Dystopias can be optimistic. I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, and came away from it strangely at peace. The third of its eponymous trilogy, the story takes place in a future that is simply a continuation of where we are at the moment. Things have gotten pretty bad—most of humanity has been wiped out, genetic engineering has taken dreadful liberties with creatures human and non, and corporations have fulfilled their dreams and have taken over at last. The few good people left are tormented by those society has made into sociopaths. Global warming has proven the naysayers false, and yet, despite all this, there is room for hope. Tying together the various strands from the previous two books, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is probably the most eco-conscious trilogy on the planet.
Apart from the many obvious biblical allusions (I often wonder what it must be like to miss so much, for want of familiarity with holy writ), the book also introduces a fully functional faux church. Atwood can be at her best when taking on the charlatans of piety. Cynical and calculating, “the Rev,” father of two of the ensemble cast, is everything a televangelist is, and more. Indulging in all that he denies his flock, even Elmer Gantry would have trouble keeping up. The Church of PetrOleum represents the most damaging of industries in a world already suffering the consequences of the greenhouse effect. Corporations make it rich while the Rev takes out his personal issues on his wives and children. Instead of being on the side of paradise, the church introduces chaos.
Through the gloomy scenario she’s foreseen, Atwood is able to see glimmers of a future that has possibilities. The protagonists are the members of a commune of a green religion, earth-centered and bearing a resemblance to both Wicca and monastic Christianity. That spiritual tradition, an offshoot of more established churches, is seen as dangerous by the corporations. And with good reason. Despite what televangelists tell us, spiritual truth is not on the side of big business. Jesus was no trickle-down economist. Reagan was no messiah. Corporate greed leads to blocking laws to clean up our world. We do not have control over what geneticists are doing, and, in fact, most of us have no idea what we’re eating or wearing any longer. Or what it is they’re packaging our food in. We are the consumers. Taught always to consume more. And the more that we are told to consume is the very planet that gave us life. My hat is off to Atwood, who still seems some possible cause for hope.