Canadian author Margaret Atwood, famous for interacting often with fans via her website and Twitter, sees her post-apocalyptic trilogy resurface in the news this month, as her final installation is available on September 3rd.
The trilogy begins with "Oryx and Crake," her 2003 novel often featured on college syllabi and cited as an exciting contemporary take on speculative fiction. It tells the story of a mysterious human named Snowman who has survived a chemical apocalypse as he reflects on his former life, his best friend Crake and his first love, Oryx. In a world destroyed by an engineered plague, Snowman lives among non-humans, creatures raised and harvested during humanity's final forays into cloning.
The ambiguity in Atwood's first installation is explained further in "The Year of the Flood," Atwood's second novel set in the same universe. We learn about Jimmy, the boy who grows up to be Snowman, from the view of a girl in school who had a crush on him. Though Jimmy comes across as wounded and likeable in "Oryx and Crake," he seems damaged beyond measure when described in "The Year of the Flood," lying and cheating his way through school and his relationships.
"Year of the Flood" is heralded as the feminine answer to "Oryx and Crake," whose two main characters are teen boys, known in flashbacks as Jimmy and Crake, who are obsessed with violence and the girl they both lust after. In "Year of the Flood," Atwood explores the minds of two women living parallel lives to Jimmy and Crake. Their character arcs overlap with the boys' occasionally, ending on a cliffhanger that ties the heart-pounding conclusions of both novels together. What will follow in "MaddAddam" remains to be seen, but fans of the trilogy wait for answers to their questions. Will Jimmy's runaway mother come into play again? How much has been taken from the novels' teen characters, now that they've survived the decimation of the human race?
Atwood has denied in interviews that the MaddAddam trilogy is science fiction, as the stories do not deal with "things that haven't been invented yet." Part of the horror in the books is exactly that: a fast food corporation begins growing living meat to harvest, cloning animals like chickens but leaving out the brain. These huge creatures are called Chickie Nobs, brought into life only for public consumption, and they are an effective play on contemporary concerns about the care of animals in the food industry.
Jimmy and Crake use the internet constantly when they're not in school, and although they need proof of age and passwords to access certain sites, including some that show live beheadings in the Middle East, they have free and easy access to all kinds of hardcore pornography. Atwood lampoons our contemporary aversion to true violence happening around the Globe, while American children remain ignorant to the plight of their peers in other countries. Jimmy and Crake become desensitized, and even bored, by violent images and begin to want violence included in the erotic videos they access on the computer. This harsh, cruel nature grows quickly in Crake, the smarter of the two boys, and the aftermath is catastrophic.
The first two novels in the trilogy are dark, with rare gems of bitter humor. As The Independent writes, "MaddAddam" "deploys its author's trademark cool, omniscient satire, but adds to that a real sense of engagement with a fallen world." Atwood's strange connection to her trilogy is illuminated through her marketing. While promoting "The Year of the Flood," Atwood gave readings around the US and her native Canada, backed by a choir singing the religious hymns of the nature-loving cult described in the novel.
Each novel is a stand-alone story, and the books can be read out of order. Whether students are assigned "Oryx and Crake" in literature courses, in ethics or gender studies courses, they can enjoy the text as they might reading it for pleasure, and Atwood's companion novels are equally engaging. Once you enter the dark world of the MaddAddam trilogy, immersing yourself in speculative ideas in religion, sex and world politics, you'll find it difficult to escape.