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Keith Miller

Apocalypse 3.0

By Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 416pp 18.99)
Atwood: experimental

All life may not be a matter of taste; but issues of taste loom large if you're concocting a narrative about the end of the world. In the prints of Piranesi, the paintings of John Martin, certain architectural drawings rumoured to have been made to the designs of Albert Speer sixty years ago and, more recently (and with surprisingly little alteration), the big-budget Hollywood apocalypto-blockbuster, the effect striven for has generally tended towards a kind of diseased monumentality: the clapped-out sublime. Kicked-in cupolas, ivy-girt collieries, eroded inscriptions in choked cemeteries - all remind us of what was, even as they caution us against vanity; all the while looking, if not quite beautiful, then ruggedly handsome. If occasional essays in the genre have tended more towards the abstract, there is still some parity of affect - in its clenched asperity, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is itself a kind of magnificent ruin in prose.

Margaret Atwood's trilogy, which began with Oryx and Crake in 2003, continued with The Year of the Flood in 2009 and concludes with this book, is different. She's not big on the sense of place. Indeed the chain of catastrophes - environmental, economic, epidemiological - that has beset the planet in her conception has had the effect of more or less destroying the idea of place altogether, muddling things up to the point where the survivors seem sometimes less like Aeneas fleeing Troy than the protagonists of Toy Story 3 scrabbling to escape their landfill site. There's a casual reference early in Maddaddam to the skyscrapers being all gone, so we know not to expect a Planet of the Apes moment; but there's also a kind of truthful banality about the survivors' predicament, turning old bedsheets into sarongs, looting derelict pharmacies for tampons, tending wounds without the benefit of medicine (maggots feature strongly).

In their efforts to stay alive, they first man the stockade against, then form an alliance with, the 'pigoons' - pigs with human DNA spliced into them for the purpose of organ donation, by no means the most repulsive genetic alteration carried out by scientists in the years leading up to the plague recorded in The Year of the Flood. They fear the return of a pair of cannibalistic rapists, last seen scuttling off at the end of that book (it's a sort of Mad Max cast - the Aussie movie franchise is closer in spirit to Atwood's trilogy, in its keen interest in petrochemicals and its grim humour apart from all else, than many higher-minded narratives). Of an evening the survivors tell their back stories to a convenient audience of Crakers, another bunch of mutants, humanoid (if you discount the distended blue genitalia and phosphorescent eyes), childlike and disease-resistant. They were engineered by the long-gone Crake (whom they worship - wrongheadedly, as you'll know if you have read Oryx and Crake - as a god) to be without such troublesome attributes as sexual desire (they mate promiscuously and affectlessly when the females are in oestrus) and an understanding of metaphor. It is with the 'fall' of the Crakers, their slow assimilation of human aptitudes for love and myth, that this third instalment concludes. The mad Adam of the title is, like the apocalypse, somewhat overdetermined: a sinister online eminence and co-conspirator of Crake in his dastardly plan to 'reboot' the world; the founder of an eco-cult (there are lots of cults in these stories); and, seemingly, the enigmatic sibling of Zeb, a charismatic extra in the previous book and one of the main protagonists of this one.

There is no getting away from the fact that this is exactly the sort of thing we mean when we talk about genre fiction. There are various conventions or crutches on the levels of plot and characterisation, and a sort of strained sassiness in the language, which one instantly recognises from science fiction (a term Atwood rejects) and thrillers of the Carl Hiaasen sort. Atwood in particular has a slightly excessive fondness for satirical brand names (AnooYoo, BlyssPluss, CryoJeenyus), and a somewhat abusive relationship with her caps lock key - in this, and in certain other things, it's possible to read this trilogy as nothing so much as a representation of what America looks like to a Canadian. But what the reader of this stuff hopes for is not the purification of the dialect of the tribe, but rather contact with a high intelligence - and it's here that Atwood more than earns her advance.

While it can't really be gainsaid that she gives us stock characters (the feisty but self-doubting heroine, the all-action hero with a troubled past and commitment issues) and situations (at times we could be in a Western, mutatis mutandis), she is perpetually alive to the ambiguities and contradictions unearthed by those situations and characters. She is pretty solid on the science, so far as one can tell. In an afterword she declares that nothing depicted in the books isn't happening now or couldn't happen soon; she has fitted Maddaddam with a few extra Zeitgeist-ticklers such as drones, social media and fracking. The survivors have a strongly Darwinist world-view, as perhaps you'd expect (though surely the chaotic interplay of advanced science and late capitalism wasn't something our DNA selected for). But this creates an interesting narrative irony: a purely deterministic world not only robs its inhabitants of certain freedoms and responsibilities; it also, implicitly, binds the hands of the author creating it. Maybe that's just another facet to the conventions of genre noted above.

Margaret Atwood also has the really fine writer's light-footed ability to keep dancing around her characters, now speaking through them, now distancing herself, an eyebrow raised in apparent surprise or (less often) disappointment. And she certainly isn't missing the necessary splinter of ice: characters we have been asked to learn to love are subjected to terrible mutilations or culled from the story in a summary and offhand way, like all those vanished skyscrapers.

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Keith Miller works for the Daily Telegraph.

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