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Series Review: The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

December 21, 2013 2 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Woman's body mirror imaged.Summary:
In the not-too-distant future, the heavily populated world is run by corporations instead of governments. The corps keep their workers and people in Compounds where they’ll be safe from the rampant crime in the rest of the world. Supposedly.  Those who can’t get jobs at a corp must live in the pleeblands, essentially ghettoes.  The pleeblands are haunted by painballers–people who fought their way out of prison in a gladiator-style competition and who are usually now addicted to drugs.

The world isn’t entirely humans and corps, though. There are also a whole slew of new GMO plants and animals, such as rakunks and pigoons.  Children can buy bracelets with live fish inside them as wearable pets.

Jimmy works in a corp with Crake.  Crake is a genius who the corp allows to create basically whatever he wants.  They share a love interest in Oryx, who works with them, caring for the creations Crake makes.  Toby lives in the pleeblands, working in fast food restaurants.  She is being pursued by a violent stalker, who she is sure will kill her one day.  Then she discovers God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that lives on the rooftops of the city gardening, learning all the species of the planet, and preparing for the impending End Times.  And the End Times come in the form of a virus released by Crake to destroy humanity and make room for the new breed of humans he has created in his lab–Crakers.  Crakers are herbivorous, polyamorous, and turn blue when they are in heat.  The pandemic wipes out almost everyone, but not quite.  Jimmy is left to care for the Crakers, and Toby survives, reminiscing about how her life has gone.  And there are some that Crake gave an immunity drug to.  They gather together and attempt to survive, guide the Crakers, and ponder on how things turned out this way.

covertheyearofthefloodReview:
The future world Atwood creates in this series is inventive and engrossing.  Unfortunately, many of the characters and some of the plot fail to fully engage the reader.

The future world, prior to the virus outbreak that destroys most human life, is incredibly imaginative and simultaneously realistic.  It is by far the strength of the series.  Atwood takes real modern day science and intelligently extrapolates how that combined with our evolving culture would affect life on Earth.  The change from politicians and nations controlling the world to corporations doing so makes excellent sense.  The types of animals those corps create are also logical both within that context and from a scientific perspective.  For instance, the mo’hairs are sheep who have had their genetics modified so that their wool is instead human hair to makes wigs out of.  How the world works makes sense and is slightly frightening at the same time.  It’s a subtle dystopia.

The post-apocalyptic setting is slightly less creative.  Only a few humans survive and quickly leave the cities to live in the countryside.  Conveniently, at least half of the group of survivors are from the vegetarian cult, God’s Gardeners, who predicted the end times, and so are well prepared for living in the wild.  This setting is much staler compared to the pre-apocalypse dystopia.  It feels as if the characters are just sitting in a clearing in the woods chatting at each other.  This would not be a problem if the characters were rich enough to sustain the plot when the creative world has disappeared.  But most of them are not.

Atwood is known for writing richly imagined female characters in scifi settings.  Unfortunately, this series is dominated by men, with the women mostly relegated to secondary roles, with the exception of Toby.  Toby starts out strong, and the book focusing on her story (The Year of the Flood) is the strongest of the series as well.  But in the post-apocalyptic setting, Toby loses all of her vim and three-dimensionality.  She becomes a woman obsessed with a man and pining for things she can’t have.  The male characters who dominate the story lack anything compelling.  Crake reads precisely as a slightly creepy genius.  Jimmy is difficult to get to know since he spends most of the series narrating when he is out of his mind from the effects of the apocalypse.  And Zeb reads as a muscled thug who comes to his senses when it best suits him.  None of these male characters show real breadth or true humanity.  They could have carried the story well, although I would still have missed the strong female presence Atwood brings to scifi.  However, these men seem more like caricatures of types of men we meet throughout our lives.

An egg with a handprint on it sits in a nest. The title of the book and the author's name are in gold near it.The plot is clearly meant to show us how the world could be destroyed and also how new life begins, complete with religious mythology.  Some of the plot twists that go with this core of the plot work and others don’t.  For the world destroying, the plot approaches it in two ways.  There’s telling how the world ends from an outsider, underprivileged perspective of a woman who happens to survive.  This aspect of the plot had enough twists and differences, such as Toby’s involvement in the God’s Gardeners cult, that it maintained interest.  The plot also tells how the world ends from the perspective of a man caught in a hopeless hetero love triangle with a kind woman and an evil genius.  This common trope takes no different plot twists or turns.  It is entirely predictable and dull.  A bit of a flop.  The twists in the final third of the story, how the world begins and the last of the prior world fades out with a murmur, does nothing truly daring.  Toby’s romance ends essentially as expected.  Loose ends are tied up.  And the Crakers take over with a new mythology given to them by a flawed human being.  I’m sure this is meant to say something radical, and maybe someday to someone it will, but to the reader who has already read many thinly veiled take-downs of religion and where it comes from in scifi, it was rather ho-hum and long-winded.  Particularly when compared to the much shorter and more richly written work by Atwood taking a similar anti-religion stance: The Handmaid’s Tale.

Overall, this is a series with two-thirds of the plot set in a richly imagined and intelligently extrapolated subtle dystopia future.  The basic plot of dystopia to apocalypse to post-apocalypse is told slightly non-linearally with some interesting poetic-style writing inserted in-between chapters.  Most of the characters feel flat against the rich backdrop, although one female character at first stands out then slowly fades.  Recommended to readers interested in a realistic near future dystopia who don’t mind a rather typical plot and two-dimensional characters will enjoy most of the series, although they may enjoy the first two books more than the third.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, library, and Audible

Books in Series:
Oryx and Crake, review, 3 stars
The Year of the Flood, review, 4 stars
MaddAddam, review, 3 stars

Book Review: The Year of the Flood By Margaret Atwood

October 19, 2009 14 comments

covertheyearofthefloodSummary:
Toby, a spa-worker, and Ren, an exotic dancer and prostitute, have both survived the  waterless flood–a global pandemic that has killed almost all of humanity.  They also both used to live with The Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that constantly warned of the impending apocalypse.  A series of flashbacks tells how they survived the pandemic while the question of what to do now that the pandemic is mostly over looms large in their lives.

Review:
Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors.  I love dystopian books, and she has an incredible talent for taking the current worries and news items and turning them into a near-future dystopia.  Toby’s and Ren’s world prior to the waterless flood isn’t anything to be happy about.  Slums dominate.  Gangs run rampant.  The world is now run by a giant evil corporation (which is somehow worse than a giant evil government? *shrugs*).  It’s really the little things that makes this future world believable.  Kids wear bracelets that have live mini jellyfish in them.  Species have been spliced together to make new, more usable ones, such as the Mo’Hair–a sheep whose wool makes perfect fake hair for women.  The people who don’t live in slums live in corporation-run compounds where everything they do is monitored. What makes this dystopia wonderful is how plausible it all seems.

Really, though, all of these dystopian features are just a back-drop for the real stories.  Toby spends years hiding with The Gardeners and running because one man, Blanco, decided he owned her upon having slept with her.  When Toby defied him, he vowed to kill her.  He haunts her life for years on end.  Similarly, Ren falls in love with a boy in highschool who breaks her heart yet somehow keeps coming back into her life and repeating the damage.

This is a book about mistakes.  About how thinking we own the Earth and its creatures could cause our own demise.  About how sleeping with the wrong man just once can haunt you for years.  About how loving the wrong man can hurt you for years.

This is what I love about Atwood.  She has such wonderful insight into what it is to be a woman.  Insight into what haunts women’s dreams.  When women talk about what scares them, it isn’t nuclear war–it’s the man in the dark alley who will grab her and rape her and never leave her alone.  Toby’s Blanco is the embodiment of this fear.  She sees him around every corner.  She’s afraid to go visit a neighbor because he might find her on the street walking there.  Setting this fear in an other world makes it easier for female readers to take a step back and really see the situation for what it is.  Yes, he’s a strong, frightening man, but Toby let him disempower her by simply fearing him for years.  This is what Atwood does well.

The pandemic, however, is not done so well.  Too many questions are left.  Where did the pandemic come from?  Does it work quickly or slowly?  Some characters seem to explode blood immediately upon infection, whereas others wander around with just a fever infecting others.

Similarly, the reader is left with no clear idea as to how long it has been since the pandemic started.  On the one hand it seems like a month or two.  On the other hand, the stockpiles of food The Gardeners made run out quite early, and that just doesn’t mesh given how much attention they gave to them prior to the pandemic.

I also found the end of the book extremely dissatisfying.  It leaves the reader with way too many unanswered questions.  In fact, it feels completely abrupt.  Almost like Atwood was running out of time for her book deadline so just decided “ok, we’ll end there.”  I know dystopian novels like to leave a few unanswered questions, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave this many unanswered.

The Year of the Flood sets up a believable dystopia that sucks the reader in and has her reconsidering all of her life perceptions.  Unfortunately, the ending lets the reader down.  I think it’s still worth the read, because it is enjoyable for the majority of the book, and I am still pondering issues it raised days later.  If you’re into the environmental movement or women’s issues, you will enjoy this book–just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the ending leaves you throwing the book across the room. 😉

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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