Just the Facts Please, Maddam: Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam

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After reading Margaret Atwood’s new book, MaddAddam, I checked out the Flipboard magazine that she put together consisting of diverse non-fiction material gleaned from the Web that supports various elements of the book.  For example, there is a fascinating article in the Flipboard magazine about the healing properties of the purring of cats, that supports the purring of the bioengineered Crakers of the book (like humans in many ways, but not in others) when someone, or something, is hurt or otherwise ailing.  There’s also a National Geographic piece about extreme weather, presumably caused by global warming.  Another of the many articles that I found especially interesting was the one about bees–which is a subject about which, judging not only from the book but also from Atwood’s comments on Twitter, Atwood is strongly interested and very knowledgeable.  Frankly, apart from a few sections in the book that I found particularly entertaining (the Craker’s incessant questioning, like the questioning of young kids, during ‘story-time’, and the deification of ‘Fuck’), or especially well-written (the book’s final few pages immediately come to mind), I preferred the Flipboard magazine to the book.

Were it not for Atwood’s intriguing comments about MaddAddam on Twitter as she progressed through the final stages of preparing this book for publication, and the fact that I happened to be browsing in the New Books section of the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, looking for something to read on a soggy Vancouver weekend, when mint, just-processed, copies of MaddAddam were placed on a shelf right in front of my nose, I probably would not have read this book.  Not now, so soon after publication, and probably not ever.  I tried reading Oryx and Crake, the first book in the trilogy of which MaddAddam is the concluding book, several years ago, and, after several stops and starts, never make it past the half-way point. (Not finishing a book I’ve started reading is extremely unusual for me.  And I read a lot of books. Fiction and non-fiction.)  Over the years, I’ve read most of Atwood’s adult novels, and finished reading all the others I started. Some I even read a couple of times.  (My favourite of all time, in my view well-worth multiple reads, is Cat’s Eye.)  But Atwood’s post-apocalyptic, dystopic, science fiction doesn’t propel me forward.

I know that dystopian fiction has been a very popular genre in the past few years, in books and movies. World War Z was Brad Pitt’s top-grossing movie ever–and he’s been in a lot of hit movies.  Both the book and movie versions of The Hunger Games have been huge commercial successes.  (I personally haven’t seen or read either.) But I don’t think that Atwood needed to go down that path to sell books, or to get her points across about protecting our planet from environmental disaster.

Even more disturbing to me than the wretched world that Atwood has created for the trilogy is why, in the trilogy, the human race was virtually wiped out.  It wasn’t through environmental disaster, as such, but rather was because one idealistic mad scientist, Crake (a.k.a. Glenn), believed that the planet could be preserved only if the vast majority of human beings were killed.  In short, by using some special biochemical invention, he murdered most of his fellow human beings.  Evidently, a great deal of environmental degradation already had occurred before he acted as he did.  (For example, it is mentioned in MaddAddam that the city of New York has been destroyed by floods.)  But, exactly at what point, if ever, could such an act be justified?

Atwood never makes it clear in MaddAddam whether Crake was ultimately a saviour or a demented, demonic, force.  After reading MaddAddam, I went back to Oryx and Crake to see if this issue was clarified in that book.  In the first chapter, at least, it’s not.  And that was as far as I could make it through the book, even this time.  It seems that Atwood intentionally left it up to her readers to figure this out, and I find that disturbing. (Please, please, correct me if I’ve missed some vital information in this regard.) I find it disturbing morally, and also in terms of the possible real-world consequences.  Supposing some nut-bar who, after reading one of these books, perhaps in an English lit class, decided to follow Crake’s example and take things into his or her own hands. Maybe for readers with more of a taste for speculative fiction than have I, and who have a greater familiarity with the genre, the central moral ambiguity of MaddAddam, with such a severity of possible consequence, wouldn’t be a problem.  But for me, it is a serious problem.

Personally, I’m far more interested in finding out what we might do to avert a post-apocalyptic, dystopic, future such as Atwood describes in MaddAddam (and in the preceding books in the trilogy), than in having such a future spelled out for me.  But I am seriously impressed by the Flipboard magazine that supplements MaddAddam.  (Besides the interesting material in the magazine, I have to thank Atwood for introducing me to this great app, that I’ve now downloaded onto my iPad.)  I also greatly appreciate the work that Atwood has been doing recently through Twitter to educate her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, including myself, about the environment.

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