Madaddam, by Margaret Atwood (2013)

I admit to feeling a certain trepidation when Atwood announced, shortly after the publication of Oryx and Crake, that this was her first series and that she would publish two further books taking place in that same universe with the same characters. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but honestly I worried that Atwood, who was 64 at the time, wouldn’t survive to write all three, and that we loyal fans would be stuck with a truly impassable cliffhanger. Happily, Atwood survived my pessimism, and not only lived to publish the final book of her trilogy earlier this year but went on the road with a book tour that stopped in Montreal a few weeks ago, where I had a chance to see just how hale and hearty one of my all-time favourite authors remains. I look forward to much more writing by her, as she mentioned that whereas in her youth she typically had about three projects on the go, of which she would generally only publish one, these days she has five projects in progress, of which about three should see the light of day. I’d be happy to have that mental energy now, let alone when I reach her age.

Back to this latest book: if you’ve read the earlier books in this series, you need no convincing to pick up this one, so I’ll restrict myself to describing the series in general for anyone who has yet to read it. Despite being typecast outside of Canada as a science fiction author, until this series none of her 30-odd books had been genre fiction except The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which for reasons I’ve never understood remains her best known work. The Madaddam trilogy seems to be classified as “science fiction” by everyone but its author, the latter mostly on the grounds that it contains no “tentacled space monsters”, but rather a near future dystopia built strictly using existing technology, with the only creative licence taken being that things that worked once in the lab are now presumed to be commercially viable and in everyday use. And if you were to call her on, say, the glow in the dark flowers, she would point you at the extensive blog she kept while working on this project to track the latest developments in genetics research and other scientific fields and which contains examples of all the key technological innovations she cites. But we’re in a dystopia, so these new marvels have mostly been used for evil (this, of course, hardly being a stretch). In this future, the division between patricians living in walled corporate-sponsored city-states and plebeians who are fully exposed to the consequences of years of environmental degradation and a complete breakdown of the welfare state. These are not new predictions (for example, there are similar suburban enclaves in Neil Stevenson’s Snowcrash (1992)) but they’re getting closer to coming true and so the forward-looking author can now see them more clearly. Not to give away the plot, but all of this leads to a collapse of late-stage capitalism that’s been predicted as far back as Marx, and we’re left with a ragtag gang of accidental survivors trying to keep it together in a genetically modified world. Frankly, it’s the kind of plot I would have expected a younger author to come up with, except that they wouldn’t have been able to bring the full weight of Atwood’s experience and skill to its execution. She remains witty and insightful, with a keen eye for human nature and its failings, even in the middle of an action-packed caper whose moral is that human civilization as we know it is likely doomed unless something major changes very soon. Which plenty of other people have said, but they usually don’t make you laugh out loud as they do so.