Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together in the site of Strange Horizons to talk about spoilers—the taboo of reviews, lice in the locks of SF Fandom. For the spoiler problem is twofold as with respect to Margaret Atwood's latest novel. Firstly, this is the third in a trilogy; and so talking about any of Maddaddam's specifics will by implication spoil Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) for those who have yet to read them. And secondly, there are spoilers that pertain to the way the specific story of Maddadam works itself out. My individual experience of reading Maddaddam makes this latter harder than it might otherwise be, because (in a nutshell) I read the first half broadly struck by Atwood's many and deep excellences as a writer, and I read the second half broadly dispirited by what seemed to me the novel's manifold sillinesses and fallings-away. It's hard to explain the whys and wherefores of this reaction without giving away the ending not only of the novel but the whole trilogy.
And, actually, there's a kind of irony here, or something that approaches it: because Atwood's trilogy is all about endings. These novels are about the end of the world, and also the ends to which we humans are dedicating ourselves in our capitalist, environmentally destructive ways. It's about the wickedness of using people as means-to-an-end (say, one's own gratification) rather than ends-in-themselves. It's also about beginnings in a specific way that explores how much endings and beginnings are necessarily folded together. The World Is Dead: Long Live The World.
To spoil? Not to spoil? Atwood herself begins her latest novel with that creaky old "previously, on Lost"-style device: a four-page precis, "The Maddaddam Trilogy: The Story So Far." Crake, a gene-wizard genius in a dystopian near-future of societal and environmental collapse, hatches a year-zero plan: on the one hand, to wipe out humanity via a cunningly designed superbug; on the other, to engineer a replacement species—the Crakers—humanoid, but incapable of rape, cruelty, or oppression. These blithe, ingenuous souls are to inherit a world picked clean of—well, of us, gentle reader. Of you and me. In Oryx and Crake, we see the events through the eyes of "Snowman," or Jimmy, Crake's childhood friend: their childhood together, Jimmy's hardscrabble young adulthood, the story leading up to apocalypse. We also see what happens after the end, as Jimmy keeps watch over the Crakers believing himself the last human on earth; for he had been inoculated against Crake's homosapiencidal bug by Crake himself, with this purpose in mind. That novel ends—oh, oh, spoiler!—with Jimmy encountering other human survivors. The Year of the Flood picks up the thread of their story: some women and two brain-fried nasty-rapey psychopathic "Painballer" men. Like Oryx and Crake, Flood is a novel that rocks back and forth between the events leading up to the world's end, and the immediate aftermath. The main viewpoints here are two women, Ren and Toby, and through them we find out about the God's Gardener's cult, a Green community that hopes to redeem the world via vegetarianism and good husbandry, run by "Adam," or "Adam 1." That novel ends (hoopsa!—spoiler) with the women rescued and the nasty men tied to a tree.
And, actually, if I come to think of it, that's not much of a spoiler: The Year of the Flood ends at exactly the same place that Oryx and Crake ends, which is also the place Maddaddam begins. The elaboration of Atwood's story in Flood is a matter of broadening the preexisting narrative rather than elongating it. And in part this is because Atwood's trilogy, by oscillating between just-before and just-after The End, is deliberately setting out to repudiate conventional narrative structure—or at least does so until the second half of Maddaddam. But I'll come to that in a moment. I've given it some thought and I've come to a conclusion: I'm going to permit myself one medium-size Maddaddam spoiler in this review, in order to give voice to the tenor of my dissatisfaction. In addition to genengineering the human-ish Crakers, Crake (or others like him) created a whole bestiary of weird hybrid animals, pigoons and ratsnakes and gider/spoats and who-knows-whats. The most memorable of these are the pigoons, spliced together out of hogs, Secombe, and Sellers. In Oryx and Crake the pigoons are proper scary—gigantic hogs whose worked-in human neural material makes them sly and clever as well as gobble-gobble hungry and indiscriminate in what, or whom, they eat. Their Achilles heel (or Achilles trotter) is that they cannot climb stairs; and one of the most memorable scenes in that first novel is Jimmy, foraging for food, trapped upstairs as the pigoons hunt him below. But, sad to say, in Maddaddam the pigoons, it seems, are no longer the bad guys. They are now pink and sweet-tempered, allies to the Crakers and the remnant of humanity against the Painballers. I can't begin to say how deflatingly unlikely and jarring this reconception is.
So, yes: there's a spoiler, right there. Maddaddam begins with the Crakers, who cannot conceive of evil in the heart of any being, taking pity on the tied-up Painballers and releasing them. These horrid fellers flee into the trees, where they remain throughout the novel as the closest thing Atwood vouchsafes to agents of narrative tension—will they return to wreak their evil revenge? Kidnap Craker children? Rape the women? Kill the men? This anxiety, though, is parked whilst the novel detours through Zeb's youth, only to return at the very end of the novel. The paradigm, it turns out, is High Noon; and since they will not go away our heroes must arm and ready themselves—with pigoon allies. I won't tell you how it pans out in the end; that would be a spoiler too far.
Mind, the world of Maddaddam is pretty thoroughly spoiled to begin with. Human society is running feral in a collapsing world. One of Atwood's neater ideas here is the Church of PetrOleum, based scripturally on Matthew 16:18 ("Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church") via some splendidly mendacious theology: "Peter is the Latin word for rock, and therefore the real, true meaning of 'Peter' refers to petroleum, or oil that comes from rock . . . my friends, for we all know oleum is the Latin word for oil, and indeed oil is holy throughout the Bible! What else is used for the anointing of priests and prophets and kings?" (p. 112). This is the Rev, an (of course) deeply unpleasant fellow who parlays this anti-Green theology into much money, and who happens to be the father of Maddaddam's two main characters, Adam and Zeb. The strongest portions of this novel are those that detail the childhood and youth of these two, through Zeb's street-smart, cynical, impulsive perspective. His childhood is spoiled by his ghastly mother and malign father; he lights out for the territories only to discover that the territories have all been poisoned. He works, whores, and escapes several times by the skin of his teeth until he pitches up with the God's Gardener's cult, which is where we first encountered him in Flood.
Whilst I'm on the subject: the planet in Planet of the Apes is Earth. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the narrator of the novel is the murderer. Also: soylent green is people.
In what does it inhere, the annoyance people feel about being told those sorts of things? According to the old story, when Pandora's box was opened all the myriad evils flew out into the world except one—the lid was snapped back down just in time to keep knowledge of future events firmly sealed inside. But that's never convinced me. After all, we all eventually do obtain knowledge of future events; it's just that it often takes a while. A novel or film generates a modular version of this: we start not knowing how the story is going to develop. If I tell you ahead-of-time (the magician in The Prestige has an actual teleport machine that works by generating a clone of the original person!) you feel cheated of the pleasures of finding out at your own, or more precisely finding out at the original story's, pace. Spoilers, in other words, are an offence related to impatience, a violation of Keats's negative capability. Will Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy find true love together? Won't they? Until we reach the end of Pride and Prejudice these two possible endings exist in a kind of pleasurable quantum superposition, much as Schrödinger's cat is both alive and dead.
But wait a moment: Schrödinger's cat is a poor model for this. If Pride and Prejudice were a properly quantum-superposition experience we would never find out whether Elizabeth and Darcy get together. They would remain both happily married and lonely-and-apart forever. Or to put it another way, we all know how the "cat" story ends, because it's built in to the experiment. We open the box. The cat is dead. More to the point, in that feline corpse we have the way all stories end. Elizabeth and Darcy's joyous wedding day is only a way-station on the longer-term road to this inevitable, leveling truth. Asking of Pride and Prejudice "but what happens in the end?" is to beg a more fundamental question: how far along do you want to take this "in the end" business? Ultimately what happens is: Elizabeth dies. Darcy dies. This is how your story ends too, and mine.
This, I suppose, is what really infuriates us about spoilers: the way they dead-head narrative suspense. We hate this because it reminds us how fragile and temporary "narrative suspense" (day-to-day living) actually is. Spoilers are a memento mori, and that's why we deplore them. They remind us that all the shifts and strategies by which we aim to fix up the existential emptiness of our lives—anticipation, looking forward to things, wondering how it's all going to work out—ultimately come to nothing. Tomorrow is not really another day, whatever Scarlett O'Hara said. Tomorrow is today, over again. And the Platonic Form of "tomorrow," the future in (as it were) the abstract, is the same for all of us. We're all mortal, after all. Complaining noisily about spoilers is the equivalent of putting out hands over our eyes and singing la! la! la! in a loud voice when faced with this fact.
If that looks like too morbid a way of putting it, then we can swing the argument about. The medieval and renaissance fascination with the memento mori had an important and therapeutic motive behind it, one that we have—in our modern-world hysterical flight from Death, with its attendant, unhealthy fetishization of youth and novelty—forgotten. It is good to remember you must die. It puts your life in a proper perspective. In narrative terms, "anticipation" is a sugary food. "I wonder who the murderer is?" propels you twitchily through the story to the end ("oh, it was the butler") and so through to the inevitable anticlimactic deflation, when the sugar rush collapses into ennui and weariness. There are other things that might interest us in a story: to do with how the story is told, and what its broader implications are. There are things other than the crude "what is going to happen next?"
This is a roundabout way of putting my dissatisfaction with Maddaddam into context. In Oryx and Crake we know how the story ends from the beginning: the world ends. The interest of the novel—and it is by far the most powerful of the three books in Atwood's trilogy—is not so much in what happens as how did we get here? And: what does it mean? More grown-up questions, those. The extent to which Maddaddam becomes thrall to the "but—but—what happens next?" is an index to its relative failure as a novel; or perhaps it would be fairer to say, its relative failure in the context of this ambitious, powerful sequence. Oryx is a profound and often moving meditation on death. Maddaddam is about new beginnings and the way the world as a whole moves on, and somehow it never captures the potency of the earlier work.
There are several problems with the metaphorical broad sunlit uplands of Maddaddam, I think. One is the ethical WTF??-ness of it—because the pre-apocalypse world Atwood paints is so horrible, so ghastly and irredeemable, and the post-apocalypse singing and community of the Crakers so valorized and sentimentalized, the whole renders its readers complicit with the Pol Pot logic of Crake's genocide. If you'll forgive me, I'll quote from something I wrote about this matter in another place.
Homo sapiens is dirty, but the Crakers are clean. Atwood's prose comes most luminously alive in the description of a natural world purged of humanity; and rakes thoroughly over the nasty sty when describing the myriad uncleannesses of humanity. All this is very reminiscent of Lawrence, whose fetish for a notional "cleanness" that excluded humanity may have been one of the distant influences on Oryx and Crake. I'm thinking of Birkin cooing to Ursula in Women in Love: "Don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?"
Lawrence believed this a beautiful clean thought, and I have to wonder how far Atwood agrees with him. It is not, however, a beautiful clean thought. It is an ugly, repellent, Auschwitz kind of thought. To quote myself a little more:
When I was an undergrad, my lecturer (the excellent George Watson—not, I should add, the Cambridge George Watson: the much superior Aberdeen George Watson) read out that passage and then actually tossed the book away from him in disgust. His point had to do with the very close ideological connection between notions of "cleanness" and fascism. We don't have to look far in DHL's work to find this connection spelled out. Witness the pasty bile of his letter to Blanche Jennings of the 9th October 1908:
If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the "Hallelujah Chorus."
Atwood is hardly advocating this, and indeed in her fiction more broadly she has a tender heart for the sick, the halt, and the maimed—unless, like the Painballers, or the majority of her masculine characters, they are psychologically sick and halt, maimed in the soul. Then it's into the Crystal Palace Gas Chamber with them, and the world better off. Are the psychologically disabled Painballers finally smoked out of their hidey-hole? Is there a High Noon-y shootout? Does Atwood dispose of the villains in a hail of bullets and the heat of combat? Or does she, rather, bung her thumb in the narrative balance to contrive a conclusion in which they survive in order to be formally judged by the nascent due process of post-apocalyptic Law and executed by drowning in the cleansing sea? I can't answer any of those questions without giving away spoilers, so I shan't say any more.
I don't want to labor this point, except to note that those portions of the novel that lifted off the ground and flew—Zeb's childhood; his adventures with the predator bears after a "thopter" crash in the mountains; his time as a strip-club bouncer and his days with the God's Gardener's cult—are those portions where we already know what is going to happen. We know the end of the world is coming; we know Zeb survives it. And by the same token, those portions of the novel that clog and dribble are those where the text structures itself in an open-ended "but what’s going to happen in the end?" sort of way. You turn the pages. You arrive at the conclusion feeling empty.
This is reinforced by the fact that Atwood divides her novel between two very different styles. Zeb narrates his own backstory to Toby. In a heartening development, these two become lovers in a mutually satisfying relationship, without the man asserting any power-over or oppressive instincts; and as part of their tryst Zeb tells Toby his life-story. Atwood's narrator elaborates Zeb's more laconic style with a host of potently observed and vivid details. This is where Atwood takes off her gloves, stylistically (in the strip club: "the mirror balls were going round and round, sprinkling the clientele and the talent with a dandruff of light" [p. 303]), and it works well. But the other half of the novel, the open-ended, the-future-is-bright half, is told in a dumbed-down Craker idiom. The conceit is that the remaining humans are telling the Crakers myths about their own Genesis, leavened with occasional grace notes to remind us that this is a human talking rather than actual holy writ:
In the beginning you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you.
Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story.
The Egg was big and round and white, like half a bubble, and there were trees inside it with leaves and grass and berries. All the things you like to eat.
Yes, it rained inside the Egg.
No, there was not any thunder.
Because Crake did not want any thunder inside the Egg. (p. 3)
There's a lot like this, and as it went on I found increasing grating. Partly this is the implied condescension of its ersatz childishness, with its many repetitions—lots of talk of "smelly bones," the imponderable human preference for food over the leaves and grass and berries of the Crakers. Quite a lot of ritual-establishing stuff about putting a frog in your mouth and taking it out before telling a story. Yes there's a reason why this bizarre ritual starts up. No, I'm not going to tell you what the reason is. Yes there’s some metaphorical thunder in Atwood's writing, even in these over-extended and rather irritating passages. No, the thunder is not continuous, or even particularly extended. Alas.
Partly the problem is a kind of mismatch of style and form. The Crakers' myth sections are framed in a way that deliberately simplifies and reduces "real world" events, where the Zeb-backstory sections deploy all the textual paraphernalia of "Realist" fiction: lots of deictic specific, scene-evoking detail, lots of rounded characters, psychological insight, and inwardness. It's the difference that Erich Auerbach explores in the first chapter of his magisterial Mimesis (1953)—between the spare, elliptical suggestiveness of the Biblical account of Abraham and Isaac on the one hand, and the detail-rich expansiveness of Homer's account of Odysseus's homecoming in the Odyssey on the other. These are both, in their way, "realism" by Auerbach's lights; but they work very differently. More to the point, the latter, by drawing us into an immersive experience of the now-ness of the text, suits the "what happens next?" narrative better than the former, which tends to position it as exegesis, interpreting, filling-in, and thinking further. This, then, is my problem: Atwood's novel gets the two modes the wrong way about.
This may strike you as a pettifogging sort of objection to this novel. There's a huge amount to admire here, as there always is with Atwood. She is clearly a writer in the global front rank, a novelist of often breathtaking skill and reach. I'm of course aware of the tendency in some of the shires of SFland—my own home country—to sneer at her because she hasn't pronounced the Fan Shibboleths with enough fervor. But this strikes me as not only the least interesting way of relating to Atwood; it seems to me to demean SF Fandom more generally. So she doesn't want to write about talking squid in space. So sue her. As her career develops it is clear that she is as artistically committed to SF as to any other mode; and it would be small-minded to deny that she has written some of the most enduring SF novels of the last three decades. And since this review has carped about Maddaddam, I should note at its end that it still seems to me head and shoulders both above most of the novels I have read this year. But its problems are deeper than its excellencies. Oryx and Crake is a very brilliant novel about The End. Maddaddam is like one of those 1950s romantic movies in which the end-title is replaced with one that reads THE BEGINNING. That, I'm sure I don't need to tell you, is not a good thing.