It must be fun to end the world. So many authors do it.
There’s a giddy thrill that comes through in just about every book that does that and that’s likely the only commonality between them; the desire of the author to play with an entropic collapse. No one who has ever read The Stand will tell you that the latter part of the book is better than Captain Trips wreaking havoc on the landscape. Max Brooks wrote an apocalyptic scenario in World War Z that humanity ultimately survives, but the image I’ll always remember is of the rollerblading zombie fighter getting dragged down a manhole.
When it comes to dystopias, getting there is way more than half the fun.
Margaret Atwood’s recent trilogy of books Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are no exception to this rule. They have been out for a while now, so I’m not terribly worried about spoilers. If you are, you should probably go to the library and read the books or, better yet, buy them.
Around the new year, I had the good fortune to read two dystopian novels back to back: MaddAddam and Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep.
I’ve noticed that while people laud the works of prominent science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, they’re better idea men than they are writers. They’re frequently ham handed in attempting to get their ideas across. When you get a better writer doing science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Neal Stephenson, they revel in describing the details of the world they create. Margaret Atwood fits squarely into the latter camp allowing ironies of human self-destruction to play out around the characters rather than using the characters as an excuse for the ideas.
There are similarities between MaddAddam and Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep and they have mostly to do with empathy as a religious concept.
In Dick’s novel, the world is already irradiated and animal species are dying off. There are off-world colonies that are said to be improvements. Things are so bad that Mercerism, the main religion, is based entirely around having empathy for a figure named Wilbur Mercer, a Sisyphean figure who walks endlessly up a mountain while stones are hurled at him by faceless entities. The people who dial into their empathy boxes feel his pain through a collective consciousness. There are other options. A mood organ will allow you to feel however you want.
The idea that enforced empathy will allow the people of a ruined world to obviate a tendency towards nihilism is absurd. People are ultimately alone and the world is beyond redemption. Chaos is evident in the kipple that clutters the buildings and threatens to swallow the remaining life. Even in that context, there’s an emotional scene with J.R. Isidore (Sebastian in the movie Blade Runner), who cannot bear the mutilation of a spider. Ultimately empathy exists, but in the world Dick created the question is always “but for how much longer?”
It’s a very different world in Maddaddam. There are engineered creatures that roam the landscape. Pigoons and Rakunks and Wolvogs. They’re the result of technology run amok. In enclaves, the rich make decisions that will decide the fate of humanity while poverty dehumanizes those who live in ruined cities. There is cannibalism, rape and murder and that’s before things get really bad.
God’s Gardeners manage to survive the apocalypse thanks to their religion which preaches self-reliance, careful marshalling of resources and respect and empathy for the world’s non-human inhabitants. It’s empathy as a communal state; not to dull the pain of existence, but as a guide towards it. Ultimately, if survival is going to be a possibility, you’d better help others.
There is a section of Maddaddam where the God’s Gardeners have come to rest at Cobb House. It’s not unlike Colborne Lodge in High Park: A 19th century building that had been used as a museum. At the time I was reading it, I was researching what brewing would have been like in the 1820’s. I thought, if I were one of those characters, I would probably want a beer. I’m almost certain that Zebulon would want beer. Brewing beer is probably the only marketable post apocalypse skill I’ve got.
This is where having a writer of Margaret Atwood’s quality comes in handy. The detail of the created world is such that you can vicariously experience the scents and flavours: The honey from Toby and Pilar’s bees. The berries growing on Pilar’s grave. The (probably pretty bad) coffee made of chicory and burdock root.
I knew that whatever it was going to be was probably a gruit. There aren’t any hops mentioned. Then I realized that I knew a brewery that specialized in gruit. I somehow managed to get permission from Margaret Atwood through her publisher and then handed off the idea to Beau’s All Natural. They’re brewing it this Friday for the Session Craft Beer Festival in Toronto next month. I had a small amount of input in the recipe, but since I’m in the middle of writing the year’s second book I’m missing out on the brew day.
The project might expose the Oryx and Crake books to some people who would not otherwise have read them. It will expose literary people who don’t know about craft beer to a really interesting gruit. It expands by a little bit the context of what can inspire a beer. A portion of the proceeds will go to help the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, which is an unexpected benefit and a bit of a mitzvah. At some point, I might get to drink a beer with Margaret Atwood. If you’d told me that was a possibility four years ago when I started blogging, I would have stared at you in blank disbelief.
It more or less comes back to the novel’s suggestion of empathy as a road map to survival. Ultimately, this has turned out to be a really good way to share things I like with people I don’t know. Everybody involved in making it benefits from it. It might make other people’s lives better in small ways that are quantified in minutes or hours. It might even save some territory for a Prothonotary Warbler.
Not a bad way to make a beer.