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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: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter, and Robbie Daymond)

December 11, 2013 3 comments

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.Summary:
The world has been mostly wiped out by a virus released by Crake, who thinks he’s helping save the earth with a cleansing flood.  The survivors who are left are some of the scientists who worked with him, some people who were following a crunchy granola earth-centric cult known as God’s Gardeners, and Painballers–dangerous drug addicts who survived a gladiator-style fighting ring.  There’s also the Crakers.  Genetically engineered by Crake and the scientists, they’re a new version of humans who are herbivorous and naturally poly.  They also are only attracted to sex when the women are in heat and visibly blue, thus preventing sexual violence amongst themselves.  The God’s Gardeners, scientists, and Crakers comes together to try to survive in this world and defend themselves from the painballers.  Toby, a God’s Gardener, ends up leading and educating the Crakers.  She also rediscovers Zeb, the God’s Gardener leader’s brother who she previously had a crush on.  Zeb tells her the story of how his brother, Adam, came to be mad.

Review:
I was under the impression that this was supposed to be a set of two companion novels, not a trilogy.  So when this book was released, I was surprised and excited.  The prior two books left the reader hanging, not knowing what really happened after the flood, and I was eager to find out what did happen.  I wish this book had lived up to the creativity and excitement of the second one, The Year of the Flood.

At first it appears the sole narrator of the book will be Toby, the woman from The Year of the Flood who flees to God’s Gardeners to escape her dangerous stalker and slowly grows in strength.  Slowly, though, she begins to share narration with Zeb, who tells her his and Adam’s background stories.  Interspersed in this is Toby’s evening bedtime stories to the Crakers, who insist upon this and treat it with respect and ritual.  Eventually, one of the Crakers tells some of the evening stories.  The format isn’t bad, although it’s odd that when Zeb is telling his story to Toby, she’s talking about him telling the story to her in the third person.  So the book will say “Zeb remembered” or “Zeb thought,” instead of just having Zeb take over the narration of the story.  It felt especially odd since the audiobook had the narrator change from the female voice of Toby to the male voice of Zeb who proceeded to refer to himself in the third person.  Similarly, although the bedtime stories to the Crakers were well-written, easily elucidating a bedtime story and letting the reader imagine the questions and comments from the Crakers that we don’t actually hear, a lot of the stories didn’t feel as if they added much to the book.  They felt a bit like page-fillers.  I get it that Atwood is trying to show where religion comes from (blind trust in a fallible person), but it felt a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary to me.

Toby’s character progression from a strong, creative, firecracker of a woman to someone who second-guesses herself, bemoans her inability to properly defend people, and moons after a man obsessively was rather jarring and disappointing.  I’m all for Toby having a love life, and I think her having one as an older woman is something we don’t see enough in literature.  But I don’t feel like her excessive pining and worrying over it was totally within character.  Similarly, she seems to lose all ability to trust in herself and her capability in defending herself and others in bizarre situations.  The one thing that did feel within her character was her taking the Crakers under her wing.  These flaws in the characterization of Toby are kind of a big deal since she’s the only female narrator out of three narrators, and since she was such an amazing main character in The Year of the Flood.  She deserves to have more of the story and more presence of personality than she gets.

That said, Zeb’s backstory is interesting and lends a lot of light to some of the mysteries from the previous two books.  In some ways they were the best parts of the book, since we get to revisit the incredible pre-flood world Atwood created.

In comparison, the post-flood world is dull and lacks creativity.  It’s essentially a bunch of survivors living in a jungle with some genetically engineered humans.  The only extra or special thing added into this basic formula is the Crakers, and they are not that engaging or interesting.  They’re mostly just a little creepy and off-putting.

The main conflict of the plot is rather predictable, although the ending is a bit of a surprise.  The end of Toby’s story moved me the most, and that’s not a surprise since she is by far my favorite character in the series.  The end of the book makes it clear that this is really more about the Crakers and the basis of their society, which I think explains my lukewarm feelings about the book.

The audiobook narrators all did a lovely job emoting the various characters they played.  The choice of having a male narrator speak for Zeb’s story even though Zeb isn’t actually speaking was a bit odd, though.

Overall, those who enjoyed The Year of the Flood the most of the first two books will be a bit disappointed in Toby’s characterization and probably find the post-flood world a bit dull, although they will still enjoy seeing the end of Toby’s story.  Those who preferred Oryx and Crake and have a liking of or interest in the Crakers will likely enjoy this finale to the series the most.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Oryx and Crake, review
The Year of the Flood, review

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Woman's body mirror imaged.Summary:
Snowman used to be Jimmy.  Jimmy was a word person in a science person world.  He couldn’t splice genes to make rakunks or even to make new types of plants.  He could sell them to the public who lived outside of the safe Compounds though.  Jimmy was with Oryx, although he had to share her with Crake.  Now, Snowman must take care of the Crakers with their rainbow of colors, naturally insect-repellant skin, and complex mating rituals.  Snowman is alone except for the Crakers.  Everyone else died in the bloody pandemic. Or did they?

Review:
This is a companion novel to Year of the Flood (review), although Oryx and Crake was published first.  Companion novel means they’re set in the same time-span in the same universe and some characters may briefly cross over, but you don’t necessarily need to read them in a particular order or even read all of them.

Atwood is one of my favorite authors, so I have no idea how to react to the fact that I didn’t like this book.  I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it.  It was a bit of a struggle to get through.  As usual, Atwood sets scenes beautifully, but I felt no emotion driving the story.  I believe Oryx and Crake suffers from the fact that love triangle of Oryx, Crake, and Jimmy is only hinted at throughout the book, only to be revealed in such a manner that it rings false.  Jimmy seems to surf through life on a wave of ennui, until Oryx shows up and cheers him up, but how does she do it?  We just don’t ever really find out, because our narrator is Snowman–the version of Jimmy who’s lost his mind.  Perhaps Atwood was trying to show a culture that had reached a point where people just couldn’t be truly happy.  That’s a good thing to show, but it makes for a boring narrator.

What I really wanted to know about was what made Crake do the things he did.  He’s clearly either a mad-man or a genius, but we never get to find out much about him at all.  I wish he had been the narrator.  To see inside his mind would have been amazing.  I could have even overlooked the fact that he’s not a woman.

That’s the other thing that bugged me about this book.  Atwood usually writes with female main characters, but in this instance, men were the main players.  That kind of pisses me off.  Was she unable to imagine a woman doing something so evil?  A woman being so stupid?  That’s just as sexist as women never being the hero.  I would have enjoyed the book so much more if Jimmy and Crake were women (heck, Oryx could have stayed a woman too.  That would have been an interesting change).

When you compare this to Year of the Flood, it’s evident that what Oryx and Crake lacks is the emotions driving the bigger picture.  It’s a well-imagined and creative big picture, which is what makes the book still readable.  I’m sure some people would like it, but don’t come into it expecting Atwood’s more typical emotion-driven story.  You won’t find it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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