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After the flood

Atwood closes dark trilogy by letting in a little light -- and hope

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Margaret Atwood prefers the term 'speculative fiction' for her works set in a dystopian but possible future.

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Margaret Atwood prefers the term 'speculative fiction' for her works set in a dystopian but possible future.

"Adam named the animals. MaddAddam customizes them."

So read the portal to a secret Internet chat room hosted by disaffected scientists in 2003's Oryx and Crake, the first speculative-fiction novel of Canadian literary doyenne Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy.

MaddAddam members illegally shared by night the information about genetic hazards that their corporate work caused, legally, by day, as gene-splicing corporations such as ReJoovenesence, HelthWyzer and OrganInc produced not only the dangerous "pigoons" (pigs injected with human neocortical tissue) but also the innocent, quasi-human "Crakers," who eat and mate without blood and tears.

Oryx and Crake recounts, through Crake's friend Jimmy, how Crake hijacked the MaddAddam network and its ideals to cause the "Waterless Flood." The second book, 2009's The Year of the Flood, tells the back stories of Ren and Toby, two women from the environmental sect -- God's Gardeners -- and then follows the women into the early days after the Waterless Flood.

MaddAddam, the third instalment, is tasked with wrapping up the series, taking us beyond the Waterless Flood to see if the few remaining Gardeners and MaddAddamites can make a civilized go of things, or whether humankind is damned to lapse into barbarity.

Wrap things up Atwood does, often too neatly.

That isn't to say the novel lacks entertainment. The dust jacket promises adventure, romance and humour, and Atwood delivers.

As in The Year of the Flood, Toby is again an engaging central presence. Through her questions, we hear another back story, this time of Zeb, an alpha male among the survivors.

Will Zeb be able to change his identity enough times to escape the pre-Flood clutches of his evil father, the powerful Petrobaptist Reverend, who gets his kicks at the Scales and Tails brothel? Since Zeb is still around with Toby, the betting is heavy on "yes."

Will Zeb stay true to the middle-aged Toby, even though the nubile and fertile Swift Fox is giving him smouldering looks? Don't touch that dial!

Still, plot isn't how Atwood climbed to the top of the literary heap. Atwood's greatness resides in her fully formed worlds, and in the poetic and symbolic depth she gives to them.

Toby's conversations with the Crakers are often funny, sometimes poetic, sometimes both. Blackbeard, a genial adolescent Craker, learns, despite his initial skepticism, that a paper with a few scratches on it can carry surprising freight from one person to another. He exclaims, "It said my name! It told my name to Ren!"

Toby's character transformations are symbolized by her arrival at the former "Anoo You" spa, where she once hid and where her old ghost still lingers. There, she dons her pink AnooYoo tracksuit with its kissy-lips and winky-eye logo.

Despite this, and despite Zeb's spirit-bear echoes, compared to Jimmy's unwilling transformations in Oryx and Crake, the changes in Toby and Zeb are relatively minor. Atwood seems satisfied with her protagonists the way they are. Too bad.

MaddAddam is the 14th novel the Toronto-based literary juggernaut has published. This count represents just a fraction of her production, which began more than 50 years ago.

Over that time Atwood has penned numerous short-story collections, poetry collections, non-fiction plays, children's books, TV scripts, e-books and even opera librettos.

At 73, she is one of Canada's most engaged public intellectuals, an enthusiastic experimenter with digital technologies and one of the English language's most respected authors. She has won dozens of awards, both Canadian and international. Outside Canada she is probably best known for her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, a cautionary tale set in the near future in which the U.S. has become a totalitarian Christian theocracy. (In October, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet will premiere a dance adaptation, choreographed by New Yorker Lila York.)

Atwood has argued against suggestions that The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake were science fiction. She labels them "speculative fiction."

She gathered together some of her writing on SF in In Other Worlds (2011). "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships," she told the British newspaper The Guardian. "Speculative fiction could really happen."

Advertised as another dystopian novel, MaddAddam is more utopian. Atwood maintains her witty cynicism about the world before the Flood -- our world, soon, with its Church of Petroleum and its "Feel-iT-enabled porno installations in suburban malls."

But the beginnings of inter-species co-operation after the flood between human and pigoon is less convincing. It's understandable that Atwood would want to allow some light into her bad dreams, but the physics of communication and the conceptual linkages between human and pigoon turn out to be laughably easy.

Smart and brutal in Oryx and Crake, the pigoons in MaddAddam are almost ready for swimming with the dolphins, though they do insist upon new kosher regulations: ham and bacon are definite deal-breakers. Atwood could have used a dose of Stanislaw Lem in this regard.

One of Atwood's great achievements in The Year of the Flood was to build the new environmental religion, God's Gardeners, from scratch. Although she doesn't hesitate to satirize them at times -- here it's the Festival of Intestinal Parasites -- Gardener ideals are continued in MaddAddam through Toby, suggesting that Atwood's pig-friendly plot shift has its roots in post-humanism.

Toby's tutoring of the Crakers, the other post-humans, is beautifully realized, and the question of what will become of the Crakers is still a live issue. It's fascinating to watch as Toby struggles to decide whether to be euphemistic or to place a heavy burden upon their sweet stupidity.

"Walking potatoes," one character calls them, but they're so much more. Late in the novel, the point of view shifts to Blackbeard. If MaddAddam, like The Year of the Flood, lacks the brilliance of Oryx and Crake, it's still moving to see this fruit of human ingenuity begin to wrestle with the world he has inherited.

Brandon University professor Reinhold Kramer is the author of four books on Canadian literature and history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A1

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