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[personal profile] mtvessel
Jan-Apr 2015
Oryx & Crake / The Year of the Flood / MaddAddam - Margaret Atwood - Virago, 2009 / 2013 / 2014

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I am usually quite negative about mainstream authors who dabble in genre writing, particularly when they disavow that that is what they have done. However, one has to admit that anyone who writes not one but three books in the same setting over ten years, and who actively engages with critics, has put the hours in and should not be dismissed lightly. And a literary sensibility, with its focus on complex and well-developed characters and a willingness to question conventions, could even be a good antidote to the tired cliches and stereotypes that infest much SF writing.

There is, however, a problem with writers who come to genre fiction without a strong grounding in it, which is that they tend to reinvent the wheel while thinking that they have discovered something new. To a certain extent, that is true here. A future world where governments have been replaced by corporations is not exactly a new concept - William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, to name just two off the top of my head, have created rich and interesting environments based on just that idea, and Atwood's gated compounds and Pleeblands seem thin gruel by comparison. However there are some original notions and the strong characterisation does help.

Oryx & Crake is told from the point of view of Jimmy, the sole survivor (he thinks) of a catastrophic plague that wiped out the whole of the human race in a few brutal weeks. Nature is rapidly reclaiming the world, but humanity's effects are still lingering, particularly in the damaging effects of global warming and in the lab-bred genetic hybrids that are colonising the new wilderness - wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks. The most significant new species, however, is the Crakers, a gentle and child-like form of human whose abdomens turn bright blue when they are ready to mate, and for whom Jimmy feels responsible, for reasons that become apparent during the course of the story. For Jimmy knows all about how and why the plague occurred, and as he struggles to find resources to survive in the hostile wilderness and protect the Crakers, he remembers the events.

Atwood's worldbuilding is generally solid, but there are a few indications that she is not taking it seriously. Rather surprisingly, these are most manifest in the one area where you would expect a literary writer to be strongest, which is in the names of the new things that she has invented. The cross-breeds, for example, are selected for scientific plausibility, but almost all of them have names that are uninteresting combinations of the two animals that make them up. A similar lack of nominative imagination is manifest in the titles of the corporations, which all consist of annoying mis-spelt CamelCased phrases such as "AnooYou", "HelthWyzer", "OrganInc" and "CorpSeCorps". These would be appropriate for a swift and slight satirical short story about corporate control of consumer culture, but not for a 1500 page trilogy with a fully developed world.

Where Oryx & Crake scores is in the detailed evocation of the post-apocalyptic setting and in its main characters. Jimmy and his genius friend Crake in particular are strong and memorable. The real disappointment is Oryx, a woman who has no real character or purpose in the plot other than to act as a motivation for the others.

Evidently Atwood realised this in retrospect and in the sequel, The Year of the Flood, she ensures that her two viewpoint characters are both women. These are Ren, an exotic dancer at an upmarket sex club who survived the plague by being trapped in a quarantine zone after a possible infection from a customer, and Toby, a member of a nutty cult-cum-eco-organisation called God's Gardeners, who had prepared for an apocalyptic event called the Waterless Flood that was prophesied by their leader Adam One. Atwood is clearly rather fond of her religious invention, even going so far as to preface each section with sermons and songs (which are good parodies aping the plodding foursquare metres of the English Hymnal), and we spend rather too much time with the cultists and their petty arguments, making the first half of the book a bit of a bore. Eventually an ill-characterised bunch of male psychopaths called Painballers provides some much-needed peril and we finally meet up with characters from Oryx & Crake.


MaddAddam is a more kaleidoscopic novel with a variety of viewpoints focusing on Toby and her lover Zeb as they struggle to create a new society with the survivors of the previous novels. It fills in some of the logical gaps, such as how Adam One knew that the catastrophe was coming, and is notable for having, for once, a male character who is not a rapist, psychopath or coward. It also has some interesting things to say about how the stories we tell can influence the thinking of others and - perhaps - make the world a better place.

Atwood's literary approach to SF has some strengths. Her detailed approach to setting and good research mean that Toby, Ren, Zeb and Jimmy come across as plausible characters that you grow to care about, and the events in which they are involved seem reasonable. But there are a couple of things that a good SF writer would have done which would have made them better. Firstly, all three books are too flashback-heavy, with about three quarters of the text describing events that occurred before the present day. This backwards-looking approach is common in literary novels and is useful for developing character, but fatally weakens the pacing. This is a particular problem in a story set in a made-up world because it means that readers spend time poking holes in the background rather than racing breathlessly to the next page (to be fair, even pure SF writers can make this mistake - see Ancillary Justice).

Secondly, there is an annoying parochialism to the setting. At no point either before or after the catastrophe do the characters even think about what is going on in the rest of the world - the impression given is that the whole of humanity lives in Canadian-style cities and suburbs, and the rich cultural histories of, say, Europe, Asia and India have been utterly erased. This is implausible. A good SF author would have given the story a multicultural angle which would have made its themes relevant to humanity as a whole and not just the western culture in which they happen to live.

So, full marks to Atwood for trying, but Zerothin's Law of Genre-hopping still stands. These are good but not great, either as SF and or as literature.

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