The Short Version: Ren, Toby, Snowman (Jimmy), the Crakers, and the remainder of the God’s Gardeners/MaddAddamites have gathered together in the post-Flood world – but the violent Painballers are still on the loose and while the Crakers learn the past story of Zeb & Adam, those in the present must lay the foundation for what will come next.
The Review: There comes a line early in this concluding chapter of Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic warning-disguised-as-popular-literature that tips off the reader to the long game Atwood has been playing here. The escape of the Painballers (let loose by the Crakers, who didn’t know any better) is described as letting malice back into the world – and the moment echoes any translation/adapation/version of the Pandora myth you’ve ever heard before. Atwood is, of course, no stranger to mythology and adaptation but here she is trying her hand at something different, something a little bolder: she is creating her own mythology, her own genesis story, for this hypothetical new world.
It’s a strange thing to realize, once you’re into the third book of a trilogy, that the story being told is actually not all that much of a forward-moving story. The present tense action from Oryx and Crake / The Year of the Flood (the post-apocalyptic parts of two taking place at roughly the same time, as far as I can tell) combined with the present tense action here moves us, what, a few weeks forward in time? A few months, all told, perhaps? Jimmy heads for the Paradice dome, Ren & Toby are reunited, the whole gang comes together, the final showdown – it’s not terribly long, at least it doesn’t seem like it. There is no long-term goal here, no sense of taking the long view of what civilization could become after the Flood; instead, we’re left with an idea of how things got to be this way and a glimmer of hope for what comes next. As we might see in any good myth.
And Atwood leans hard into the foundational-text angle, in this book. The stories being told about the past are not just being told to us, but they’re also being told to the Crakers – and so we get a short version of a story for the Crakers and then a much more in-depth story explaining what actually happened. We see how Toby and Zeb and even, at the end, Blackbeard change the story as necessary to fit the audience. As the latter begins to mature (Toby teaching him to write, worrying that she has ‘ruined’ everything going forward, is another marvelous moment to unpack regarding the cyclical nature of history / our need to mark things, to have order and tradition and to understand), we see how the Crakers are going to begin to become… not more human, that’s incorrect. Just as it would be incorrect to call a Craker-human baby either/or. This is the beginning of something new and we are left hoping that it will be better than what has come before.
The novel isn’t all about this transitional moment, though. We’re brought back in time once more, to follow Zeb – the Mad Adam – and Adam in their lives long before they were Gardeners. In fact, they were brothers (well, half-brothers) from the start and their collective story brings a uniquely personal understanding to the rest of the story that we’ve heard. In Oryx and Crake, we’re led to believe that Crake (Glenn) is maybe some sort of mad scientist, that he’s an evil genius of some kind, and in TYotF, the Gardeners look like some sort of serious and potentially creepy cult. But everything is far more ordinary: Glenn was just a smart, shy kid. The Gardeners were not quite a front but it was just a new step for both Adam and Zeb. It’s like getting to see Oppenheimer as a kid without knowing what he was going to do in the future.
The moments from the past are full of excitement, as they are full of humor and heart. Atwood’s world is vividly imagined, springing forth from a deep understanding of our present with an imagineer’s eye towards what our present could become. She points out at the end, in her acknowledgements, that nothing here is completely imaginary: if it doesn’t currently exist, it is at least theoretically possible if not already (in some way) in production. Which is both exciting and terrifying: the feral, staggeringly intelligent pigoons definitely ought to give pause (to anyone with paws – …sorry) while the Mo’Hairs are so adorable in my head that I just want one. Atwood seems to enjoy it too – you can feel, in the writing, that she is having fun, even when things get dark.
That said, there’s one flaw in this novel and that comes near the end (some SPOILERS here for those who haven’t yet read). It’s clear from early on in this book that a confrontation with the Painballers is coming, that it will be the reckoning and ultimate showdown of this trilogy. Yet when it comes, it is seen through the eyes of little Blackbeard, the Craker who Toby has been teaching to write. This moment of transition is important, of course – we see the shift from old to new, from the foundational storytellers to the next, new generation – but it comes at a moment that saps the ending of its catharsis. Jimmy’s death but perhaps more importantly Adam’s come without any ceremony, described as uncomprehendingly as they are by the Craker boy. I felt not unlike I did when reading the fifth Harry Potter and Sirius falls behind the curtain: I read on another page or two before realizing “wait, that person died?” and having to go back to re-read and wondering why that moment, a moment of such weight, was given such passing space on the page. I wanted more emotional connection to the losses, even as Atwood was forcing me (as a reader) to realize that those losses did not matter: in the future, they would be footnotes in this origin story that now had other focuses.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The ending’s tonal shift, although I was somewhat prepared for it, undercut the cumulative power of the trilogy and overall power of this book a little bit. And it did take a minute or two to adjust my expectations as I realized that this trilogy was not about building out of the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society but was, instead, the stories behind the foundational texts that would serve as religious/societal benchmarks for the new world that would come out of the ruins. With this in mind, it actually becomes a remarkably hopeful ending – something you don’t really expect out of your dystopia or your post-apocalyptic stories these days. Atwood is trying to remind us of the fundamental good inside humanity even as she warns us about the really terrible things we’re currently doing. How lovely – I hope, should everything go to hell, the rebuilding looks as hopeful as this does. (But I also hope that we sort our shit out before it ever gets this bad. Here’s hoping, anyway.)