Never mind the pigoons

In her post-apocalyptic trilogy Margaret Atwood has seen into the future
August 21, 2013
MaddAddamby Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

“I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L,’ and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character,” the literary critic Sven Birkerts declared 10 years ago in the New York Times. The book under attack was Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, the first installment of what has now become a trilogy set in a dystopian America some decades in the future, depicting—graphically, satirically, brilliantly—an environmental disaster. Birkerts declared that the novel, like all science fiction—also on that shelf are Huxley’s Brave New World, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—“sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favour of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.” No matter how richly imagined such literary worlds may be, they are always only a “para-literary experience,” because of the alleged lack of psychological complexity.

But even established works of capital-L Literature (assuming that the above three do not qualify) do not always have psychology as their primary motivator: think of Don DeLillo’s Underworld or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, both of which treat the individual as a pinpoint in a broadly sweeping view of society. Nor do great novels always proceed from character rather than premise, as Birkerts would have it. Does Kafka’s Metamorphosis meet that standard? What about Crime and Punishment? A more inclusive definition of literature, I would say, is that it exists within a fully imagined, perfectly coherent fictional universe. Flaubert’s French countryside, Jane Austen’s Bath, Philip Roth’s Newark—all these may be based in an actual place, but they are hardly identical to it. We freely call Madame Bovary or Pride and Prejudice or American Pastoral “realistic” without any personal knowledge of the circumstances in which they are set. What we believe we recognise in such works is actually testimony to the authors’ imaginative creation of a plausible world.

And this is also the case for Atwood’s trilogy, of which MaddAddam is now the final installment. Atwood prefers to call these works “speculative fiction” to avoid associations with the B-movie images “science fiction” tends to evoke: “people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Science fiction, she has said, deals with “things that could not possibly happen,” whereas her works explore things that are possible but have not yet happened—also the concern, it might be noted, of all realistic fiction. As such, she is firmly in the fantastical tradition that starts with The Tempest and continues through Defoe, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and even Virginia Woolf. The fact that a writer such as Atwood—the author of more than 40 books, including short stories, nonfiction, works for children, and poetry—has chosen to focus her energies for the last 10 years on imagining the future tells us that she finds this form uniquely appropriate to examine the way we live now.

Some background is necessary to approach MaddAddam, which itself begins with a four-page summary of the first two books in the trilogy. We must first imagine the grotesque and yet all-too-foreseeable future, sometime in the latter half of the 21st century, after “the coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes.” Genetic engineering has gone mad, meat is grown in labs, and elite Americans live and work in gated Compounds controlled by a shady national security force while the rest of the country fends for itself in the gang-run “pleeblands.”

Inside one of those Compounds, a scientist named Crake, working together with a group of former bioterrorists who call themselves MaddAddam, is creating a species of perfected humans: all races, exquisitely beautiful, with enhanced immune systems, UV-resistant skin, and a digestive system that can process grass and leaves. Their brains are altered to eliminate racism, hierarchy, violence, or jealousy. These people, in Crake’s vision, are the “floor models” from which future parents will select babies incorporating any feature they desire. But before Crake’s utopia can be realised, the Earth’s population is wiped out by a virulent designer plague.

The story of how all this happened is told in Oryx and Crake through flashbacks by Crake’s boyhood friend Jimmy, who survived together with the super-species, whom he calls the Crakers. In The Year of the Flood (2009), the trilogy’s second installment, we see the disaster and the years leading up to it from the perspective of God’s Gardeners, an eco-religious cult that prophesied a “Waterless Flood.” Now MaddAddam brings the two together, with a small band of survivors —including Jimmy, a few of the Gardeners, and some of the MaddAddamites—struggling to get by in this brave new world.

The acute phase of the disaster is now past, but its survivors are left with questions both practical and philosophical: in the words of Toby, a former Gardener who is the novel’s primary narrator, “What to eat, where to shit, how to take shelter, who and what to kill.” The survivors have claimed a cobb house as their temporary home; their solar power is functioning, so they can flush their toilets; and they are scraping together meals from what they can glean from the deserted supermarkets, milk from Mo’Hairs (a new hybrid sheep that grows human hair for transplant), and what’s left of their gardens. They also must be constantly on the lookout for attacks: from vicious criminals on the loose, but also from pigoons, giant hybrid pigs that were bred to grow human organs for harvesting, now released from the lab and running feral.

Meanwhile, the tribe of Crakers has attached itself to them, which provokes some uncomfortable moments, including a “cultural misunderstanding” in which the Craker men enthusiastically pursue some of the human women. But more than that, the presence of the Crakers—“Frankenpeople,” one of the MaddAddamites calls them—is deeply disconcerting for the humans. The Crakers are friendly but highly inquisitive; like children, they need to have everything explained to them. “What are you doing?” they ask constantly. “What is trouble? … What is music? … Why are you sad?” They seem to be incapable of forming thoughts on their own, and they have no sense of humour. (Crake once explained that “for jokes you need a certain edge, a little malice.”) They lack the instinct for violence or competition, but also, it seems, for creativity. A future human race consisting only of this benevolent crew is a frightening vision.

The humans complain often about how boring the Crakers are, referring to them as “vegetables.” Unfortunately, they are right; the passages in which Toby tells them stories and fields their queries are the most tedious moments in the book. But the dullness of the Crakers gives rise to some important questions about the divide between human and animal. If the Crakers have no personality, are they truly human? What is the difference between them and the pigoons, which have human tissue in their brains and are startlingly capable of both ceremonial gestures (they stage a form of burial for their dead) and strategic planning?

And identity is also a thoroughly fungible concept for the humans in the book. In flashbacks, we follow the story of Zeb, a computer hacker who spent much of his life on the run from his abusive father. Living off the grid is challenging in this world where the CorpSeCorps, the private security service that runs the country, keeps track of everybody via fingerprinting, retinal scans, and even the shape of their ears. Over the course of the novel, Zeb goes through at least four identity changes, each requiring a new name, new wardrobe, and new physical characteristics. Who can say, in the end, who he truly is?

One of the epigraphs to Oryx and Crake comes from Gulliver’s Travels: “I could perhaps like others have astonished you with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style; because my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you.” Like Swift, Atwood is a wonderful social satirist, and some of the most entertaining moments in these books are her sendups of business and advertising: the HelthWyzer pharmaceutical corporation, the AnooYoo spa, a strip club franchise called Scales and Tails that features women dressed up in snake and bird costumes.

But for all their pleasures, the purpose of these novels is deeply serious. Like all literature, they strive to teach us how to live—or in this case, how not to live. And anyone who reads them as purely “science fiction” has not been paying attention to the news. Ten years have passed since this trilogy began, and the future has already begun to catch up with it. The visions of coastal flooding—in Oryx and Crake, Jimmy’s mother reminisces about “the beach house her family had owned when she was little, the one that got washed away with the rest of the beaches,” and New York City is abandoned for “New New York” further inland—seem particularly prescient. MaddAddam is obsessed with the permeability of the internet, with the limitless potential for spying it offers. “The least said the better online, even if you thought your space was secure,” Zeb instructs the young Crake. “The net had always been just that—a net, full of holes, all the better to trap you with.” In this summer of leaks regarding the NSA and its “data collection,” his advice resonates.

In an eerie foreshadowing, one of the poems in Power Politics, Atwood’s 1971 collection, depicted the apocalypse taking place in the bedroom: “I lie mutilated beside / you; beneath us there are / sirens, fires, the people run / squealing, the city / is crushed and gutted, / the ends of your fingers bleed / from 1000 murders”. The last lines dramatically depict her conviction that what we imagine has the power to destroy us: “How can I stop you / Why did I create you.” Back then, it was a metaphor. Now, we can no longer be sure.