Any regular reader of this blog knows that I credit Margaret Atwood with making me understand exactly what feminism is. When I read The Handmaid's Tale in college, I was finally able to see clearly how high the stakes for women are in a society that oppresses and controls them. But Atwood is more than just a feminist author. Many of her works also address environmental justice, and indeed how issues of environmental Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and culminating in her latest book, MaddAddam.
MaddAddam picks up the stories of both the MaddAddamites and God's Gardeners-one, the scientific and technological geniuses behind both the new humans known as Crakers, and the plgue that wiped out most of the population; the other, the eco-cult started by Adam One to teach people how to live without the technology that was invading their lives and ruining the planet. In the wake of the plague, the two groups have come together in an attempt to create a sustainable existence on the remnants of the world they knew. Their survival is threatened by a couple of ultra-violent psychopaths whose humanity has been drilled out of them through painballing, a "sport" where criminals were given the option to fight to the death rather than be locked up in prison. Surviving the painball arena meant becoming a cold blooded killer, and survival at any cost became the only goal. The survivors must be constantly on the lookout for these men, not just for their own sake, but for the safety and survival of the Crakers, the not-quite-human creations of Crake, who were genetically designed to have no need of or desire for violence, and would be wiped out by contact with the painballers.
I see the painballers as a symbol for all of the violent and soulless influences of modern society that Atwood writes about with such disdain and horror. Atwood has set up an interesting duality within the book, between the non-violent Crakers, and the ultra-violent Painballers. The other survivors find themselves existing somewhere between these two extremes. In killing the painballers, the survivors are in essence killing off the last vestiges of the old, violent world they lived in. This frees them to define how they will choose to live going forward. Will they revert back to old ways of gaining and keeping power over others, or will they create a more egalitarian way of living. And where do the Crakers fit in? With most of humanity gone, are they now free to live an populate the world with their kind?
To be honest, while the Crakers are certainly endearing, there is much about their existence that would be unsatisfying. Controlled by strong biological urges for mating, lacking in art or intellectualism, their lives read more like the lives of animals than humans. I believe that Atwood uses the Crakers to show that while there is much about human behavior that is concerning and possibly dangerous, taking away those same qualities would be to take away what it is that makes us human.
I found it interesting that so much of the book dealt with Zeb, and how he came to be a part of God's Gardeners. Zeb is introduced in The Year of the Flood, and never really seemed to fit in with the peaceful, gentle God's Gardeners. But Zeb's story clears up some of the unanswered questions from both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, namely the connection between Adam One and Crake. MaddAddam brings a satisfying completeness to the story, but it does not leave the reader without some questions. Three of the women were pregnant with Craker babies. How would those children, provided they survive, change the dynamic of the group? And is that the future of humankind? By the end of the book, the Crakers are beginning to evolve intellectually and socially, and I couldn't help but wonder what their future society might be like. Will they be able to keep their innocence and peacefulness, or would the old human traits of greed and the desire for power creep back into what is left of humanity. As usual, Atwood has delivered a provocative story highlighting some scary possibilities for the future of our world.