Saturday, January 25, 2014

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam Series

The MaddAddam trilogy of books by Margaret Atwood was an absorbing, painful read (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam). The stories are critical of privatization of essential services like police and schools, the problem of making the biological stuff of life into intellectual property in a capitalist economy, and creeping corporatism in general.

Though the first book, Oryx and Crake, was clearly not written with sequels in mind, leaving her timelines throughout the trilogy a bit wonky, the biggest problem I see with the books is Atwood's unconscious bending to dominant tropes of race and gender.

For instance, the two black characters with the largest roles in the stories are both sidekicks. The woman character, Rebecca, is (not kidding) the cook for her fellow ecoactivists and later post-apocalyptic survivors. The man is a little-described, almost silent Ving Rhames type whose extinct animal nickname is Black Rhino (again, not kidding). Come on, Margaret!

Oryx — whom I assume is an Asian woman though it's never explicitly said (and the paperback cover designer seems unaware of this likelihood) — is an admirable character in many ways. She plays a very important role in the first book and often challenges assumptions Western white feminists make about coercion and empowerment. But because we see her only through Jimmy's eyes, it's hard not to feel an edge of orientalism and exoticization.

Despite these problems, you'd think Atwood could manage some great white female characters, though, right? Well, yes and no. Toby is one of the most important characters in the trilogy, possibly the most important one. She's admirable and strong, but she doubts herself constantly. That's real, of course, and I love Toby. She's a great character. A reasonable woman in an unreasonable situation.

Yet many of her male counterparts are superheroes. Crake is a mental superhero; Adam One is a moral and spiritual one; while Zeb is a super hacker and fixer.

Of the major male characters, only Jimmy is normal and accessible to the reader, and he's almost a fool in the classical sense.

I don't have a great analysis of the books to share, just a sense of unease at what Atwood's characters may reveal about the way she has internalized stereotypes.

Here's another blogger's more complete review of the series.

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