Margaret Atwood does not know it — and she would in all likelihood reject the role if offered, due to its genre taint — but through her public pronouncements on the true nature of her recent speculative novels, she has become the most famous exponent of a smallish subcategory of science fiction known as “Mundane SF,” whose avowed leader is Geoff Ryman, author of such masterpieces as Was (1992) and Air (2005) — a talented, warmhearted, and generous fellow surely willing to share leadership duties with Ms. Atwood if politely asked.
The movement is similar in spirit to the Dogma 95 group of moviemakers. The Mundanes are determined to strip science fiction of its more adolescent and improbable tropes, however entertaining: galactic empires, aliens, time travel and the like. In short, all those “special effects” or “power chords” metonomized by Atwood’s infamous and subsequently derided soundbite, “talking squids in outer space.” The Mundanes focus their vision on near-future, Earth-bound scenarios. Their goal is to produce literary science fiction with a high degree of verisimilitude, naturalism and problem-solving themes.
In this regard, Mundane SF often comes within kissing distance of cyberpunk-or at least certain flavors of cyberpunk. For instance, Bruce Sterling’s newest novel, The Caryatids, comfortably wears either mantle. But whereas the big tent of cyberpunk can comfortably accommodate such gonzo writers as Rudy Rucker, and can ingeniously handle all the traditional tropes of SF, the Mundane variety blanches at SF’s wild-eyed, “immature” excess.
It makes sense, then, that when most prestigious and critically respectable fiction writers from outside the genre attempt a science fiction novel, starting way back with Orwell and Huxley, they instinctively limit themselves to Mundane territory. Martin Amis, Paul Theroux, Cormac McCarthy, James Howard Kunstler, et al. Doris Lessing, of course, is the prime exception to this pattern, with her Canopus in Argos series inhabiting some of the more far-out intellectual and conceptual frontiers.
But luckily for its practitioners and readers, the remit and scope of Mundane SF is larger than one might think at first glimpse.
Start with the bizarre foundation of our contemporary condition. As a baseline for speculative efforts, we inhabit an era that would by the lights of the recent past be a nigh-incomprehensible sociological, cultural and technological version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Add in several conceptually unsettling and potentially destabilizing R&D programs currently being funded by large corporations and governments; a host of environmental, political, and global financial factors; as well as shifting notions of civic and personal responsibilities, and a writer can come up with quite plausible scenarios that adhere to the strictures of Mundane SF, yet still read as absurd or surreal. When that same writer also has a good working knowledge of the genre toolkit employed to build futures and used to incorporate speculations smoothly into the narrative flow, one can achieve a novel that is Mundane on the surface, but exotic at heart.
Such was Margaret Atwood’s accomplishment in Oryx and Crake (2003). A postapocalyptic scenario of some sophistication was supplemented by a backstory that itself occupied a day-after-tomorrow landscape, piling high the extravagant yet totally plausible weirdnesses.
An unstoppable human-specific plague manufactured by Aspergerian genius Crake has put paid to Homo sapiens as a species. In fact, our narrator, Jimmy, a.k.a. Snowman, might very well be the last human on the planet, as far as he or the reader knows. Oryx, a waifish Asian woman and the third point of their love triangle, certainly did not survive, nor did Crake himself.
Post-disaster, Jimmy lives as a Conradian Kurtz-like figure surrounded by mankind’s heirs, the children of Crake. Immune from the plague, these genetically modified humans are also exempt from lust and violence, playful vegetarians all. Childlike in a new Eden, they live like natives in a Gauguin canvas, surrounded by equally outre lab-bred flora and fauna, as the damaged globe enters a new, posthuman phase.
Atwood’s future history revels in a bracingly caustic, Swiftian misanthropy, full of wry black humor. At once stately and sprightly, Oryx and Crake is primarily a Robinsonade, with Jimmy cast adrift on the shores of an alien future, musing on the events that led to his stranding. (At one point, he even encounters enigmatic footprints on a beach.) Showing thematic and stylistic kinship with such genre standouts as Brian Stableford, Kit Reed, Kathleen Ann Goonan, J. G. Ballard, James Tiptree and Richard Calder, Atwood glories in her social satire, biopunk fecundity, and millenarian fire-breathing.
What seemed a standalone tale is now revealed, with the publication of The Year of the Flood, to be only the first book in the MaddAddam Trilogy. In the new volume, Atwood does not really extend her future but chooses to exfoliate it laterally, supplementing Jimmy’s and the reader’s necessarily limited and idiosyncratic understanding of the manmade apocalypse with other viewpoints.
Jimmy and Crake were members of the elite; with Oryx, after a childhood of poverty and slavery, joining the men in a life of privilege. They saw their civilization and its apocalypse from above. Our new characters survey it from lower strata. They are generally all outcasts and pariahs belonging to a cult called God’s Gardeners.
Begun as a low-tech, low-carbon-footprint, recycle-minded commune (its dead members are composted), and led by laidback messiah Adam One, God’s Gardeners are intent on surviving honorably until the Waterless Flood, a vaguely-omened disaster which, unknown to them, Crake is busy contemplating and engineering. But when they evolve into hackers and monkey-wrenchers of the system, their ambiance takes on a more sinister, ethically dubious feel.
Atwood’s mordant portrait of their jackdaw mythology (delivered in intermittent preachings from Adam One) and of their humiliatingly crusty lifestyle, are as unsparing as her previous condemnation of the elite. Although the motives of the Gardeners might be, in some sense, nobler and purer, the results for the average member are equal lashings of subservience, despair, tribulations and frustration.
Our three main protagonists are all Gardener women. Toby, an abused fast-food worker turned herbalist; and Ren and Amanda, still children at the outset. Ren will grow up to become a Scaly, an epidermally enhanced stripper, while Amanda becomes a conceptual artist favoring such projects as arranging tons of cow bones to spell out monitory messages. All three women survive the holocaust, and at novel’s end their fates have dovetailed neatly with Jimmy’s.
Atwood’s language remains as juicy and colorful as ever, with fresh neologisms such as “liobam” (lion-lamb splices) and jazzy slang (“to plank” is to have sex). She draws fine portraits of her cast and puts them through Barbara Ehrenreich-ish situations illustrative of underclass suffering without rendering them merely symbolical. The life stories of Ren and Amanda as they leave childhood behind for adolescence function almost as a YA novel within the larger framework.
The book is burdened a bit with its recapitulation — albeit from a different angle — of matters already revealed. Additionally, the absence of the charming and intriguing Eloi known as the Children of Crake is felt. They lent a vibe reminiscent of John Crowley’s 1979 Engine Summer to the earlier book.
The second book’s main achievement is its satirical depiction of God’s Gardeners as unwitting co-conspirators in the downfall of civilization. Their Voltairean stance of cultivating their individual gardens while abdicating from engagement with the broader establishment can be seen as self-defeating and contributory in its own way to the collapse. Admonitions for contemporary Greens are obvious.
Although limiting herself to an Earth-bound set of fiction-building parameters, Atwood still allows her imagination to roam rudely, widely, and vigorously where lesser minds fear to tread. The third book in this series will undoubtedly reveal aspects of her infernal paradise that will prove anything but mundane.