James McGrath on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Triology
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy explores the human potential to use science to redefine what it means to be human — or pig for that matter — and to explore what the collapse of society would mean for a humanity that has become dependent on technology. Her distant future is similar enough to our present to make us wonder not just whether humanity’s future might one day resemble the world depicted in the story, but whether it could happen within our lifetime.
The first book in the trilogy, Oryx and Crake, drops the reader into an imagined future and into the mind of the central character, Jimmy. For all he knows, he is the last human being alive — at least, the last human being of his kind, of our kind. There are other people, but they are not like Jimmy in ways and for reasons that soon become clear. An individual nicknamed Crake genetically engineered them before unleashing a “waterless flood” on the world. His man-made virus wiped out most of the population of naturally-evolved humans. The simplicity of the so-called “Crakers” and the mythology of their origins Jimmy weaves for them raise questions about the nature of our humanity. As we learn through flashbacks that explain the events prior to the story’s beginning, Crake believed he could make a better world, and better human beings. Most of us think we can envisage a better world than the one in which we find ourselves. But what would that really mean in practice? By genetically engineering people with different sexual instincts modeled on other species, it might be possible to eliminate the competition, the proprietary feelings, the jealousy, the heartache, and other aspects of human interpersonal relationships. But would things be “better”? If one thinks that religion creates problems, would the removal of the human instinct to create myth and music eliminate sentience in the process? And when the world is headed towards annihilation — as humans continue to drive other species towards extinction, and corrupt organizations hold the reins of power through technological advantage — is the appropriate and moral course of action to allow humanity to wipe itself out, or to cull humanity and bring our technological society crashing down in order that some might survive in a simpler world? Perhaps the most terrifying question of all is whether those will become our only two options if we continue in the direction in which we are now headed.
For those like myself with a profound interest in religion, the scenario depicted above is already ripe for reflection. The image of the scientist playing God is stereotypical in science fiction, and Atwood ably utilizes and problematizes that familiar trope. If scientists and medical firms have the power to cure illness but continue producing new illnesses in order to ensure ongoing profits, who would be able to stop them? Would the only recourse be to turn their tools against them? And if another scientific genius intervened to cause the system to collapse, killing most human beings in the process, is humanity the victor or the victim, or both? Is science the enemy or the savior, or both?
The second novel, The Year of the Flood, moves into even more explicitly theological territory, not only introducing a fictional religious group — God’s Gardeners — but also peppering the entire book with excerpts from their hymns, sermons, and festivals, and offering descriptions within the story of their way of life as a community. At the start, these details seem merely intriguing. By the end, I was wondering whether I shouldn’t join the God’s Gardeners group myself, or at least make use of some of Atwood’s hymn lyrics in church. (They have already been set to music, and released on CD, by Orville Stoeber.) The theology of the group is profound and nuanced, and, at times, admirable. The character Adam One says in one of his sermons: “Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology.” I doubt that anyone could read the lyrics to “The Earth Forgives” (one of my favorite hymns in the novel) and remain unaffected. I can imagine churches embracing it, and using it. Conversely, I can’t imagine that anyone who encounters the hymn’s lyrics independently of the book will not want to explore the novel in which it first appeared. Inventing a religion may not be difficult but, as Jimmy discovers in his mythmaking for the Crakers, creating a persuasive and coherent one is. Atwood manages to offer a convincing depiction of human beings struggling to create a consistent mythology while weaving her own and making it seem effortless.
The story told in the second novel runs parallel to the one in Oryx and Crake. Both begin with people who believe they are the only survivors of the plague that swept the Earth, and both tell significant parts of the story through flashbacks. The Year of the Flood ends just after the point Oryx and Crake did. The two stories are brought together into a single narrative, which then continues in the final novel, MaddAddam.
Just as hymns and brief sermons punctuate The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is punctuated by mythmaking, stories told to the Crakers to put unfolding events in terms they can understand. Now the focus is on Adam and Zeb, who we learn were raised as brothers. As the founder of God’s Gardeners, Adam attempts to provide a genuine religion where his own father had offered what Adam considered a false and selfish one. His father’s cult — the PetroBaptists — is presented in some detail. If God’s Gardeners show us theology at its most beautiful, PetroTheology is a satire that hits close to home. It depicts theology at its most ugly and self-serving. This depiction of quasi-Christian religion in the service of big oil (claiming that “Peter” in Matthew 16:18 actually refers to Petroleum), and quite naturally opposed to environmentalism, may be a caricature. But it is patterned on real expressions of religiosity in our time that are clearly recognizable in the background.
The possibility of hybridization between humans and Crakers raises questions about the nature and limits of humanity through genetic manipulation. And this exploration dovetails nicely with another detail that ran throughout the trilogy and finally comes into the foreground in the final novel. Alongside human beings, animals — such as rakunks, Mo’hairs, liobams, and pigoons — were genetically manipulated. The pigoons had been modified with human DNA so they could be used for organ transplants, and the genetic splicing had affected not only the compatibility of their organs but also their intelligence. As they turn out to be smarter than ordinary pigs and also sentient, humanity finds itself as but one sentient species on the planet, as a result of its own handiwork. We remember from Oryx and Crake: “create-an-animal was so much fun, said the guys doing it: it made you feel like God.” Yet, as with other stories about a God who creates, making other sentient beings changes one’s own situation in the cosmos in unpredictable ways.
Atwood’s trilogy explores convincingly and effectively the space where religion and science meet. She manages to invent not one but two new religions, and to elaborate the details of their theologies with nuance and depth. But as one might expect from a work of dystopian fiction, there are more questions than answers. And these are not merely about theology, nor even about science, but about the nature of human society and who controls it. If humanity on a global scale finds itself in the grip of powers concerned with profit at the expense of human well-being — with wealth, technology, and the control of information on their side — what hope is there for our survival and that of our planet? If we don’t want to find humanity forced into a harsh simplicity, one that is, as a result of global inequities, unimaginable to some and daily experience for others already in our own time, then we need to find creative solutions sooner rather than later.
Atwood’s story includes not only scientists playing God, but the wider array of ways in which human beings play God. We create myths. We seek to eliminate chaos and bring order. We act in ways that allow others to live or bring their lives to an end. And so perhaps that is why Atwood is reluctant to have her writing pigeonholed as science fiction. The scientific elements are but one aspect of her multifaceted exploration of the future. She offers warnings along with glimmers of hope, related not only to science but also to the wider web of human life, experience, society, and everything else we do to give meaning and interpret significance.