The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

This post was developed and authored by Kaitlin Mondello, Ph.D.

Core Text

  • Atwood, Margaret. The MaddAddam trilogy
  • Oryx and Crake. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2003. 
  • The Year of the Flood. 2009. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010.
  • MaddAddam. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2013.

Note

As all of the novels in the trilogy revolve around the same event in time and place, similar environmental themes are present in each of them, albeit with differing emphases. The first novel is more focused on the ravages of corporate capitalism and the ethics of bioengineering. The second centers around class struggle, religion and ecology (deep ecology), and sustainability. The third most directly addresses posthuman and human-animal ethics. 

Summary

These three novels tell stories from multiple characters’ viewpoints before, during, and after the “waterless flood” in which bioengineer Glenn causes a mass extinction event for humans through dissemination of a Viagra-like pharmaceutical drug called BlyssPluss. To replace humans, Glenn has bioengineered a new species, referred to as the Crakers, who are human-like but free from hierarchies and violence. The title of the novel, and the name Crakers, derive from the game Extinctathon about animals that have gone extinct, including the oryx (antelope) and crake (bird). 

The first novel opens in the aftermath of Glenn’s pandemic with a lone human survivor known as Snowman among the Crakers along with genetically engineered animals that have become dangerous. Snowman is revealed to be the childhood friend of Glenn named Jimmy. Glenn and Jimmy serve as foils: Jimmy is artistic and emotional, whereas Glenn is scientific and emotionless. They end up in a love triangle with a woman known only as Oryx who they first encounter while watching child pornography. Glenn enlists Jimmy to work on the advertising for BlyssPluss, though Jimmy is not aware of Glenn’s plans for its use in human extinction. After the mass extinction, Glenn reveals that he and Jimmy are immune to the drug, and then murders Oryx in front of Jimmy. The novel ends with Jimmy being injured and realizing there are other humans left. 

The next two novels center around a different set of characters from the “pleeblands” (slums outside the wealthy corporate areas). The second novel focuses on two women: Ren, who we find out later in the novel is Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend, who is a sex-worker at a club called Scales and Tails where she dresses in elaborate costumes and performs acrobatics, and Toby, who is fleeing an abusive psychopath rapist named Blanco who was her boss at SecretBurger. Both Ren and Toby survive the “waterless flood” by chance: Ren is holed up in quarantine at Scales and Tails, while Toby is safe inside the AnooYoo Spa. Both previously were part of a religious movement called God’s Gardeners, which predicts a “waterless flood” that will wipe out humanity. Much of the novel tells the story of God’s Gardeners, a group that lives sustainably and resists the greed, waste, and violence of the prevailing corporate culture. The novel alternates perspectives between the two main characters, again told in flashbacks, and intersplices hymns, rituals, and sermons from the religious group. The leader is known as Adam One, who we find out in the third novel is the half-brother of Zeb, the Mad Adam.

The third novel again revolves around Toby and, to a lesser degree, Ren. Toby falls in love with Zeb, who now becomes a central focus. Toby also befriends the Crakers and fills in for Jimmy (Snowman) as their prophet/story-teller figure while she nurses Jimmy back to health after his infection from the first novel. Toby also begins to take a special interest in a young Craker boy named Blackbeard who can communicate with the hybrid human-pig Pigoons and she begins to teach him how to write. Much of the book is the backstory of Zeb, and later Adam One; they are on the run from their father who is an abusive, murderous reverend of The Church of Petroleum, which worships oil. In the present of the novel, Ren and her friend Amanda (featured in the previous novel as a street-wise “pleebrat” who reluctantly joins God’s Gardeners) are attacked by psychopath rapists from the blood sport Painball for criminals. A battered Ren finds Toby holed up in the spa and Toby nurses her back to health, then the pair sets out to free Amanda from the Painballers. They find Jimmy and the Crakers and Zeb’s group of surviving humans along the way. Zeb, Toby, and Jimmy attempt to save Adam One, who has been kidnapped by the Painballers, with the help of the highly intelligent Pigoons with whom they form an alliance and truce. Adam One and Jimmy die by the Painballers; Zeb dies when he goes on a subsequent mission to search out other survivors; Toby decides to take her own life. Several of the women in the human group become pregnant by the Crakers, who have group mating times, and the new hybrid children are to be born. Blackbeard closes the narrative by writing down the stories of Oryx and Crake, Jimmy, Toby, and Zeb. 

Teaching Resources

  • Bouson, J. Brooks. “A ‘Joke-Filled Romp’ through End Times: Radical Environmentalism, Deep Ecology, and Human Extinction in Margaret Atwood’s Eco-Apocalyptic MaddAddam Trilogy.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 51, no. 3, 2016, pp. 341–357.

Abstract: “Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has spent years thinking and writing about the existential threat humanity now confronts in an era of an exponential growth in the global human population, accelerating environmental and habitat destruction, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, and ever-worsening ecological degradation. Like her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, which Atwood describes as a “joke-filled romp through the end of the human race”, her 2009 novel The Year of the Flood and her 2013 novel MaddAddam are admonitory satires. In MaddAddam, Atwood moves forward from The Year of the Floodand Oryx and Crake as she retells and reconsiders her dystopian eco-apocalyptic account of what leads up to and what follows mass human extinction. In her account of the apocalyptic and millennial environmentalism of Crake and the God’s Gardeners, Atwood draws on the philosophy of deep ecology, and she also invokes the type of radical environmentalism embraced by activist green movements like Earth First!. Intent on environmental consciousness-raising, Atwood offers a horrific and darkly satiric account of the gruesome final days of humanity in the twenty-first century. By wryly suggesting that the remedy to humanity’s ills lies not only in interspecies cooperation but also in interspecies breeding, Atwood engages her readers in an unsettling thought experiment as Crake’s genetically modified hominoids, which are presented in Oryx and Crake as a kind of mad scientist joke, become the best hope for the genetic survival of some vestige of homo sapiens in the future Craker–human hybrid.”

  • Northover, Richard Alan. “Ecological Apocalypse in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 88, no. sup1, 2015, pp. 1–15. 

Abstract: “Atwood comments that her MaddAddam trilogy is neither apocalyptic nor utopian. Nor is the Waterless Flood, the central catastrophic event around which the various narratives of the trilogy cohere, an ecological catastrophe, but, instead, is the consequence of an act of bioterrorism meant to forestall such a possibility. Nonetheless, it is argued, following Laurence Coupe’s mythic schema, that Atwood’s trilogy can be understood in an alternative sense of apocalypse, that of revelation, an imaginative exploration of possibilities rather than the end of all possibilities that a literalist interpretation of this key biblical myth entails. The study uses Coupe’s mythic schema to analyse some of the biblical myths that Atwood employs in her trilogy and builds on Watkins’s distinction between monologic, pessimistic and tragic male apocalyptic fiction and dialogic, optimistic and comic female apocalyptic fiction. It shows how the polyphonic structure of the whole trilogy transcends the apparent pessimistic content of the novels, particularly of the first instalment Oryx and Crake, pointing imaginatively to permanent possibility and hope, even if the future may be post-human.”

  • Pusch, Anne. “Splices: When Science Catches Up with Science Fiction.” NanoEthics, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, pp. 55–73.

Abstract: “This paper examines human-nonhuman splices from a multidisciplinary approach, involving bioengineering and literary studies. Splices are hybrid beings, created through gene-splicing—a process which combines the DNA of the two species, resulting in a hybrid or chimeric being. A current trend in biotechnological research is the use of spliced pigs for xenotransplantation. Hiromitsu Nakauchi’s pancreas study that splices pigs with human iPS [induced pluripotent stem] cells in order to grow human organs inside pigs is being compared to a highly similar case of porcine hybrids: the pigoon from Margaret Atwood’s fictional MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood’s pigoons are pigs, genetically modified with human stem cells to facilitate the growth of various human organs for use in organ transplants with no risk of rejection. The case studies from science and science fiction overlap significantly and thus allow for a critical reading of the two highly different sources with a focus on ethical and moral questions regarding the use and abuse of nonhuman animals for human purposes. Furthermore, the context of the fictional works adds new layers of knowledge and new perspectives to the problematic issue of animal ‘enhancement.’ Through the dynamic agency that can be detected within Atwood’s novels and that encompasses human, animal, and hybrid agency, the reader can develop empathy for other-than-human experiences and use this new perspective for a critical reflection of actual technoscientific developments that affect both human and nonhuman animal life. The combination of the two discourses reveals a value of science fiction for both the scientific community and society at large, demonstrating how its critical reception can result in enhanced ethical standards.”

Discussion Questions

  • In the novels, powerful corporate entities (like HelthWyzer) and unscrupulous businesses (SecretBurger, Happicuppa, etc.) dominate. What are the effects of corporate capitalism on society and the environment in the novel(s)? You may consider how these fictional representations are a direct critique of existing corporations including “Big Pharma,” McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. 
  • Consider the roles of animals in the ecological dystopia of the novel(s). In particular, how are genetically-engineered animals (such as the Pigoons, Liobams, Mo’Hairs, and Chickienobs) commodified? You may consider how these fictional representations are a direct critique of current animal rights abuses including bioengineering, factory farming, the fur industry, etc.
  • Consider the role that religion plays amid environmental crisis in the novels: God’s Gardeners (book 2), The Church of Petroleum (book 3), and the mythology of the Crakers (book 3). In what ways do one or more of these religions adapt Christianity and to what ends? 
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