This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog
Popular author Margaret Atwood called climate change the â€œeverything change.â€ Atwoodâ€™s novels are generally about the human experience, at times notably the femaleâ€™s, but she also writes about thisÂ everything change.Â Her genre-busting books range from literary to speculative. Global warming occurs prominently in Atwoodâ€™s MaddAddam trilogy (which she calls â€œspeculative fictionâ€) â€“Â Oryx and CrakeÂ (2003),Â The Year of the FloodÂ (2009), andÂ MaddAddamÂ (2013) â€“ which describe a post-apocalyptic Earth set in the near future.1
I think itâ€™s interesting that, like Jeff VanderMeer, discussed earlierÂ of this series, Atwood has many close relatives who are scientists. This certainly must have inspired her imagination when bringing the natural world into the intricate human environments about which she writes.
At the beginning of the trilogy, inÂ Oryx and Crake, the reader can tell by the descriptions of the world that global warming is taking place due to rising seas, harshly pounding large waves, incredible heat, and so on. In a holistic way, it is not surprising that the world Atwood created in this trilogy reflects one of corporate greed, dystopian values, genetic cloning, and other human manipulations of nature â€“ a mirror of the world we made ourselves, most particularly where we could be heading. The MaddAddam trilogy, according toÂ Quill and Quire:Â 2
Itâ€™s a story about The End of Civilization As We Know It, but the event is coming up very soon â€“ around the year 2050, it seems, from the hints Atwood provides. Thatâ€™s close enough to the present for us to be able to recognize the seeds of catastrophe in our morning newspaper. Environmental degradation, global warming, and the resultant floods up the East Coast (Harvard has drowned) provide the backdrop, but the central action involves our most disturbing current headlines: cloning and genetic manipulation, toxic microbes and viruses, and a culture that has handed all the important decisions over to the â€œnumbers people.â€
The second book in the trilogy,Â The Year of the Flood,Â came six years afterÂ Oryx and Crake. Rather than being a true sequel, it is a retelling of the first part of the trilogy from the perspective of two new characters. Using flashbacks and fleshing out the original mythology and narrative,Â Year of the Flood,Â like I noted in the Jeff VanderMeer piece in this series, also reminded me â€“ at least in structure somewhat â€“ of the television show â€œLost,â€ which filled in blanks later with new perspectives. Again, in the third part of the trilogy,Â MaddAddam,Â Atwood retells the story and builds it with the underlying idea of a â€œfresh startâ€. According toÂ LitReactor:3
Even though Atwood gives us a new beginning in each of these novels, it is not untilÂ Maddaddam [sic], the final installment of the trilogy, that she truly explores the theme of starting over. And even then, she poses the questions but doesnâ€™t give the answers. Questions about creation, the infallibility of â€œGod,â€ and the evolution of religion. She does this once again by flashing to the charactersâ€™ pasts, focusing on backstory to expand the worldâ€™s mythology even further. At this point, the narratives ofÂ Oryx and CrakeÂ andÂ The Year of the FloodÂ have converged. Jimmy and the Maddaddamites (the survivors introduced inÂ The Year of the Flood) are united in the day to day struggles of dystopian life. The Crakers, however, those Adam and Eveâ€™s of the new world, are more preoccupied with where they came from than where they are going (much like Atwood) and demand nightly stories of life before â€œthe Great Rearrangement.â€ These remnants of the old world, knowledge of good and evil, taint the Crakersâ€™ so-called fresh start.
â€œLostâ€ offered, indeed, one of my favorite mythologies ever, so I am very keen to the idea that in storytelling we can deepen the story by bringing in new characters and new truths later that examine the initial story. New perspectives give a sort of humanities type of peer review and offer the reader a fuller and clearer look into the world being created by the author â€“ often reflecting upon our own world and speculating on what may happen if we continue going at our current rate. I like the â€œLostâ€ quotes below, where two of the oldest people on the island (therefore hopefully the keys for the audience to understand the cosmology and existence of the island) are talking about why characters are brought to the island.
MAN IN BLACK: I donâ€™t have to ask.Â YouÂ brought them here. Still trying to prove me wrong, arenâ€™t you?
JACOB:Â You are wrong.
MAN IN BLACK: Am I? They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.
JACOB:Â It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.
The final line above has some similarities to what happens in our world with climate change. â€œWhat happens next?â€ Thatâ€™s what readers wanted to know from Margaret Atwood afterÂ Oryx and Crake.Â Well, in fact, the world only ends once. Anything that happens before is just progress. And we can look at this progress through different lenses, but I think Atwoodâ€™s treatment of climate change â€“ or rather, everything change â€“ is particularly clever.
Note that Atwood has included environmental themes in many of her books â€“ itâ€™s part of our human condition, after all. And global warming is not some tiny object within fiction that we can hold in our hands â€“ rather it is indeed everything change, with up- and down-stream effects, many of which Atwood has explored in fiction, poetry, and even the graphic novel, whether about overpopulation, environmental degradation, or an assortment of issues that generally play into the reasons behind why our world is warming. And, for sure, those reasons have to do with the human species.
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1. Kirkus Reviews. â€œGenre and Margaret Atwood,â€ by Andrew Liptak. August 4, 2015.
2. Quill and Quire. â€œOryx and Crake,â€ by Bronwyn Drainie. 2003.
3. LitReactor. â€œStarting from Scratch: Margaret Atwoodâ€™s MaddAdamm Trilogy,â€ by Joshua Chaplinsky. September 3, 2013.
This article was originally published on Eco-Fiction.comÂ on October 9, 2016. It is part of ourÂ Wild Authors series.
(Photo by Liam Sharp.)
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Eco-Fiction.com and Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.