Magazine article The Spectator

Escapism for the Gullible

Magazine article The Spectator

Escapism for the Gullible

Article excerpt

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury, £18.99, pp. 394, ISBN 9781408819708 The two opening volumes of Margaret Atwood's trilogy have sold over a million copies. One of them managed to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in the nadir year that D.B.C. Pierre's Vernon God Little won. Entitled Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009), they depict planet Earth after humankind has been obliterated by a pandemic triggered by a newly devised pharmaceutical that arouses sexual rapture and retards ageing.

A bioengineered humanoid species, the Children of Crake, however, survive: 'free from sexual jealousy, greed, clothing and the need for insect repellent and animal protein'.

In addition to a few surviving humans, Atwood's teeming cast includes bioterrorists called MaddAddamites, an ecologically-minded cult called God's Gardeners, and a malevolent tribe called the Painballers.

The sinister uses of genetic modification and online chat-rooms, the destructiveness of human ambition, the imminent likelihood of dystopia on Earth, and the nobility of fugitives are among the obsessions with which these crude books cudgel their readers.

As a device to ballast her hectic fantasies, Atwood harks on the factual potential of her trilogy rather like a fairground mountebank claiming that his potions may cure warts. 'MaddAddam', she promises, 'does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.' Moreover, when these novels are called 'science fiction', she flinches. She prefers the term 'speculative fiction', but whatever term is used, the characters remain boring, the ideas trite, the vocabulary excitable but sterile, and the plot havoc-strewn. The trilogy is escapism for the gullible.

There are moments of whimsy in MaddAddam. A smile may be raised by Atwood's invent ion of an onscreen e lectron ic game called Blood and Roses, a sort of Monopoly for historians, in which Carthage can be decimated, the Belgian Congo enslaved, and the Palace of Versailles swapped for Hiroshima. But it will be a wan, desperate smile like those exchanged between strangers trapped together in a small, broken lift.

Atwood's allusions are arch: the bodies of Children of Crake, for example, turn blue after coition in a nudge-nudge reference to the old saw, post coitum omne animalium triste est. …

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