Margaret Atwood's apocalypse trilogy dares to imagine GMO Utopia

We've had time to digest the final book in Margaret Atwood's end-of-the-world trilogy, MaddAddam. Now it's time to look at all three novels, starting with Oryx and Crake, and consider what Atwood is trying to do with this techno-magic realist tale of humanity's destruction and redemption through synthetic biology.

Warning: This is an essay analyzing the themes in all three novels, and as such it contains spoilers.

When I read Oryx and Crake several years ago, I would never have predicted that the series would end the way it did in MaddAddam. Set in the near future, Oryx focuses on the horrors of a world devoted to morally ambiguous runaway capitalism, where even the proteins in our bodies have been commodified. Scientists and engineers cook up new species, new drugs, and hideous new snuff porn distractions in rich bubbles of productivity, protected from the decaying slums by a ring of gates and armed guards.

Revolting Biotech

The anti-heroes of Oryx are two young gene hackers, nicknamed Oryx and Crake, one an abused genius from the corporate bubbles of North America and the other a child porn victim from the Asian slums. Disgusted by what humanity has come to, they scheme to bring on the apocalypse with other anonymous players of an online mass extinction game run by the mysterious MaddAddam. And eventually they succeed. They unleash a designer virus, hidden inside a wonder drug that promises youth and virility.

Homo sapiens begins to gurgle, boil, and die in its own pus. Oryx is a novel packed with hideous images of biological contamination and manipulation. From the headless "chickie nobs" that provide people with synthetic meat, to the terrifying pigoons whose brains are engineered with human tissue, this is a tale designed to make genetic engineering as repulsive as possible. Atwood mingles imagery of this futuristic science with internet torture porn and child abuse, as if they were all part of the same civilizational sinkhole.

Before humanity vomits up its last diseased chunk of virus-ridden goo, however, Oryx and Crake design an escape hatch for the species. They engineer a new kind of human, the Crakers, who are a GMO hodgepodge of all the cuddliest and most peaceful parts of the animal world. They blush blue when they go into heat, their urine smells lovely, they live on grass, they purr, and they sing like birds. And they have been designed to eschew the violence of Homo sapiens — they have no sexual jealousy, no hierarchy, and no modesty about their bodies.

But they are also creepy as hell. And as the lights dim on our species in the final pages of Oryx and Crake, they have been unleashed into the wild. The novel ends on a note of great uneasiness.

Spiritual Darwinism

That uneasiness slowly drains away in the sequels, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, which explore how a group of renegade environmentalists weather the pandemic. Flood, in fact, takes place during the events of Oryx — except it's set in the slums, among political subversives. Like Oryx and Crake, the Gardeners of Flood are disgusted by the gene-altering consumerism all around them. But their solution is to drop out, become urban farmers, and worship the natural world. Their spirituality is a weird combination of animism and Darwinism that mixes food politics with class warfare.

When the pandemic hits, the Gardeners are among the few people in the cities who can survive on their own. They know how to forage for food in the urban ecosystems, how to defend themselves, and how to live off the grid in times of deep trouble. Besides, their guru Adam One told them a flood was coming, and they've been preparing for the pandemic or something like it for years.

In a sense, The Year of the Flood is an extended worldbuilding exercise. We learn about the cultures and experiences that are left out of Oryx and Crake, and we see the pandemic from the perspective of its victim-survivors rather than its perpetrators.

Perhaps most importantly, Flood brings a spiritual perspective to the apocalypse trilogy that appeared only in fragments in Oryx. We follow protagonist Toby, one of the most passionate Gardeners, as she recites the beautiful, weird and whimsical prayers of the group — odes to evolution, to great naturalists, and to animals. We see how the scientific perspective on nature doesn't have to undermine our metaphysical attachment to it. Most of all, we meet characters who seem gritty and real compared to the demented cipher Crake.

The New Nature

Finally, in MaddAddam, we discover why the Gardener leader Adam One knew about the flood. He's the elusive MaddAddam, a biotech subversive who wanted to undermine the corporate power structure from within. He sends his brother Zeb undercover to one of the biotech corporations where he meets the brilliant young Crake, long before the events of Oryx unfold.

In a sense, Adam and Zeb are indirectly responsible for Crake's manufactured apocalypse. Adam has created the extinction game that Crake is later obsessed with. And during Zeb's undercover stint, another scientist-subversive gives him a pathogen that eventually becomes part of the pandemic mixture that brings down humanity.

In MaddAddam, we get closure on the apocalypse in two ways. First, we come to understand the activists like Adam One whose ideas inspired the mad science of Crake. Adam One has, perhaps inadvertently, created the underground community that eventually destroys the power structure that the Gardeners have fled. Second, we watch the first stirrings of a better world in the wake of the flood. If Oryx and Crake is about the apocalypse, then MaddAddam is about how the world recovers from disaster.

I hesitate to call MaddAddam post-apocalyptic, because Atwood's tale is a lot more sly than that. Certainly this is a novel about people living in the ruins of a dead world. But more importantly, it's about how every ending is also a rebirth. In this way, MaddAddam defies the conventions of many apocalypse novels, like The Road, which tend to focus on decay and chaos, rather than renewal. But MaddAddam also tweaks the Biblical story of apocalypse that's referenced in Adam's imagery of the flood. This flood, and the Utopia that comes after it, are emphatically the creation of science, not God.

What's most surprising about MaddAddam, if we circle back to Oryx and Crake, is its heartfelt acceptance of a GMO future. As Toby and the remaining Gardeners come to know the Crakers better, we realize that these post-humans may actually be a better version of Homo sapiens. We can't be sure, of course. Their eagerness to worship Crake as a god seems like a bad sign. But they seem to have a more peaceful relationship with nature, and with each other, than humans ever did. Though they seemed like creepy frankencreatures in Oryx, in MaddAddam they are gentle beings who want to "purr on" people who are injured, and who can communicate psychically with the GMO pigoons.

Social Change and Evolution

The thing that seemed most horrific in Oryx — the creation of transgenic animals — becomes a source of hope in MaddAddam. These GMO life forms are part of the new nature, and the Gardeners learn to respect them as part of the ecosystems that they revere. Indeed, MaddAddam ends with a kind of magical GMO paradise scenario, where the humans, Crakers, and pigoons forge an alliance to fight the last remaining members of a violent gang of rapists.

It turns out that GMOs are what will allow the planet, and fragments of the human genome, to survive this apocalypse. And the scuzz that the flood has washed away are the institutions that converted GMOs into commodities and animal-slaves. The problem wasn't the science, but what the corporate security complex did with it.

Atwood takes a kind of savage glee in destroying the world that Big Science made. But what's surprising in MaddAddam is what we find when she peels back the layers on her rage and lets us see the shape of her hope. That hope comes from a steadfast (and slightly snarky) belief in the power of evolution, and in social change. Even when the world is in tatters, life keeps evolving. And maybe, if we're lucky, the modifications we've made to nature will actually make things better in the end.