In this final volume of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, we’re back in what’s left of a world nearly cleared (or cleansed) of humans by a plague created by the mad genius Crake — who also bioengineered the plague-resistant Crakers, a gentle species free of all of humanity’s (to his mind) ruinous traits: greed, sexual jealousy and the need of clothing, insect repellent and animal protein. A few humans remain, mostly good people from the tech rebel MaddAddamites and the eco-friendly God’s Gardeners, but also some very bad actors who threaten any chance of a peaceful rebuilding. Add to this mix a blossoming romance between Toby, a somewhat older woman among the good, and Zeb, a resourceful and lovable rogue whose history is as colorful and fraught with adventure as a comic-book hero’s.
Everything begins when Toby recovers Amanda, a young woman kidnapped and brutalized by Painballers (a kind of vile gladiator of the time), and is joined by the Crakers, who want help for their appointed prophet, Snowman (formerly Jimmy, once a comrade of Crake’s), who’s in a fever-induced coma. So Toby, damaged Amanda and the Crakers, bearing Snowman-the-Jimmy, return to the compound where the good people (but not too good — very human) are doing their best to fend off feral bioengineered beasts and make a stand against the Painballers. Whew!
With Jimmy out of commission, it falls to Toby to continue the storytelling and the attendant rituals. (She must eat a fish, for instance, and wear Snowman’s tattered Red Sox cap and consult the defunct watch through which Crake supposedly speaks.) The profound ignorance and innocence of the Crakers allow Atwood to exercise her waggish wit and to play with the complexities and absurdities of understanding and communication — as Toby tries to explain, for instance, what writing is, why creatures die, why humans have two skins (clothes), all in the language of Dick and Jane made mythic.
Furthermore, the Crakers have become fascinated with Zeb, whose story is coaxed out of him by a perhaps even more interested Toby, who in turn narrates it to the Crakers. And as things go on, Toby teaches an almost ridiculously charming young Craker to write and read, so we have his voice, too. (“I am putting the red hat on my head, the hat of Snowman-the-Jimmy. These markings on it — look, it is a voice, and it is saying: RED. And it is saying: SOX. SOX is a special word of Crake. We do not know what it means.”) This makes for a wonderful blend of storytelling modes, with only the occasional moment of clunky exposition.
Finally, there is something funny, even endearing, about such a dark and desperate view of a future — a ravaged world emerging from alarmingly familiar trends — that is so jam-packed with the gifts of imagination, invention, intelligence and joy. There may be some hope for us yet.
Ellen Akins (ellenakins.com) is a novelist who teaches in the low- residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.