly because as you trace the steps that were taken to create it, it is conceivable that it or something similar could happen. As the narrator says in a prayer:

“If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

But it’s not at all a difficult or even challenging read because its narrator is so engaging and real. The handmaid of the title never reveals her former name, but between documenting her life as a handmaid she reminisces about life before and through that we learn about the background of the current regime as well as about her. It is her job, as a handmaid, to be a vessel and no more and as a narrator she is also a vessel for revealing an exercise in science fiction, but she is also an ordinary, relatable human facing extraordinary circumstances (to us, anyway). She vacillates between embarrassment of and admiration for her mother. She is trying desperately to survive, no matter what it takes, and yet contemplates methods of suicide. She has a fondness for flowers and word games.

Though by no means a comedy, there is a certain wit to Atwood’s writing. Even in the loneliest moments when the world is cold, a small detail seen or heard or remembered will be warm, familiar even.

****Spoiler warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you’ve not read the book ****

This book was first published in 1985 and to an extent it reveals the fears and preoccupations of its time. Gilead might be described as a fundamentalist state, making it a crime to follow any other than the state religion. The world has suffered as a result of chemicals in the water supply and nuclear reactor meltdowns. There has been an AIDS epidemic and there have been riots over abortion. The same book written now might choose slightly different background events than these, though they are all, of course, still relevant.

****End of spoiler****

At book club we discussed how this future vision is not only possible but could almost be said to be happening in certain strict Islamic states. Indeed, in the decade before this book’s publication Iran suddenly went from being a modern, egalitarian place to a totalitarian, fundamentalist country with women suddenly driven out of higher education and most jobs, suddenly forced to dress and behave differently.

“Women” really is the key word. Though not militantly so, this is a feminist text. It is the story of men either choosing to or being complicit in the subjugation of women. Because we see the world through the handmaid’s eyes, we never really learn much about the lives of men in the Republic of Gilead, but from what we do see their lives are not nearly so bad as for women.

This is not the first Atwood I have read but it is probably the best. It definitely makes me want to read more of her work, particularly any that fall into the speculative/science fiction category.

First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.
Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

See also: review by Connie at The Blue Bookcase.