Margaret Atwood frolics her way through “MaddAddam,’’ the third novel in her speculative trilogy, following “Oryx and Crake’’ and “The Year of the Flood.’’ Living in this post-pandemic world are Pigoons (pigs with human genes); Crakers (quasi-humans who turn blue during mating season); terrifying sub-human Painballers (former prisoners turned gladiators who lack empathy modules); dubious, sometimes dangerous, staff and clientele at the Scales and Tales Porn Club as well as a few sympathetic people struggling to survive. The novel is crammed with macabre, gruesome, touching, and funny scenes.
The MaddAddamites, led by Zeb, are dedicated to resisting the bioterrorism of the CorpSeCorps corporations, which have devastated most animal and plant life. Now the diminished, highly surveilled earth is a land of too much kudzu, bad coffee, and aggressive wolvogs.
Two great loves beat through “MaddAddam” — the romance between humans Zeb and Toby and Zeb’s ache to reunite with his brother, Adam. Temporarily sheltered at the MaddAddam cobb house, Toby and Zeb conspire to fend off the threatening Painballers with a small band of humans including Snowman-the-Jimmy, Ren, Lotus Blue, Swift Fox, Black Rhino, Shackelton, and Katuro. Also struggling to survive are the Pigoons and the singing, purring Crakers.
Atwood has imagined other worlds before — revising Homer’s “Odyssey’’ in “The Penelopiad,’’ exposing dystopian theocracy in “The Handmaid’s Tale,’’ but the book that most comes to mind is her 1970 “The Journals of Susanna Moodie,’’ a series of narrative poems showing how English Susanna Moodie moves from revulsion of 19th-century Canada to embracing her new homeland.
Zeb and Adam, raised by the corrupt, abusive Rev, leader of the Church of PetrOleum, escape their father by moving on to prodigy scientific careers. Each opposes the Corporations and with different kinds of activism. Both are in danger because of their resistance. At one point, we follow Zeb from Brazil to Northern Canada to San Francisco via new-fangled transport more mysterious than astral projection.
Toby, a quieter revolutionary, has spent much of her time growing healthy food and developing friendships in her eco-spiritual community called God’s Gardeners. What’s missing from her life is Zeb. When the couple finally get together, they are facing the threat of the Painballers.
It’s not surprising that Atwood, who grew up in a scientific family, has the technical acumen to imagine this lively, credible Après World. In her daily life, she marshals multiple technologies to promote her books. She’s posted a video trailer of “MaddAddam,’’ complete with actors, music, and narration, on her cutting-edge website. She personally invented “the long pen,” a remote autograph device that signs books for readers on an electric pad while Atwood chats with them via video link. Four hundred thousand people follow her on Twitter, and she has nearly 18,000 posts on her account. Her active Facebook page lists 82,244 likes. Lorraine York’s new book, “Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity,’’ describes how the author creates and maintains her own public profile with a sizable team of office assistants, publicists, and agents.
Atwood would fare well in the tech savvy land of God’s Gardeners, the MaddAddamites, and the Crakers. This unsentimental narrative exposes the heart of human creativity as well as our self-destructive darkness. As with much idea-driven fiction, the book is sometimes didactic and works better as cerebral exercise than as absorbing story. The self-consciously clever “MaddAddam’’ doesn’t offer much complex characterization, evocative setting, or deep insight, but the special effects are zippy. While I’ve always enjoyed Atwood’s earnestness, it’s fun to see her living through her first childhood in this playful romp through the near future.
“MaddAddam’’ is fueled with edgy humor, sardonic twists, hilarious coincidences, terrible puns, and the sophomoric, expletive-rich jokes of various male characters. Zeb, Toby, and the other refugees seek temporary sanctuary in the abandoned AnooYoo Spa. Toby finds the small luxuries startling after a series of rough havens. She discovers a whole shelf of toothpastes, “Cherry Blossom Organic, biodegradable with anti-plaque micro-organisms; and Kiss-in-the-dark Chromatic Sparkle Enhancer.” At bedtime she dons a “clean pink top-to-toe.” Prior to this, her main wardrobe has been a series of bed sheets.
The final bloody confrontation with the Painballers is blockbuster action-film stuff. The brutal assailants are captured. It’s hard to assign blame and retribution. “Three sessions in the once notorious Painball Arena have scraped all modifying labels away . . . bleached them of language. Triple Painball survivors have long been known to be not quite human.”
Yes, a few humans survive. We know this because Toby is a dedicated keeper of journals. Among her last legacies is the gift of literacy to a new generation, mostly interspecies beings, and to Blackbeard, a young Craker. It is to this blue-bottomed, quasi-human to whom the future — and the last words of the story — belong.
Valerie Miner’s 14th book, the novel “Traveling with Spirits,” appears in September from Livingston. She teaches at Stanford University, and her website is www.valerieminer.com.