MaddAddam is the third novel in a dystopian and futuristic trilogy by Canada’s doyen of literature, Margaret Atwood. It follows Oryz and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) in postulating an chaotic future brought about by climate change and genetic disasters.
Atwood, of course, is not a scientist, so the arguments implicit in her writing are not strictly empirical. But, like many authors of her stature, she has earned a respectable credibility because she reads voraciously, observes carefully and thinks critically, attributes that combine with an earthy wisdom to give her the ability to synthesize ideas and trends with a perspective often denied to specialists. Indeed, like many other novelists and poets, she has the creative capacity and the sense for human nature that qualifies her to anticipate events before they happen — Canada’s media guru, Marshall McLuhan, shrewdly called artists “early warning systems” because the future is discernible to those astute few who are appropriately open and alert to the events of the unfolding present. Is Atwood’s trilogy a foreboding of disasters to come? Perhaps.
The present is still unfolding. But writers are inspired by the trends implicit in their surroundings. They don’t write from positions of uninformed and pointless vacuity. The following dialogue contains her insightful comments made in conversation with Brian Bethune, a noted interviewer and critic (MacLean’s, Sept. 9/13).
Bethune: “Do you go to and fro in your opinion of human nature? Crake, who does not think well of us, is very persuasive and I think he must persuade you sometimes. Yet you have altruistic characters.”
Atwood: “Everybody writing about human beings in any serious way will say the same thing. When we’re good, we’re very, very good, and when we’re bad, we’re horrid. This is not news, because we’re so much more inventive and we have two hands, the left and the right. That is how we think. It’s all over our literature, and and all over the way we arrange archetypes, the good version, the bad version, the god, the devil, the Abel, the Cain, you name it. We arrange things in pairs like that because we know about ourselves.”
This dichotomy that we “know about ourselves” creates the energy for interesting novels — and, unfortunately, for interesting history, too. Indeed, we never cease to be surprised by our capabilities. Modern technology is a wonder of multiple ingenuities; modern warfare is a shock of outrageous atrocities. Modern medicine is a miracle of humane cleverness; modern economics is a disaster of destructive exploitation. Our societies and our civilizations hover between the precarious polarities of astounding accomplishment and brutal devastation — “When we’re good, we’re very, very good, and when we’re bad, we’re horrid.”
This is who we are, a subject that Bethune explores further with Atwood.Bethune: “Ten years ago you told me you thought modern civilization had about 30 years before collapse. And we are down to 20 now, or have there been reasons to change your mind?” Atwood: “The jury is out. Keep an eye on the weather, which is changing faster than predicted, and on the new diseases escaping or being made, even as we speak. It’s a race between new tech and biosphere bankruptcy, I’d say.”
Such frank pronouncements could be the stuff of medieval court jesters. They were the only ones, as historians attest, who could speak honestly to the king and court without risking fearful punishments. But, instead of using humour, Atwood couches her honesty in fiction — a fiction so brutally vivid and so possibly prescient that it should invite obstinate rejection. But, like the king and court that welcomed the humour by laughing at themselves, people buy Atwood’s books. They are popular because she articulates, albeit in another form, the pervasive fear that humanity senses about its own vulnerability. Her books are imaginative exercises in vicarious preparation for what may actually happen.
Is Atwood aware of this psychological dynamic? Probably. She knows the human psyche as well as anyone. But it’s not a dynamic she’s exploiting; it’s one she’s employing in her artistic role as an interpreter on the present and a commentator on the future. Which raises the issue of the title of her book, MaddAddam.
Atwood explained that MaddAddam was a name concocted for internet clarity, because it was an invented word that could not be confused with any other during web searches (Ibid.). But it is also a palindrome — it reads the same whether from left to right or from right to left. “Mad” is clearly evident, as is “Adam”. And “Adam”, who appears as “Adam One” in her book, besides being the first man in the West’s myth of creation — in Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is also the Hebrew word for “human”. So, does the title of the book and culmination of the trilogy actually mean “mad humanity”? Is the palindrome a pronouncement that our prospects are the same regardless of which way they are considered? Is Atwood suggesting that who we are and what we do has an inevitable conclusion?
Atwood is too bright a thinker, too skillful a writer and too careful a person to make such a damning pronouncement about humanity. But the thought is already drifting through our collective consciousness. Many sensitive and reflective people in many places are giving serious consideration to the issue of our human character, are doubting if we know what we’re doing, are wondering if we are in control of ourselves — and thus our destiny. MaddAddam just gives a sharper focus to the same worrisome questions we are already pondering.