Saturday, September 28, 2013

Margaret Atwood's Brave New World

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

Browse through Flipboard, the tablet and mobile-based social media aggregator, and you’ll come across a section entitled ‘Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam’s World’. This contains “the science, the nature, the gardening, the tech, the outfits” and provides links to articles on the science of storytelling, the progress of genetic engineering, lab-grown food and the ethics and consequences of mixing animal and human DNA, among others. All of these are present in Atwood’s new novel and as such it’s the perfect introduction to the book as well as companion piece for those entranced by it. It’s also a reminder that Maddaddam isn’t science fiction, as the digitally-savvy 73-year-old author has taken pains to point out, but speculative fiction: “it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”.

The finale of the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood, Madaddam contains most of the central characters of the earlier two books and is set in the same post-apocalyptic world. It certainly helps if you’ve read the first two, but just in case you haven’t, Maddaddam’s opening pages provide a synopsis. Most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus (“the Waterless Flood”) engineered and unleashed by a scientist disappointed by the world’s corporatised, consumerist ways. Survivors wander over a new earth, finding ways to thrive and food to eat, mingling with genetically engineered species – some naïve and childlike (the Crakers), others vicious and brutal (the Painballers).

Maddaddam primarily concerns itself with two characters: the first, Toby, from the “pleeblands”, the plebian hinterland, who has taken refuge in a compound along with other survivors where they mull over their past and future, occasionally praying to new saints (one of them being “Saint Vandana Shiva of Seeds”). The second strand involves the travels of Zeb, brother of AdamOne, who created the environmental community known as God’s Gardeners which Toby was a part of. The events of Toby’s life take the saga forward, while tales of Zeb’s chequered past provide the backstory, both of which meet and then culminate in a final showdown.

The regenerative power of storytelling is one of the themes of Maddaddam, and appropriately enough, the novel is structured around stories: those that Toby narrates to the Crakers, those that Zeb narrates to Toby and ultimately, those that one of the Crakers starts to tell. At times, though, these criss-crossing threads can make Maddaddam somewhat bewildering; in a world where things have fallen apart it's perhaps fitting that the novel's centre doesn't always hold. (Ironically enough, this is again similar to the experience of flicking through Flipboard, with its loosely-themed sections.) As such, it is less compelling than her other dystopian novel, the classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which gained so much of its impact from the focus on the subjugation of women.

What’s evident thoughout Maddaddam, however, is that Atwood is enjoying herself greatly, and that this is a world which is fully-fleshed out in her imagination and on the page. She employs different registers in her telling: to begin with, there is much that is satirical and parodic, with fingerprint detectors called Fickle Fingers of Fake, the AnooYoo Spa, BlyssPlus Pills and even a magician who calls himself Slaight of Hand (after Canadian media baron Allan Slaight) who names his assistant Miss Direction. At other times, there’s a William Gibson-like technocalyptic tinge to the prose, such as when Atwood describes Zeb’s antics as a cyber-hustler in Rio. All of this is interspersed with passages that are haunting, such as when Toby muses on the fates of those no longer present: “The dead bodies evaporating like slow smoke; their loved and carefully tended homes crumbling away like deserted anthills. Their bones reverting to calcium; night predators hunting their dispersed flesh, transformed into grasshoppers and mice.”

In an earlier essay on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood had written that it was a world “of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality, of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration, of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work, and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.” Maddaddam has many if not all of the same elements, yet it is utterly original in the way that Atwood transforms the details and creates new ones to resonate with the way we live and think of science and society today.

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