June 27, 2014

Friday Review: The MaddAddam Trilogy

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that award winning director Darren Aronofsky has been tapped to adopt Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy for HBO.  Seems like a good choice.  After all, Aronofsky's last movie was about a petulant being who nearly wipes all life from the Earth because he gets pissed off. Basically, the MaddAddam trilogy is the same thing.

Which is not to say Aronofsky won't have his hands full.

Most literary trilogies - most sci-fi (and it is, dear reader, regardless of what Atwood would tell you) ones, certainly - tell linear stories.  The story starts in the first volume, continues in the second, and then is resolved in the third.  MaddAddam doesn't play the same game.  Yes, there is a continuous story being told, one of a post-apocalyptic world and the few people left to deal with it.  But the focus of each novel is on the past, not the present, as we learn just how this world came to be the way it is.  Which is good, because the flashbacks are, generally, much more interesting than what's going on in the "present."

Book one, Oryx and Crake, begins with Snowman (aka Jimmy), a post-apocalyptic hermit who lives nearby some very strange nouveau humans, to whom he is a kind of protector and prophet.  Through flashbacks, we learn that Snowman was friends with Crake (aka Glenn), an all around genius.  They were both in love with Oryx, who may or may not have been a girl they first discovered via only kiddy porn (See?  I told you the flashbacks were more interesting).  Crake's genius, as it happens, is tempered by his disdain for what humans have do to the planet, so he uses his skills to (a) engineer a virus that wipes most of humanity off the planet and (b) engineer the nouveau humans, called Crakers.

The second volume, The Year of the Flood, focuses on two women who survive the virus, Toby and Ren.  Their back stories intersect with each other via a environmentalist cult called God's Gardeners (they also intersect with Jimmy and Glenn, as it happens).  The Gardeners preach about the need to return to nature and of the coming "waterless flood," which will wipe humanity off the map (thus allowing the big bad from Aronofsky's movie off the hook after promising no more floods).  This book is interrupted, in numerous places, for sermons from the Gardener's founder, Adam One, and songs of worship.  For the audiobook, the songs are actually performed, which was neat at first, but quickly got old.  If we need hippified love-Gaia kind of tunes, couldn't they have called up Steve Hilliage?

The final volume, MaddAddam, picks up where the first two converge and goes forward from there, but also backwards.  This one focuses on Zeb and his brother, Adam (aka Adam One), and their role in the waterless flood.  This is all told, in flashback (naturally), to Toby, who then has the unenviable task of translating it for the Crakers, who continue to want to know how they came to be.

With any trilogy, there's a sense of diminishing returns.  No sequel, no matter how skillfully done, can replicate the fun of being thrown into an entirely new world that you get from the first volume.  The MaddAddam trilogy suffers from this more than others, thanks to its format.  Each book essentially tells flashback versions of the same story, but from different points of view.  It's more effective than you might think, but by the time we dive into Zeb's story it's less a matter of learning new information than finding out how characters we've come to know from earlier volumes fit into the narrative.

The "old" world that Atwood fleshes out in the flashbacks is fascinating, chilling, and hits just a little too close to home.  Corporations have become supreme, not by buying into government (like they do now), but by setting up their own heavily armed fiefdoms.  Those who don't work for the corps are stuck in violence and poverty plagued "pleeblands."  The seas have risen (New York City is gone, replaced by a new version in Jersey) and various kinds of genetically grown critters - hybrids of, say, lions and lambs (it's a religious thing) - roam the earth.  I won't go so far as to say that Atwood sets up a world that's worth destroying, but that argument could be made.

The only thing in the new world that's half as interesting are the Crakers, the nouveau humans created by Crake as the replacements for our kind of humans.  Made with a heavy dose of genetic engineering, they're vegetarians (the graze), run around naked but can stand the warming sun, and mate only every so often in weird rituals that involve gang bangs and waving blue penises.  Unfortunately, the Crakers are also exceptionally annoying, because Crake did not bless them with a mind as advanced as our own.  The interactions between the surviving humans and the Crakers are sometimes amusing, but often are only annoying.

The dullness of the new world is most evident in the closing volume.  For one thing, Atwood lets Toby, a character who has survived on her own for months and was clearly a strong person, devolve into an older variant of a moody high schooler.  She spends entirely too much of our time worrying about whether Zeb's out fucking other women, based purely on speculation, and, generally, becomes a very passive personality.  I'll assume Atwood had a reason for doing this, maybe some comment on the way we fall into old communal habits even in the strangest of circumstances, but it was hard to take.

Similarly, there's very little threat to the characters in the new world.  Since this was a biological apocalypse there's lots of spare materials to use for survival.  Yes, life for these characters is harder than it was before, but I never had a sense that they were truly eking out a survival (nobody succumbs to a mundane injury/illness, for example).  One potential menace from the earlier books, creatures called "pigoons," loose their power to frighten.  Originally created to produce spare organs for humans, they're the most advanced sci-fi swine since the piggies of Speaker for the Dead.  But, as it turns out, the Crakers can talk to them and a deal can be struck to keep everybody safe.  Bleh.

That leaves as big bads for the humans, Crakers, and pigoons to face a pair of black-hat killers, refugees of a pre-flood punishment game called painball.  Painball is so ruthless and violent that anyone who survives it is turned into a heartless psychopath bent on rape and murder.  It makes them scary, but it doesn't make them interesting.  For one thing, it's never clear why Toby and the group see the painballers as such a threat - they have them outnumbered and outgunned, so why don't the painballers just go elsewhere?  For another thing, the group of survivors shows little rational thought when it comes to what should be done to the painballers, even worrying that their offspring might be murderous psychopaths (which makes no kind of fucking sense).  The final big confrontation is saved only by a nice switch in narration that gives the whole thing a distant, mythical gloss.

If that makes it sound like I'm down on the whole trilogy, it shouldn't.  Atwood's style and way with prose goes an awful long way to making the entire thing worth reading.  It's dark territory she's exploring, but there are bursts of humor and satire that stand out.  The only thing that really goes wrong is that the entire enterprise runs out of steam in the end.  That stings (see the US collapse against Portugal last Sunday), but it doesn't invalidate everything else.

But it does mean that Aronofsky has quite a bit of work ahead of him.

The Details
All by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Published 2003

The Year of the Flood
Published 2009

Published 2013

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