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 bio-beings 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 invention of an onscreen electronic 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. The names bestowed by her on musical bands — the Pancreatic Cancers, the Bipolar Albino Hookworms — were all done better in the goth novels of Poppy Z. Brite 20 years ago. And the description of the fundamentalist Church of PetrOleum shows Atwood attempting satire in a mode that Sinclair Lewis exhausted 85 years ago in Elmer Gantry:
The Rev had his very own cult. That was the way to go in those days if you wanted to coin the megabucks and you had the facility for ranting and bullying, plus golden-tongued whip-’em-up preaching, and you lacked some other grey area but highly marketable skill, such as derivatives trading. Tell people what they want to hear, call yourself a religion, put the squeeze on for contributions, run your own media outlets and use them for robocalls and slick online campaigns, befriend or threaten politicians, evade taxes. You had to give the guy some credit. He was twisted as a pretzel, he was a tinfoil-halo shit-nosed frogstomping king rat asshole, but he wasn’t stupid.
Atwood’s language is often slack. When she identifies the Church of PetrOleum as ‘affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists’, what is the word ‘somewhat’ doing? When one of her protagonists shaves to alter his appearance (‘Zeb had to sacrifice his face waffle, of which he’d become moderately fond despite the meticulous upkeep’), what is ‘moderately’ doing? She seems to think that adverbs are a deft way to convey irony.
She is a dour writer, whose struggles to be humorous are creaking and laborious. It is not by chance that few of the characters in MaddAddam are human, that their landscape is dehumanised and their circumstances an unreal pandemonium. These conditions absolve her from any need to create convincing characters or delve into their motives, and let her lurch among genetically modified organisms in her portentous-seeming but insignificant books.
In one scene the aforementioned Zeb breaks into song:
Now we’re in the muck,
And that can really suck,
And this is why we’re out of luck,
Because we don’t know …
but I needn’t inflict on Spectator readers the final rhyme, which we have seen lumbering towards us ever since the first.