Yes, OK, you’re right. This is a trilogy of books, not one Big Fat Book, but you try reading ten feet of books without cheating a little. Admittedly two posts in is a little early to cheat, but you’ll just have to deal with that in your own way because books this exceptional deserve to be spoken about, rules or no rules.
Weighing in at 1423 pages, these books all carry the back-cover tagline “Welcome to the outrageous imagination of Margaret Atwood” and completely deliver on what they promise. Quite how one human not only dreamed up this big, complex future but also tells us all about it so coherently and entertainingly really is an incredible achievement… Although I imagine Atwood would argue that she observed it rather than dreamed it up. Let’s get to it and I’ll explain what I mean:
Oryx and Crake
Pigs might not fly but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and racoons. A man, once named Jimmy, now calls himself Snowman and lives in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. And the green-eyed Children of Crake are, for some reason, his responsibility.
If you’re not intrigued by that blurb, get out of my blog. If you are intrigued however, I hope to stoke your curiosity by reminding you of this – Margaret Atwood is a supreme queen of mysterious storytelling. You are required, as an Atwood reader, to have complete faith in her and, in my experience, that always pays off when she answers not only all the questions you want answered, but even all the ones you forgot you had along the way. My faith in Atwood’s vision has not once been misplaced.
In this book, as in several others of hers, you spend a good chunk of it wondering what the merry hell is going on. We see the distant future, in which Jimmy is the last true human alive, and flashes back to the future (to us that is, it’s the past if you’re Jimmy) where corporation compounds have the monopoly on genius and where all scientific advances, good or bad, are for a price.
So something happened. There must have been an event, between this future – which is like looking at our own in a hall of mirrors; distorted in several ways but still ultimately recognisable – and the distant future when all humanity is gone with one exception. Atwood gives us just enough teasing clues to keep us going, and keeps them cryptic enough to keep us away from the answer until the moment she reveals it, resulting, for me at least, in a loud shouting of “What the -” followed by approximately seven swear words, three of which I didn’t know I even knew, and a need to put the book down and go for a walk to let everything sink in. There’s then another fifty or so pages dedicated to letting the horror settle and simultaneously setting up the next book.
Here’s the genius of this book – I’ve spent three paragraphs now talking just about the plot, but that’s not even half of what makes this book incredible. Here’s just two other things; the writing and the setting.
Firstly, the writing. It’s just beautiful throughout, as in this extract wherein Jimmy thinks on the poor security and lack of inspiration at his new university:
“The guards were half asleep, the walls – scrawled all over with faded graffiti – could have been scaled by a one-legged dwarf… Jimmy found the place depressing, as did – it seemed – anyone there with any more neural capacity than a tulip” – p218
The qualities, or lack thereof, of the place are made clear through a real indulgence of schadenfraude. We feel for Jimmy by laughing at him. I like that.
Secondly, the setting Atwood paints is terrifying, but all so very real. As explained in the acknowledgements, nothing in this book is not something that already exists, is being worked on or is theoretically possible with the technology we already possess. Supplementary reading for this book includes every book on every Contemporary Society module in every university that runs one – economics, GM, terrorism and just about every other area of study in how our modern world is killing itself is taken through to its logical conclusion here and it’s really not pleasant. Just to reiterate – humanity gets wiped out.
Oryx and Crake is a stunning novel full of concern, wit, and stunning insight. How can it get any better? Let’s find out.
Year of the Flood
The sun brightens in the east, reddening the blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean. The vultures roosting on the hydro poles fan out their wings to dry them. The air smells faintly of burning. The waterless flood – a man-made plague – has ended the world.
But two young women have survived: Ren, a young dancer trapped where she worked, in an upmarket sex club (the cleanest dirty girls in town); and Toby, who watches and waits form her rooftop garden. Is anyone else out there?
Welcome back book fans. Fortunately we came to Oryx and Crake late, which meant we didn’t have to wait six years for this, it’s much needed sequel. To recap, our society (yours and mine, right now) ran away with itself and that caused the destruction of the planet leaving Jimmy as the only person on Earth. You might be thinking, “well that wraps that up”, but Year of the Flood remind us from its very first page that we don’t know as much as we thought we did.
Toby and Ren are both introduced very fuzzy around the edges. We have yet another mystery to solve – who are they and how did they survive? Their pictures become clearer as the story develops, but it’s really difficult to see their relationship to Jimmy and the events described in the first book. At this stage I must remind you, faith placed in Margaret Atwood is always faith rewarded.
Year of the Flood takes place in parallel time with Oryx and Crake, so we’ve heard Jimmy’s backstory through flashbacks and now we’re hearing Toby’s and Ren’s the same way. They have to meet, that’s just the rules, but for the bulk of this book it really seems like they might not. The story told here is of the God’s Gardeners, a green religious cult who foresaw a world-ending event and prepared for it. It’s compelling enough to keep you going, but you do wonder why you bothered reading the other book first if that’s all this is going to be about. Then, about midway through the two completely separate vehicles suddenly pass so close to one another that the wing mirrors nearly come off. Then they both turn and take another run at it, colliding at the end head-on and merging into one enormous machine that Atwood was clearly in complete control of from day one. It’s astounding.
We also get some fleshing out of the worlds we thought we knew, for example the introduction of the televised Painball arena, where bad bad baddies are sent to fight it out until only one survives. It’s basically another Battle Royale/Hunger Games type concept, but with the added danger of the fact that all who enter it are hardened criminals. Some even become addicted to it and keep going back. This makes for some really, really scary veterans of the arena, who really know how to cause a scene, if I may wildly understate to avoid revealing too much.
The narrative is roughly alternately from Toby’s and then Ren’s perspective, but is also punctuated by sermons and hymns of the God’s Gardeners. I must say that the latter of these are the only part of the entire trilogy I found mildly unexciting, although at times nicely humourous and, combined with the sermons, excellent at giving us a clear understanding of Gardener belief, which is quite impressive really as this book was a much shorter and easier read than most religious texts I’ve read and I still didn’t have a full understanding of most of them when I’d finished.
It becomes difficult to go into much more depth on Year of the Flood without spoiling anything as it’s really the glue that holds the trilogy together, but I will say this: Atwood’s mirror to contemporary society knows no bounds. There was one point at which I was idly chewing my nails whilst reading, and then the next sentence said, “Jimmy had become a bad habit with me, like biting your nails”… How did she know?!
Another storming book in the series, providing mystery when we thought there was none left and leaving the central plot completely three dimensional.
Toby, a survivor of the man-made plague that has swept the earth, is telling stories. Stories left over from the old world, and stories that will determine a new one. Listening hard is young Blackbeard, one of the innocent Crakers, the species designed to replace humanity. Their reluctant prophet, Jimmy-the-Snowman, is in a coma, so they’ve chosen a new hero – Zeb, the street-smart man Toby loves. As clever pigoons attack their fragile garden and malevolent Painballers scheme, the small band of survivors will need more than stories.
Maddaddam is different. There is no mystery. Twice we have had to put our faith in Atwood solving all of our curiosities, now she takes all the answers she’s given us and runs with them. We do have the remaining loose ends tied by Zeb though, who tells us the story of his life, and in doing so becomes elevated to superhero status and provides with some killer insight into absolutely everything you could have hoped to have more detail on.
This book took me the longest to read because I just didn’t want it to end. Because of the way the first two are structured you feel like you know the characters first and then, at the last moment, understand them. Now that I understood, I wanted to spend some time with them, but knew that once this was over our time was up. It’s also largely a story about stories, and I’m a sucker for that, so really took my time over it.
It’s also a meditation on the value of naivety but the contradictory importance of understanding. You never can quite tell whether the Crakers are being set on a good path by the humans, with a knowledge of what’s happened before and a certain amount of mythology to help them grasp it, or whether they’re just being set to repeat the same mistakes humankind made.
The story culminates, on a human level, in a battle between good and evil and it’s told in such a way that makes it impossible not to weep due to an utterly excellent narrative decision that tells it in a way I really didn’t expect. But that’s not the ending. The ending is the new society finding its voice, finding its power and establishing itself. Will it succeed? There’s no way of knowing, but I certainly do hope so.
The Maddaddam trilogy has a lot to say about our society and the state of it, and the real genius is bundling that all up in a plot so beautiful, flowing and compelling that you just have to keep reading. I really cannot recommend these books enough. There is so much wisdom and still so much humour (especially in the final book) that they’re impossible not to adore. If you care about the future of our society and our planet, read these books and they’ll keep you thinking for weeks. An incredible achievement from a breathtaking author. I really wish I could have put more into this blog but the plot is such a driving force and so full of twists, turns and revelations that to do so would compromise your reading. Please pick these books up and see for yourself the astounding worlds Atwood is capable of imagining.
The only downside to these books was that they’ve cost me some money. I bough some multi-vitamins before I read Oryx and Crake and now I just can’t look at them the same way.
After the plague came the days of the dreams.
Dark dreams that warned of the coming of the dark man. The apostate of death, his worn-down boot heels tramping the night roads. The warlord of the charnel house and Prince of Evil.
His time is at hand. His empire grows in the west and the Apocalypse looms.
If Stephen King had a penny for every time his name has been preceded by the phrase “prolific author” he’d be a rich man, but he doesn’t need that money because he’s already rich due to the literally thousands of books he’s written. Literally.
One of those is the Big Fat Book It, at a stunning 1138 pages. But I haven’t read that. So for now let’s talk about The Stand, which comes in at a highly intimidating 1325 pages.
It starts with all that you want from King in its accessibility and intriguing story line. It’s also all you want from a Big Fat Book, the author relishing the opportunity to make their work deeper, more thorough and and completely immersive.
We’re introduced to several characters who don’t last long before they start coughing their guts up and a handful who are quite clearly going to be with us for the next thousand pages (this is made apparent by their, unusually, not coughing their guts up). Basically everyone dies of crazy weapons-grade flu, except not everyone because that would make a lame book, and the survivors bumble around not knowing what to do or how to find other survivors. They eventually do find each other, usually through dreams drawing them together, and it emerges that there’s a very clear Nice group of people on one side of the Rockies and a very clear Nasty group of people on the other and they’re both very aware of each others existence and how that really, really irks/terrifies them, depending on which side we’re talking about.
That’s obviously really simplistic. It’s a 1325 page book and I’ve put most of them into 125 words (about 750 characters to Twitter fans). The point is, if you’re a Stephen King fan, a description that simple for this mammoth novel is sure to get you more excited than a pre-teen girl riding the world’s prettiest pony to a One Direction concert. He really excels when he gets to take a basic story and pump it full of suspense, and this book is so good at that: you feel safe when your favourite characters are safe and you get a belly-churning sense of foreboding when uncertainty and doubt rear their ugly heads. Dream sequences about the Dark Man can genuinely, in some places, leave you short of breath. Mother Abagail has you feeling looked after and cosy. It really is a stunning use of the extra page count.
Until the ending.
It’s difficult to complain about the ending without revealing it, so here’s my best attempt: I get what it was trying to do – in a smaller book I might have loved it – but after 1300 pages I wanted more than… well, a punchline. I feel bad saying that because half of me thinks it was clever and interesting but the other part of me says “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I’VE BEEN CONDITIONED TO EXPECT”. For me, I think even that dissonance – as ashamed of myself as it makes me – is enough to make me feel conflicted on the book as a whole.
So my view – if you’re interested – is this:
For 1200 pages, this is the perfect Big Fat Book. It takes what the author’s great at and expands it to a scale that makes it resonate on a much deeper level with the reader. It spans America in its vastness, it includes fully fleshed out characters from every part of society, it makes a basic concept big and powerful. It fills you with dread. Then in the last 150 pages you find yourself saying “Oh, OK then”. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for me, subjectively, it took the edge off a stunning behemoth of suspense by not giving it quite enough pay off. Definitely worth reading, just make sure you’re in it for the epic journey, not the closure that never quite makes it to the party.