At the End of the Slippery Slope: Margaret Atwood’s <i>MaddAddam</i> Trilogy

Posted by George Estreich, <i>Biopolitical Times</i> guest contributor September 24, 2013
Biopolitical Times
Some readers of Biopolitical Times may already have read Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. Taken together, the books — "speculative fiction," as Atwood calls them — project a world where most of humanity, after years of sliding towards the abyss, has perished in the “waterless flood” of a genetically engineered virus. Remaining are a few surviving humans, and the Crakers.

As Atwood explains in a recent interview, the Crakers were engineered to avoid all the problems — notably uncontrolled lust and violence — that their creator, a brilliant genetic engineer self-named Crake, believed were the source of our human tragedies. Crake also engineers and releases the virus: literally Godlike, he both creates and destroys.

One of the main critiques of human genetic engineering is that things can go wrong with the end result. But the Crakers are gentle, childlike, stunningly beautiful, racially diverse. Their eyes are green and glow in the dark and they live on kudzu, and the men have extremely large blue penises, and the women turn blue when they are ready to mate. (These facts cause great misunderstandings with the surviving humans.) In the new society, the Crakers and the surviving humans have to get along and build a single civilization together; and indeed, MaddAddam is notable in narrating the slow fall of a single Craker child into knowledge, into the learning of writing and storytelling.

The paradox of the MaddAddam trilogy is that it is about starting over, about a new beginning, when a new beginning is impossible: human nature, whether genetically spliced or not, is unavoidable, and with their bickering and lusts and scars from the past, the new society wastes no time in reproducing the tensions of the old. It is, in fact, the false hope of a new beginning that is Atwood's satirical target. This is apparent in the third book’s palindromic title, in the trilogy’s multiple invocations of the Bible (no writing but rewriting: Atwood’s book is itself a splicing and resplicing of religious stories), and in the nonlinear approach of the narrative — the three books crisscross the same timespan, rather than narrating from beginning to end.

But most of all, the false hope of a new beginning is dramatized in the person of Crake. He is godlike, but not God. In his attempt to wipe out humanity and start anew, he not only fails — some humans survive, and by book's end, have begun to interbreed with the Crakers — but also enacts a central irony: his creation of gentle, peace-loving creatures is attended by an ultimate act of violence. Further, Crake's beliefs about what humanity is and should be, despite his terrifyingly equable, rational voice, are fueled by family trauma and betrayal. He has godlike power, but is human to the core; and his rhetoric of rationality is belied by his story.

For Atwood, the genome is pliable, but human perversity is ineradicable. In an essay on her website, she writes:
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?
Atwood’s emphasis — “it invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent” — suggests that, though her work is fiction and not a tract, she also intends to do far more than entertain.

There is the technical critique of genetic engineering: that it won’t work, and that suffering or harm will result to the engineered. In Atwood’s trilogy, the problem isn’t that genetic engineering will go awry; it’s that it will work too well, and in doing so will amplify all that humans are, including our best impulses and our worst.