When the second book of this trilogy, The Year of the Flood, came out a couple of years ago, I received it as a gift and started reading. By the time I realized that I should have read Oryx and Crake first, I had read enough that I didn’t want to stop. (Only a few pages, mind you). So I did read the whole thing and I enjoyed it, although now that I’ve read it again with the appropriate background–I read Oryx and Crake on the beach in Tulum–I see how much I missed the first time around. I followed it right up with the last book in the series, MaddAddam.
The three books are what the term “speculative fiction” was coined to describe–they happen in the nearish future and project forward from what is going on in our world now. The extreme technologies and crazy animal splices (rakunks and liobams), the insidious pharmaceuticals and enforced class divides don’t exist quite yet, but there is logical reason to believe that they all could, and soon. (There are also irregularly capitalized made-up proper nouns all over the place–the same thing that I hate in George Saunders’s speculative work–“CorpsSeCorps,” “HappiCuppa”….)
The overall effect of the three books is chronological although there is overlap between the first two in which the reader gets to see some concurrent events. The stories all turn around the same constellation of characters. The first book, Oryx and Crake, follows a man named Snowman, or Jimmy, who seems to be the only human left after a catastrophic illness kills everyone else. The only people who remain are genetically engineered “Crakers”–a new race devised by Jimmy’s one-time best friend. I don’t want to give much away about the plot, but I will say that, had this book ended just a few pages earlier, it could have stood alone and been pretty perfect. The last few pages turned it into something incomplete that needed a follow-up, but if you’re interested in only reading one, just stop reading when an overwhelming feeling of inevitability washes over you.
The Year of the Flood was probably my favorite of the three books. It is expansive, covering about twenty-five years and an incredible amount of detail, and concerns a group called God’s Gardeners. They are what others call “eco-freaks”–vegetarians who scavenge for the dregs of wine bottles to make vinegar, who cultivate bees and mushrooms, who pray to different saints every day (St. Jane Goodall or was it St. Dian Fossey?…) and live in a repurposed crumbling old building. They are preparing for the Waterless Flood, which they anticipate will wipe out most of the human race and necessitate their self-sufficiency. This would sound crazy if the reader didn’t a) have the background from Oryx and Crake and b) didn’t have alternating chapters a decade ahead that show that the flood did, indeed, happen. The narration alternates between Toby, an older woman, and Ren, a younger woman, who spend period of the book together and apart. It’s structurally and narratively extremely complex and, I thought, very rewarding.
MaddAddam seemed like a book for fans of the first two rather than an essential volume. There were a few gaps in my understanding of everything that had happened in the first two books that were filled by the third, but there were also questions being answered that I never asked and I don’t think needed to be explicated. I enjoyed reading it, but going straight from The Year of the Flood to MaddAddam was a bit of a mistake, I think, because I didn’t have time to miss Atwood’s world in between. I also was disappointed that the book was almost exclusively from Toby’s point of view; I kept waiting to hear more from Ren, but she became more of a peripheral character. There was a bit of a twist in the narration that became clear at the end, but it was honestly very much like the point made at the end of the first book, just more explicit. So I liked this volume and was invested in it, but less so than the others.
I do really recommend these books. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant human being–of course a brilliant writer, but the incredible interconnected networks of corporations, universities, subcultures, cults, religions, animal-splices, lovers, friends, family, underworlds, criminal masterminds, wild vegetables and more that she came up with for these books is just unbelievable. They are beautiful, disturbing, moving, cerebral and haunting all at the same time.