publisher colophon
  • From the Grotesque to Nuclear-Age Precedents: The Modes and Meanings of Cli-fi Humor

In a New York Times review of MaddAddam, the final instalment in Margaret Atwood’s eco-apocalyptic trilogy, Andrew Sean Greer notes “[w]hat a joy it is to see…Atwood taking such delicious pleasure in the end of the world.” If critics such as Timothy Morton and Michael Branch have lamented the dominance of elegiac, melancholic rhetoric in ecological writing and (in the case of Branch) pleaded for more humor in both literary theory and practice, this article unearths how humor operates on crucial rhetorical and narrative levels in the climate fiction of Atwood and Ian McEwan. It analyzes how several comic modes—from satirical dark humor to slapstick—draw attention to ethical and epistemological quandaries raised by climate change and ecological risk in distinctive ways that merit further study. Drawing historical and generic comparisons to satirical modes prevalent in twentieth-century science fiction and film, and especially to the dark humor made emblematic by Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, the article decrypts how Atwood’s MaddAddam and McEwan’s Solar offer incongruously funny representations of ecocatastrophe that—like Kubrick’s famed nuclear-age spoof—serve both to distract from and snap us out of the paralysis of fear, encouraging a self-reflexive mode of reading. In Solar, absurd and slapstick humor marks the rise of an egotistical, Nobel Prize-winning scientist who steals a colleague’s work to develop a technology capable of averting catastrophic warming. In the end, this invites a pragmatic question framed in a light-hearted manner: who cares how the climate crisis is solved, and whether efforts are intellectually honest or affectively in earnest, as long as solutions are found? Meanwhile, Atwood’s novel proves more traditional in its turn to familiar sci-fi conventions of technological satire and dark humor to imagine a post-human future following mutually intertwined eco and techno-catastrophes. In her work, critiques of biotechnology, late-market capitalism, and its irreversible ecological consequences are framed in bitingly comic terms; but this does not prevent the trilogy from retaining a sense of hope and ethical urgency.

In a New York Times book review of MaddAddam, the final instalment in Margaret Atwood’s ecocatastrophic trilogy, Andrew Sean Greer notes “[w]hat a joy it is to see…Atwood taking such delicious pleasure in the end of the world” (n.p.). He pinpoints a sense of general cultural fatigue towards the pathos, gloom, and doom so prevalent in contemporary fiction about environmental risks. If critics including Timothy Morton and Michael Branch have lamented the ubiquity of elegiac, melancholy rhetoric in ecological writing and pleaded for more humor in both literary theory and practice, this article turns attention to darkly funny climate fiction from Atwood and Ian McEwan. It asks what sorts of rhetorical, aesthetic, and ethical effects or questions humor might produce in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003–2013)1 and McEwan’s Solar (2010). What role/s might comical and satirical narrative play in fictionally representing, and ethically engaging readers in, ecological risks such as climate change or species extinction?

Following recent efforts from scholars including Adam Trexler, Richard Kerridge, Stephanie LeMenager, and others to better define and taxonomize climate or “Anthropocene fiction” and its subgenres, all the while underlining the “genre trouble” that so often characterizes such narratives, this article pinpoints some of the comedic and satirical strategies of “funny cli-fi.”2 It draws on contemporary theories of humor and incongruity as well as Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussions of the grotesque body to discern a variety of comic modes in the fiction of Atwood and McEwan—from slapstick and the grotesque to socio-political satire and gallows humor—that draw particular sorts of attention to the ethical and epistemological quandaries raised by climate change and other environmental risks. Perhaps refreshingly, these texts largely forgo pathetic rhetorical styles such as the jeremiad and the sublime, ones closely associated with ecocatastrophic narratives.3 If that sort of pathos [End Page 86] tends to inspire a sense of paralysis at the immensity of the environmental crises that confront us, Atwood’s and McEwan’s satirical novels hedge against such paralytic responses by doing something unexpected: they make us laugh.4

While the laughter elicited by humorous cli-fi may not provide much comic relief—satire does, after all, tend instead to elicit unease at the discrepancy between the topic’s seriousness and the manner of its representation—the discomfort of this incongruity encourages a reflexive mode of textual engagement with environmental problems and risks.5 Silliness and absurdity in MAT and Solar highlight and interrogate the climate crisis in distinctive ways—ones that prove more critical and interrogative than the pathetic strategies of sentimental or elegiac environmental writing tend to be.

These lighter approaches to representing harrowing contemporary risks might seem welcome amid grimly apocalyptic novels/Hollywood blockbusters/video games that have become so pervasive as to feel entirely predictable. Atwood’s success in attracting and retaining the interest of a large mass-market readership for her MAT suggests a healthy public appetite for a different fictional approach to the climate crisis. The critical and commercial impact of the trilogy—as of early 2017, it has sold more than one million copies—seems remarkable when you consider that science and speculative fiction titles generally attract a more niche audience.6 Might the trilogy’s comic appeal account partly for its wider impact, in tandem with Atwood’s global renown?

Framing this question from aesthetic and ethical standpoints makes it pertinent in the context of ecocritical literary studies, particularly as part of efforts to more clearly delineate “cli-fi” as a genre or series of genres with profound ties to existing fictional and rhetorical traditions. It also builds from the work of scholars such as Nicole Seymour, who in calling for “irreverent ecocriticism” has flagged problems of “doomsday fatigue” and advocated for a more nuanced range of affective explorations in ecocriticism to “embrace our sense of our own absurdity, our uncertainty, our humor, even our perversity” (57). In addition to discerning the ethical and rhetorical potentialities of various comic modes in funny climate fiction and briefly relating these to “traditional” socio-political satires from the likes of Swift and Voltaire, this essay traces its genealogical ties to satirical and speculative traditions of the mid to late-twentieth century, including war and nuclear disaster narratives and post-war science fiction. There are salient connections between the sorts of satirical strategies evident in the MAT and Solar and those prevalent in post-war fiction and film—especially the dark humor emblematized in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is also considered as a potentially important predecessor in funny cli-fi. Like their 1960s war and nuclear disaster counterparts, the satirical “Anthropocene fiction” discussed here proffers incongruously comical accounts of complex [End Page 87] ecological and technological risks, and lampoons the failure to properly attend to those risks.

Consider, in a first instance, the following passage from Solar:

The polar-bear rug on the polished floor was waiting for him. It came alive. As his right foot landed on the bear’s back, it leaped forward, with its open mouth and yellow teeth bucking into the air. Aldous’s legs flew up before him….and though his arms flailed instinctively downward to break his fall, it was the back of his head that first made contact, not with the floor, not with the edge of the glass table, but with its rounded corner, bluntly penetrating his neck….Tom Aldous did not look different, but the rug’s frozen laugh appeared sinister to Beard as he kneeled down beside the body. The bear’s hard, glassy eyes each captured a warped parallelogram of the sitting-room windows and looked murderous. It was the dead polar bears you had to watch.

(89, 92)

The images in this scene accumulate in a satirically pointed brand of dark humor. In the tale of a Nobel-prize-winning physicist who plagiarizes his postdoc’s research to develop a form of artificial photosynthesis that may prevent a worst-case-climate-change scenario, this passage exemplifies the comic incongruity and emphasis on grotesque bodies that characterizes the novel as a whole. Here, the protagonist Michael Beard’s frumpy, underpaid protégé Tom Aldous meets his unfortunate end by being tripped up by a polar bear rug, only to be fatally impaled by the edge of a glass table. The irony is hardly subtle: unlike the cynical, prestige-hungry, and gluttonous Beard who pursues climate science purely in service of his ego, Aldous is a scientist who harbors genuine concern for the fate of the planet, determined to apply his research toward avoiding the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. The image of the latter being unceremoniously offed by a “murderous” polar bear with a “frozen laugh” and “hard, glassy eyes” is at once silly and transparently ironic. In suggesting a symbolic revenge on humans for their environmental crimes, the scene hints at the notion of non-human animals turning the tables on their planet-destroying oppressors. Moreover, the incongruity produced by the gravity of the metaphor and the slapstick, sardonic manner of its representation does something unexpected: it turns climate change into an uneasy object of humor. Set against the rug fashioned from a dead and skinned polar bear, the glass table on which the postdoc accidentally impales himself alludes to icebergs or melting ice: once again, an over-worn staple of climate-change jeremiads is turned on its head, made a prop for dark physical comedy.

The last line from the extract above, “it was the dead polar bears you had to watch,” echoes an equally absurd episode earlier in the novel: one in which Beard, arriving in the Arctic, finds himself urinating in the biting air and frantic with fear that his genitals might fall off from hypothermia—all the while terrified that (live) polar bears are gaining on him. Alongside [End Page 88] the (implicit) animal revenge metaphor operating in both these scenes is an (implicit) emphasis on humans’ corporeal vulnerability and physical porosity vis à vis the natural world.7 They might be understood as opening a figurative space between Aldous’s clumsy body, Beard’s shrunken, misshapen, freezing appendage, and the natural world, with its considerable physical threats. As such, we might identify here a surprising reversal of Bakhtin’s assertion that, in the modern literary imagination, the bodily grotesque has a purely individualist meaning, no longer suggesting porous borders between the individual human body and the wider world or cosmos. While McEwan’s contemporary use of the bodily grotesque is eons apart from that of Rabelais’s Pantagruel and its Renaissance-era contexts, it is nevertheless interesting to note that Solar does not seem to adhere to the modern conception of a self-contained grotesque body cordoned off from external forces and agencies.8 Accordingly, Bakhtin’s theories on the subject appear freshly relevant in the context of funny “cli-fi”: they might help illuminate how comic modes of narrative are capable of addressing the interdependence between humans and their wider environment as well as the corporeal vulnerability of the former, without resorting to the rhetorical commonplaces of ecosentimentality or ecosublimity.

Although Solar has met with mixed critical reception, with many panning it as a frustratingly noncommittal environmentalist novel and some (including Greg Garrard and Kerridge) deeming its stab at comic allegory a failure, the novel’s counter-apocalyptic, satirical tenor sets it starkly apart from the jeremiads commonly associated with cli-fi. Meanwhile, Atwood wields comedic strategies familiar to socio-political and technological satire to imagine a posthuman future in the wake of simultaneous, mutually ensured eco- and techno-catastrophes. The Canadian author called the first instalment, Oryx and Crake,9 a “joke-filled romp through the end of the human race” (Coulson, n.p.), while the subsequent books in the trilogy have been described as “admonitory satires” (Bouson 342). The MAT trains a satirical eye on biotechnology, late-market capitalism, and its irreversible consequences on planetary health and democratic institutions. However, this turn to humor does not preclude the trilogy from offering serious speculative investigations into the darker potentialities of a post-disaster-capitalism world. Building on a long tradition in science and speculative fiction, it is masterful in its chillingly realistic discussions of current trends in biotech, virtual realities eroding the social contract, corporate malfeasance, and planetary warming.

Satirical Sci-Fi as Predecessor

Rather puzzlingly, ecocritics who suggest that humor has been all but absent in environmentally oriented writing and criticism have generally overlooked the important tradition of satire and dark humor in twentieth-century science fiction with ecocatastrophic themes. Yet that tradition—or, rather, traditions in [End Page 89] the plural, from solar and cyberpunk to “post-Earth” narratives from authors such as Octavia Butler and David Brin—inarguably precedes and informs much contemporary climate fiction. Citing the work of sci-fi writers including Brin, Kurt Vonnegut, Kim Stanley Robinson, and John Brunner and noting how their speculative environmental tales are laced with biting social critique, Brian Stableford says of post-war ecocatastrophic sci-fi:

From the 1960s onwards, almost all ecocatastrophe stories written by genre SF writers had been infected with a scathingly bitter irony; most genre writers who used the theme seemed to feel that human beings would get no more and no less than they deserve if they were to destroy their environment and poison their world. To some extent, this bleakness of outlook was a reaction to the declining fortunes of the myth of Space Age, which so many SF writers had long held dear.


Despite this rich early engagement with environmental challenges and debates among sci-fi writers, Stableford maintains that “the promoters of the field of ‘ecocriticism’—which attempts to apply ecological principles to the study of literary phenomena—have tended either to ignore SF or to treat it as a Great Wen despoiling the landscape of ‘naturalistic’ fiction…” (140). Of course, some notable outliers make this assertion seem a bit overstated: Ursula Heise’s in-depth treatment of ecocritically minded science and speculative fiction (2008) offers a key counter-example. Meanwhile, Lawrence Buell acknowledges the genre in his retrospective look at the ecocatastrophic tradition in modern literature, noting that “for half a century science fiction has taken a keen, if not consistent interest in ecology, in planetary endangerment, in environmental ethics, in humankind’s relation to the nonhuman world” (56).

However, Stableford’s observation seems especially pertinent when considering the more specific problem of humor. Twentieth-century scifi and speculative fiction often turned to satire and other forms of comedic narration to stage environmental problems and themes, and to contemplate what the posthuman world might look like, both in its bleakest and most hopeful iterations. While this essay does not—owing to constraints of space—examine that earlier tradition in any depth, further comparative studies would be beneficial.

Satirizing the Unthinkable: Incongruity as Reflexivity

Those scholars who have begun considering the place of humor in environmental risk narratives have generally pointed to comic incongruity as a tool for ethical persuasion or, at the very least, a prompt towards some form of ethical or political self-reflection. Pleading with ecocritics to lighten up a little and embrace the power of laughter, Branch emphasizes how theories of incongruity figure importantly in the moral philosophy of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. He notes that incongruity [End Page 90]

posits laughter as a response to the gap between expectation and reality, between what it seems should happen and what actually happens. In the American context the most helpful exponent of this theory is Louis D. Rubin Jr. who invokes the compelling term “the great American joke” to refer to the excruciating breach between the promise of American democracy and its (perhaps inevitable) failure to fulfill that promise.


Dark humor in particular, Branch notes, makes heavy use of incongruity and has been a staple in twentieth-century satirical comedy (387). In addition to exposing the gaps between political expectations and realities, incongruous forms of humor can also forcefully disrupt and betray generic expectations. When presented with topics as dire as climate change, species extinction, or biochemical warfare, the laughter or amusement unexpectedly elicited by their humorous treatment disrupts an expectation that such subjects be presented in a wholly serious register. Might the incongruously disruptive power of satirical climate fiction allow it to engage readers differently in the complex ethical and affective dimensions of ecological risks?

Satire whose object and subject is unthinkable catastrophe arguably produces a particularly disruptive variety of incongruity: how can a narrative form adequately expose, and offer correctives for, overwhelming risks whose enormity and complexity can hardly be represented? The eighteenth-century socio-political satires of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire attacked the political stupidity and corruption of their age and targeted particular authority figures; the late twentieth-century “catastrophe satires” of Stanley Kubrick, Vonnegut, Atwood, and McEwan similarly attack socioeconomic and political institutions and the irresponsibility, incompetence, or moral failings of their leaders. In the latter satires, however, the unthinkable disasters that result, or might result, from such aberrant leadership are existentially threatening and potentially irreversible. Moreover, if the earlier satires’ anti-utopian critiques held within them rather clear-cut prescriptions for correcting social and political ills, catastrophe satires of the contemporary period hold the concept of wholesale utopian reform in sceptical regard; they offer no wholesale solutions nor master narratives to correct the ills they expose.

Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is an iconic late-twentieth-century example of how satirical incongruity works to “expose the terrifying absurdities of the nuclear arms race” in particular: that monstrous post-war risk that inspired as much anxiety and paralysis during the 1950s and 1960s as climate change does now (Branch 387). In the film, the paranoid, mentally ill General Ripper exploits a national security loophole to order an arbitrary nuclear strike against the Soviets; an equally absurd domino effect ensues and results in all-out nuclear holocaust. The film satirically depicts America’s military prowess as one disguising terrible vulnerability, corruption, and ineptitude, and exposes the terrifying ramifications of complex risk calculations gone terribly wrong. As Charles Maland notes: [End Page 91]

No one accepting the dominant paradigm would see nuclear weapons as a laughing matter, but Kubrick, after studying the arms race, the Cold War, and the idea of deterrence carefully, realized the insanity of the situation and found that the only way he could possibly approach the material was through the satirical thrust of nightmare comedy. By having his audience laugh at the situation, he hoped not that they would realize its seriousness but rather that they would perceive its absurdity.


“Nightmare comedy,” in other words, struck Kubrick as a better way to “get” to his audience than the tragic tenor of the 1958 novel on which the film was based, Red Alert, might have. As Maland observes, the filmmaker’s choice to diverge from the straight-served jeremiad of Peter George’s novel and transform the book into a bitingly funny political satire was a careful one.

Similar choices seem to have driven Atwood and McEwan in their own satires on climate science and environmental disaster. In their novels, as in Dr. Strangelove, acerbic dark humor prompts an uneasy sort of laughter. In the end, there is little or no comic relief in the laughter generated by these narratives.10 Kubrick’s nuclear-age nightmare has us nervously laughing at the absurd ease with which the safeguards against global nuclear destruction might be breached; and especially at Peter Sellers’s grotesque, maniacal comic stylings as Strangelove. But instead of glossing over the gravity of the risks portrayed in the film, this seemingly light-hearted treatment draws stark attention to the horrors and absurdity of the nuclear arms race. Rather than granting comic relief from that horror, in other words, Kubrick forces his audience to critically engage it.

However, does such critical engagement necessarily prompt an ethical correction course? Drawing on Timothy Morton’s notion of the “dark ecology of elegy” and its affective quality of “undigested loss,” Isabelle Galleymore theorizes a mode of comic incongruity that might present genuine “corrective possibilities”:

A comic mode based on incongruity (that relates environmentally inappropriate human behaviour) retains Morton’s principle of undigested loss in the sense that it does not provide relief. In this way, the comic mode also retains Morton’s desire for uncertainty and irony to be put back into ecological thinking. Yet, the comic mode goes further in its potential to motivate change….Elegiac modes are not the most accessible way of approaching environmental concern, but the comic mode can break the ice—even if the joke is about glacial calving. Given the corrective possibilities examined, there would seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel that is not present in the total catastrophic darkness of black comedy or, indeed, dark ecology.


Responding to this argument, one might counter that the notion of literature as a force capable of morally correcting readers and prompting them to adopt less destructive environmental attitudes and practices is a Romantic and potentially [End Page 92] fraught one. Morton himself spends much of his widely cited Ecology without Nature arguing along similar lines, excoriating the notion of “Nature” (and, by proxy, narratives about Nature) as things inspiring moral correction, and proposing “dark ecology” as a counterpoint to sentimentalism.11

The fiction examined in this essay undoubtedly poses important ethical questions and prompts readers to critically engage them. Whether this translates, however, to such writing motivating change in readers, particularly of the sort that has measurable socio-political and ethical ramifications, is not a question taken up here.12

The MaddAddam Trilogy: Laughter at the Flood

Like Atwood’s earlier dystopian and speculative novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the MAT offers plenty of dark speculation around how easily ostensibly stable technological societies can collapse. In addition to drawing from the biblical episode of Noah and the great flood that cleanses the Earth of its hardened sinners, the trilogy advances a discourse of (secular) disaster utopianism: one that is ubiquitous in popular science fiction franchises such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.13 For humanity to save itself from deep-seated moral (and in this case environmental) ills, it must first endure a technologically fuelled catastrophe that all but wipes it out—then be ushered into an era of more enlightened posthumanism through contact with not-quite-humans.

However, unlike the almost invariably serious tenor of Atwood’s earlier novel and the aforementioned television series, the MAT is an apocalyptic tale brimming with comical jubilance and gallows humor. In speculative accounts of how current environmental and technological risks might play out in the near future, the trilogy satirizes everything from morally dubious biotech firms to the excesses, absurdities, and deep violence of consumer capitalism, to the religious right and its fetishizing of fossil fuels—not to mention the morbid fascination with species extinction in the Anthropocene, emblematized by a video game and covert messaging platform called the “Extinctathon.”14

Atwood, a frequent commentator on her own work, has pre-empted critics in defining certain of her novels, including the MAT, as an “ustopia”: a form of dystopian narrative that holds within it intimations of a better world. The author notes:

Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other….Oryx and Crake is dystopic in that almost the entire human race is annihilated, before which it has split into two parts: a technocracy and an anarchy. And, true to form, there is a little attempt at utopia in it as well: a group of quasi-humans who have been genetically engineered so that they will never suffer from the ills that plague Homo sapiens sapiens. They are designer people. But anyone who engages in such [End Page 93] design….has to ask: how far can humans go in the alteration department before those altered cease to be human?

(“The Road to Ustopia,” n.p.)

Atwood’s ustopia features moments of deep mournfulness, particularly in its portrait of Jimmy/Snowman and his solitary, elegiac reckoning with a lost world in proleptic and analeptic narrative movements throughout OAC. The trilogy relentlessly confronts us with the dire potential consequences of consumerist greed, ecological nihilism, or technological development pursued with a deficit of ethical reflection. Yet it is frequently light-hearted in its telling: it packs not only incisive political satire in a Menippean style, but also, particularly in the third novel, a sense of postdiluvian glee and gallows humor that suggests the former humanity probably wasn’t worth saving, anyway.15

The intellectually challenged but endearing Craker species serves as retroactive proof, perhaps, of moral justification for ridding the planet of a destructive and undeserving humanity: a justification Crake claimed in unleashing his deadly supervirus. Blue-limbed, cuddly, oversexed, and lacking in mental prowess, the bioengineered humanoids are cast as the ironic saving grace of a parasitic and selfish species that nearly destroyed the planet. As Bouson observes:

By wryly suggesting that the remedy to humanity’s ills lies not only in interspecies cooperation but also in interspecies breeding, Atwood engages her readers in an unsettling thought experiment as Crake’s genetically modified hominoids, which are presented in Oryx and Crake as a kind of mad scientist joke, become the best hope for the genetic survival of some vestige of homo sapiens in the future Craker–human hybrid.


Atwood takes the dramatic conceit driving Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and satirically reconfigures it to suggest that humans are the real monsters; their artificial creations, meanwhile, are cast as salutary or even salvational. The MAT also seemingly embraces posthumanism—both the technological augmentation of Homo sapiens and the overthrowing of anthropocentrism—as the thing that might, ironically, save humanity from itself.

It would be reductive, however, to argue that the trilogy champions technology as a utopian corrective. Atwood also incisively critiques, as Shelley had, the hubristic and irresponsible abuse of technology, taking particular stabs at bioengineering, and especially those who pursue such activities in the name of ecological “health” or “progress.” Even if his witless hominoids end up looking like a comical serendipity, Crake “is presented to readers of Oryx and Crake as the scientist-imperialist whose ‘eco-philosophy’ is a ‘violent form of techno-ecological utopianism’, as Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin remark” (Bouson 349).

Yet Crake and other “techno-ecological utopians” are far from being Atwood’s only satirical targets in the trilogy; nor are they condemned in [End Page 94] favor of some “pure” form of ecology that represents the “right” or “natural” way to tackle environmental problems. If some humans—notably the violent Painballers and the unscrupulous scientists and bureaucrats of HelthWyzer—are clearly portrayed as morally depraved, few characters or groups escape lampooning, including the God’s Gardeners and their offshoots. Bernice, a university classmate of Jimmy’s and an early adherent of the Gardeners, is mocked as a prototypical hippie: a “fundamentalist vegan” whose armpits stink due to her eschewal of deodorant, she burns Jimmy’s leather sandals (OAC 221). The Gardeners are frequently referred to as “ecofreaks,” owing to their anti-technology, “deep ecology” ethos. Theirs is relatable to 1970s wilderness advocacy groups such as Earth First and their successors.

Following the waterless flood and the demise of consumer capitalism, the Gardeners’ pseudo-Buddhist philosophy, and particularly its ban on harming sentient life, is tested and moderated by the pragmatic need to survive on extremely limited resources. Toby, who joins the Gardeners in Year of the Flood,16 recalls with a tinge of absurd humor how common garden slugs were once treated reverentially:

In the old [days]…they’d have relocated our Fellow Vegetable Eaters by throwing them down into the street—slugs, too, had a right to live, went the mantra, though not in inappropriate locations such as salad bowls, where they might be harmed by chewing. But now their numbers are overwhelming… so by common though unspoken agreement they’re being dropped into salt water.

In the remnant civilization of the post-apocalypse, environmental pragmatism and survivalist necessity outweigh purist compassion, particularly since certain Fellow Vegetable Eaters can decimate one’s own food supply. Poking fun in all directions, Atwood’s trenchant critique of competing environmental philosophies targets techno-ecological utopians and deep ecologists alike.

If the Gardeners and their legacy end up vindicated to a large degree, however, it is partly through the image of Toby lovingly tending the large garden in MaddAddam, talking to the bees and helping her clan survive through an instinctual understanding of the earth and its pollinators, the latter cast in nearly sacred tones. Atwood seems to wax ecofeminist in such passages, implicitly designating a woman as the more responsible steward of an earth ravaged by male hubris and unscrupulous destruction.17 Moreover, the apparently earnest religiosity with which the Gardeners’ hymns are presented in YOTF underlines how seriously Atwood takes the notion—one cited in numerous interviews and evidenced by live performances of the hymns—that ecology should be infused with a sense of the sacred to be truly persuasive.18

Here, again, however, oversimplifying Atwood’s ethics is problematic. Religion—and in particular Christian fundamentalism as an offshoot of capitalist individualism—is another major satirical target in the MAT. In the [End Page 95] final novel, certain key passages incisively lampoon the power of the Christian evangelical right wing and its cynical ties to the fossil fuel industry. In proleptic and analeptic narration whose structure is similar to Jimmy’s elegiac yet comical inner dialogue in OAC, Zeb reveals that he is the son of a petroleum mogul-cum charismatic evangelical leader à la Jim Baker who dubs himself “The Rev.” The Rev is the founder of a money-embezzling megachurch, PetrOleum. Through absurdly misguided biblical interpretations, the “church” casts fossil fuels as sacred and their continued extraction as nothing less than spiritual duty:

[W]hat else can so reliably make the lights go on as oil? That’s right! Oil, my friends! The Holy Oleum must not be hidden under a bushel—in other words, left underneath the rocks—for to do so is to flout the Word! Lift up your voices in song, and let the Oleum gush forth in ever stronger and all-blessed streams!

In our current era of fracking, Arctic exploratory drilling, and a sitting American political administration populated with figures who view climate change not as a fact but as a left-wing conspiracy to decimate the fossil fuel industry, the Rev and the PetrOleum cult represent a potent satirical jab at America’s political right wing.

Neologisms and Silly Names: A Satirical Tradition

In the MAT, neologisms and absurd proper names set a humorous tone that clashes incongruously with grim diegetic events; but rather than being incidental or offering mere comic relief from dark plotlines, they instead perform some of the satirical heavy lifting. This tradition has precedents in eighteenth-century sociopolitical satires from the likes of Swift and Voltaire, exemplified by the former’s Gulliver and his encounters with speaking horses with onomatopoeic names (the Houyhnhnms), who prove far more rational and moral than the deeply violent, humanoid Yahoos. Twentieth-century speculative fiction writers and satirists from Aldous Huxley (in Brave New World, 1931) to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick similarly populated their fictional narratives with neologisms and silly names to highlight the absurdity, corruption, and moral decay in imagined or historically anchored societies.

Atwood continues the tradition in her own critique of late-stage consumer capitalism and its ethically dubious activities or pursuits. Bioengineered and hybridized animals bear comically composite or “punny” names, from pigoons, liobams, and wolvogs to Mohairs: cattle designed to sprout copious amounts of human hair for wigs and hair implants, and iterated in numerous bright colors. Headless, brainless creatures that resemble chickens’ bodies are the compassionate meat eater’s answer to demand for chicken; they are “harvested” for a product called ChickieNobs. Companies [End Page 96] and military-industrial bodies, from CorpSeCorps and Life2Life Shuttles (a corpse collection and hearse service, respectively) to CryoJeenyus and HelthWyzer, likewise bear winkingly funny names. The Craker women are absurdly named after historical figures that mean nothing to them, from Madame Curie to Eleanor Roosevelt and Sojourner Truth (OAC, passim). The defunct brothel is called Scales and Tails; the abandoned spa where Jimmy and Amanda are employed, and where Toby, Rebecca, and some of the Crakers later take refuge, is called “Anooyoo”—parodying the self-help and “wellness” industry.

Anooyoo is the site of a short but not inconsequential scene in MaddAddam: one that shows life teeming in the ruins of capitalist excess; in an abandoned spa, one can still find “a vast supply of pink toilet paper with flower petals pressed into it,” amid other insipidly pink cosmetic implements and products.

The afternoon thunderstorm comes and goes. Once it’s over the Pigoons go for a dip in the swimming pool; the fact that it’s growing algae and waterweeds and has a lively population of frogs does not deter them.…The younger ones enjoy splashing and squealing; the older sows and boars take brief dips, then watch over their piglets and shoats indulgently, lounging at poolside.


This is a strikingly hopeful post-apocalyptic scene, in part owing to the absurdist image of pigoons—the uncannily intelligent pig species genetically enhanced with human brain cells—happily splashing in and lounging beside the pool, and of teeming frogs and algae. Life thrives after the waterless flood, suggesting that “nature” (even the genetically modified kind) can find its stubborn way in spite of human destructiveness—and hollow consumerism masquerading as “wellbeing.”

“You have a Paradice within you”

If Atwood’s posthumanist rhetoric tends to dominate the trilogy, notably driving its optimistic reading of what the end of the Anthropocene might mean, the MAT is also noteworthy for its emphasis on gallows humor as a way for individuals to endure the traumas of unthinkable loss. In OAC, Jimmy’s lonesome, elegiac reflections on a lost world and love are punctuated and undercut by silly self-humor, as in this passage:

The lightning sizzles, the thunder booms, the rain’s pouring down, so heavy the air is white, white all around….it’s like glass in motion. Snowman—goon, buffoon, poltroon—crouches on the rampart, arms over his head, pelted from above like an object of general derision. He’s humanoid, he’s hominid, he’s an aberration, he’s abominable; he’d be legendary, if there were anyone left to relate legends…. [Hearing the voice of Oryx in his mind:] Paradice is lost, but you have a Paradice within you, happier far. Then that silvery laugh, right in his ear.

(OAC 361–62, text in brackets added) [End Page 97]

In the stormy and lonely post-apocalyptic world, whose extreme weather patterns are implicitly drawn as consequences of climate change, Jimmy/Snowman has only the chatty, absurdist workings of his own brain to keep him company—ones which playfully deem him a “goon, buffoon, poltroon.” If only someone else had survived to witness his odd inner workings, they might appreciate the “abominable” Snowman as “legendary.” Silly verbal gymnastics, self-mockery or aggrandizement, and laborious memorial recall are strategies Jimmy uses throughout OAC to endure the trauma of loss. Yet it is the ghostly voice and “silvery laugh” of Oryx—“you have a Paradice within you”—that gives him the will and strength to keep searching for others, and to remain alive. Ultimately, paralysis is never an option: if Snowman, the God’s Gardeners, and their allies survive in an inhospitable and threatening world, it is because they keep moving, never allowing fear to overtake them. Laughter is one key ingredient in their arsenal.

The gallows humor that seems crucial to survival in Atwood’s grim universe is also abundant in Zeb, who embraces a light-hearted attitude in the face of doom: “He did a little two-step, a little hip wiggle. He liked to sing in the shower, especially when danger threatened” (MaddAddam 378). Earlier, Zeb sings a silly tune to himself that, puzzlingly, might allude to Sylvia Plath’s scathing poem of 1960, “Daddy”: “I’m gonna wash that Rev right offa my head….’Cause Daddy I’m through and so are you….A boobity-doop-de-doop-de-doop-de-doop-dee-do!” (MaddAddam 378).

Here and in the earlier passage highlighting Jimmy’s silly-yet-melancholy inner dialogue, Atwood’s turn to absurdist gobbledygook is relatable to Vonnegut’s earlier use of the same. In Slaughterhouse-Five, following catalogs of wartime atrocities, the author’s most famous novel ends with a bird observing the ruins of Dresden and quizzically chirping “Poo-tee weet?” (157).19 Verbal non-sense fosters, in Atwood’s and Vonnegut’s respective texts, a sense of suspension that both uncomfortably highlights affective states of horror and dread and provides momentary relief from them.

If Zeb is a major voice in MaddAddam’s telling of laughter and silliness in the midst of catastrophe, it is his eventual lover, Toby, who perhaps most clearly vocalizes Atwood’s particular brand of pragmatic environmental humor. “Dump the morbid soliloquies,” Toby tells herself just prior to the final battle in the trilogy—one that is difficult to read as truly epic or dramatic since it involves the Gardeners and Crakers fighting the Painballers alongside a battalion of pigoons. “What’s needed is a positive outlook” (413). Whether this “positive outlook” ends up proving salutary or inconsequential to the ultimate survival of humans and other species is left in suspense. Toby dies, leaving her adopted, and fledglingly literate, Craker children to fend for themselves, armed with the narratives and keys to new knowledge she has imparted to them through storytelling and creation myths. Perhaps they leave their Edenic “Garden” and their newfound knowledge makes them just as fallible to the [End Page 98] traits of anger, greed, and corruption as their human predecessors are. It all seems to be headed that way. Nevertheless, the trilogy closes on a rather hopeful note: even an all-out eco-disaster can lead to postdiluvian rebirth. Moreover, it suggests that humor in the face of unthinkable risks and losses may be a key ingredient to survival, if not solutions.

Solar: “It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”

While Atwood has characterised the MAT as an “ustopia,” Solar is less readily connected to speculative and science-fiction traditions, firmly grounded as it is in narrative realism. Moreover, where Atwood’s trilogy lambasts societal and political ills with a sweeping brush, Solar’s satirical aim is primarily directed at one gluttonous, cynical protagonist who allegorically stands in for what is wrong with contemporary consumerist society as a whole, particularly as it relates to confronting environmental challenges. A subtle but pointed satire on climate science, the corruption and greed driving industrial capitalism, and the psychological barriers that keep Western societies from confronting ecological risks with the urgency they warrant, Solar never takes us far into a speculative future, whether dystopian or utopian. While it pokes fun at the excesses, cynicism, and indifference rampant in present-contemporary Western societies and ties these to worsening environmental threats and risks, it stops short of assuming a clear moral stand against these conditions. Instead, it invites us to ask a pragmatic question framed in a light-hearted manner: who cares how the climate crisis is solved, and whether efforts arise from earnest concerns, as long as solutions are found? In his 2010 review of Solar for The Guardian, Christopher Taylor argues that the novel’s plot

pulls off a clinching novelistic coup, using comedy to sneak grimmer matters past the reader’s defences. Beard’s argument about the correct response to climate change, an argument that McEwan has also made, is that we have no choice but to hope that technological ingenuity, enlightened self-interest and the market’s allocation of resources can get us off the hook; personal virtue counts for little.

(“Solar by Ian McEwan”)

The sort of “against climate-change pathos” pragmatism that is doubly advocated by the author and his cynical protagonist has, as Taylor argues, the virtue of “sneaking past the reader’s defences” grim matters such as arctic warming and glacier loss, species extinction, and the very survival of humanity. Although these risks hang in the foreground and are at times explicitly discussed, the novel never waxes jeremiad. Its presumably weighty subject is overridden by absurd accidents, grotesque bodily functions negating the impact of otherwise sublime scenery, sarcastic glossings of well-thinking leftist environmentalism, and dark humor.

McEwan’s approach has elsewhere met with much withering criticism, including from ecocritics investigating the problem of climate change fiction [End Page 99] as an ethically engaged mode of writing. Garrard regrets that the novel sidesteps affective elements of existential terror and vulnerability inherent to the climate crisis, with the author choosing simply not to address these (135). He concludes that McEwan resorts to comic allegory as an “escape route” (135); this is more or less corroborated by the author in an interview.20

Although Solar clumsily circumvents the more horrific aspects of Anthropogenic changes and risks through an at-times belabored comic allegory, it is still worthwhile to consider the ethical questions that might be raised by that allegory—authorial intentions set aside. What makes Michael Beard comical is that he embodies much, if not all, that the novel designates as rotten with the society in which he pursues his work—from greed and intellectual dishonesty to mindless consumerism and sexual prowling, as well as cool indifference to the worst effects of climate change so long as they don’t meaningfully disrupt his life or prevent him from scoring his next plate of greasy food. McEwan draws on some of the tactics of traditional sociopolitical satires in allegorizing a corrupt and morally faulty society (or, indeed, “human nature” writ large) by putting a grotesque spotlight on individual corruption and vice.

The Grotesque, Porous Body

The issue of Beard’s embodiment—flabby, greedy, and patently grotesque—is paramount to both the novel’s satirical indictment of consumer capitalism and to the way it ends up pointing beyond the selfish motives and egotistical concerns of the modern individualist subject, tying his body to his wider environment whether or not he acknowledges such interdependencies and porous connections.

For a novel presumably “about” climate change and science, Solar devotes a remarkable amount of space to grotesquely detailing Beard’s bodily functions and habits—from his frequent urination to his penis’s reaction to cold air to his gluttonous consumption of fat-laden foods. McEwan treats the ageing scientist’s body and bodily functions as objects of hilarity and grotesque fascination; one might as a consequence assume this produces a mere effect of light slapstick.

Yet there is potentially something at work beyond comic relief in many of the scenes that deal with the protagonist’s body in grotesque terms. The most striking scene is the previously mentioned one of Beard in the Arctic, urinating in the freezing air and frantic with worry for his shrivelled penis, in apparent shock from cold exposure:

As the polar wind raged against the cliff-face and rebounded against his shivering form, he watched in horror as his penis shrank even smaller, and curled tighter against the zip. And not only was it shrinking before his eyes, but it was turning white….The burning sensation in his groin was spreading…. and they were speeding in the wrong direction, hurtling northwards towards the Pole, deeper into the wilderness, into the frozen dark, when they should [End Page 100] have been rushing towards a well-lit emergency room in Longyearbyen.


An anti-sublime is at work in this excerpt: the traditionally Romantic, awe-inspiring Arctic landscape, with its deep wilderness and frozen dark, loses all importance and dramatic impact in the presence of Beard’s comically sad, shrivelling member (and his earlier act of urination). Yet, parallel to that anti-sublime effect, this scene also strongly suggests Beard’s vulnerability to the environment: his body exposed to harsh and unforgiving elements, McEwan’s allegorical antihero for the ills of modern individualism and self-interest is here painted as someone who, finally, cannot escape his corporeality and interdependency. While Beard conceives of himself in a strictly individualist sense—preventing him from feeling any genuine concern or fear towards the realities of the climate crisis—the boundaries between his body and his environment, whether the icy winds of the Arctic or the toxic food ecology he greedily takes part in and which likely ends up killing him, are porous ones.

Here is where, as discussed briefly earlier, Bakhtin’s notion of the bodily grotesque is potentially useful; but again, it does not gel neatly with the Russian theorist’s notion that in modernity the grotesque body has a purely individualist meaning. The Arctic scene represents perhaps the unique moment in which Beard reckons lucidly with the reality of his own physical vulnerability and porous connections to the more-than-human world: “The burning sensation in his groin was spreading….and they were speeding in the wrong direction, hurtling northwards towards the Pole, deeper into the wilderness, into the frozen dark.” Here, the grotesque image of Beard’s groin burning with cold directly opens onto the vast, gaping Arctic—challenging the protagonist’s complacent sense of physical comfort and safety.

Apocalypse Burnout

Solar is noteworthy not only for the way it sidesteps apocalyptic narrative conventions, but also for the way it explicitly debates such narratives. Beard is particularly wary of “save the planet” rhetoric, identifying in it a sentimentality and vague religiosity that doesn’t sit well with scientific rigor:

Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news…. And of course he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy… and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities. But he himself had other things to think about. And he was unimpressed by some of the wild commentary that suggested the world was in ‘peril’, that humankind was drifting toward calamity, when coastal cities would disappear under the waves, crops fail.…There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe one was always living at the end of days….

(16) [End Page 101]

Like some of the minor characters that populate the novel, Beard is fatigued by the apocalyptic tone of climate-change rhetoric, and by what he identifies as the impossibility of thinking about potential ecological disaster in the quotidian. Solar pointedly addresses the cognitive barriers most people put up against environmental warnings, especially the apocalyptic varieties lambasted in the passage above. Implicitly, then, might humor be a better tactic in piercing through those cognitive barriers? The novel suggests so both through its constant turn to comic modes that disrupt the seriousness of the narrative arc, and through the protagonist’s own transformation toward becoming one of the world’s foremost advocates (however cynical) for scientific solutions to the crisis.

Initially, Beard is drawn to the arena of solar energy not because he genuinely believes it will save the planet, but because “[he] was always on the lookout for an official role with a stipend attached” (16); more importantly, it promises to satisfy his narcissism. His growing obsession with the “climate” is tied primarily to his desire to see his own name in print. Moreover, his irritation with what he sees as the flabby emotionality of climate science extends to his protégé Aldous. Prior to stealing his dead postdoc’s work, Beard regards Aldous’s passionate environmental concerns with inner disdain:

Tom Aldous excitedly assumed that the Centre would have as its prime concern solar energy, particularly artificial photosynthesis and what he called nano-solar….

‘Solar energy?’ Beard said mildly. He knew perfectly well what he meant, but still, the term had the dubious halo of meaning, an invocation of New Age Druids in robes dancing round Stonehenge at Midsummer’s dusk. He also distrusted anyone who routinely referred to ‘the planet’ as proof of thinking big.


Elsewhere, the novel takes repeated jabs at “narrative” approaches to environmentalism among non-scientists. Beard is invited on an excursion to the Arctic as a guest of honor among a community of artists and musicians—all committed to expressing their eco-engagement through artistic expression. Beard is, of course, sceptical that the efforts of anyone working in the humanities to address the problem of planetary warming might prove even remotely useful. Throughout Solar, a novel that appears to reject ecosentimentality in favor of ecopragmatism, humanities “types”—from ecocritics to environmental artists—are the butt of subtle jokes. Their “thinking big” is dismissed by Beard as sentimental fluff that lacks intellectual rigor. There is irony, of course, in the author lampooning his own medium, suggesting in numerous places the utter uselessness of “narrative” approaches to the climate crisis.

Beard’s scepticism soon gives way to mild conviction, although it appears to remain one motivated primarily by a will to renown. In one key passage, he delivers a speech to industry leaders at a conference crawling with executives striking virtuous poses of climate concern. If Beard begins the conference by [End Page 102] internally dismissing a literary theorist attending the event who proclaims his “[interest] in the forms of narratives that climate science has generated” (147)—a straightforward jab at ecocritics everywhere—Beard’s talk seems to mark a shift in his thinking.

“‘The planet’, he said, surprising himself, ‘is sick’” (148). For rhetorical expediency or out of sincere feeling (we aren’t sure which), Beard borrows the metaphor made famous by James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis: one associated with the same sort of countercultural deep ecology movements mocked earlier in the novel. Yet he has grossly miscalculated: “There was a groan, a susurrus of dismissal from his audience. Pension fund managers preferred more nuanced terms” (148). To Beard’s surprise, he finds their reaction disturbing and infuriating: “The deniers, like people everywhere, wanted business as usual. They feared a threat to shareholder value, they suspected that climate scientists were a self-serving industry, just like themselves, Beard felt towards them all the contempt of the recent convert” (151).

Even after changing tack and taking a stab at humor, Beard fails to convince investors of the urgency of the climate crisis, much less prompt them to change their practices. Part of the problem is wariness with apocalyptic rhetoric, which simply fails to “get through” to the investors; another part is the seeming immovability of capitalist greed. Human stupidity, hubris, and a tendency to underestimate complex risks serve, as they do in Kubrick’s film, as Solar’s bleakest objects of dark humor.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that in a later scene Beard delivers observations that sound indebted to Dr. Strangelove. When his colleague frets about whether their solar energy scheme will find success or not amid reigning climate-change scepticism and market conservatism, Beard counters:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazonian rainforest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost….Two years ago we lost forty percent of the Arctic summer ice. Now the Eastern Antarctic is going….The future has arrived….Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

(216, emphasis added)

Beard’s sunny response confirms his cynicism; rather than sounding alarmed while enumerating a list of sobering facts, he seems elated. His observations also satirically underline how far capitalist logic extends in its indefatigable search for profits. According to such logic, hundreds of thousands of people a year “already” dying from climate change and rising ocean levels represent “good news,” in that they indicate the potential for greater market reach and profitability. Thus, Solar bleakly intimates, even the climate crisis will not necessarily prompt the kind of ethical paradigm shift that would lead to a more sustainable economic model. [End Page 103]

Solar nevertheless ends with undercurrents of positivist confidence in science and the markets, despite the strong suggestion that the protagonist’s gluttony, carnality, and moral decrepitude will prematurely end both his career and his life. From an individualist standpoint, the final events of the novel are disastrous: the initial artificial photosynthesis installation is all but destroyed by unnamed nemeses; Beard is threatened by a British government research center with a criminal fraud suit for plagiarizing Aldous’s work; and in the final line, he experiences “an unfamiliar, swelling sensation” that is, we infer, likely a fatal heart attack (279). Nevertheless, Beard’s efforts—however insincere and cynical—to bring the revolutionary technology to fruition will likely endure through continued development and research, and may even end up limiting the worst consequences of planetary warming. Finally, Solar suggests, it is neither new-age ecosentimentality, nor the mournful hand-wringing of arts and humanities critics pondering their own potential extinction in the Anthropocene, that yields viable solutions to environmental risks. If McEwan has professed that the novel takes a neutral moral stance, Solar arguably presents a rather positivist account of the climate crisis: it suggests that “hard” scientific development represents the only genuine hope, irrespective of how it is achieved.

Garrard’s conclusion is that McEwan’s “keeping faith with the Enlightenment” prevents the novel from issuing the “dizzyingly savage indictment the [climate] crisis more truly requires” (136). This essay has considered how Solar’s rejection of the apocalyptic mode might also represent an attempt—albeit a rather clumsy one—to wield absurdity and sardonic laughter as different sorts of weapons in a literary and ethical reckoning with climate change, rather than signifying a wholesale unwillingness to confront it.


If science and speculative fiction have used comic strategies, particularly dark humor and socio-political satire, to tackle the unthinkably complex environmental and technological risks of late capitalist life since at least the twentieth century, ecocritics have only recently begun to consider the place of humor and satire in environmentally themed fictional writing. This essay, pointing back to the important precedents of “catastrophe satire” in twentieth-century film and speculative fiction as well as of earlier satirical traditions, has looked beyond the jeremiad mode to consider the alternative means by which environmental risks might be represented and ethically engaged. Particularly in relation to the under-studied problem of humor, further work is required to meaningfully delineate what sorts of aesthetic, ethical, affective, and epistemological features distinguish twenty-first-century narratives about ecological risks from their speculative predecessors. [End Page 104]

Courtney Traub
Independent Scholar
Courtney Traub

Courtney Traub is an independent scholar in American literature and cultural history who is currently writing a monograph entitled Contemporary American Crisis Writing: Romantic and Countercultural Legacies. The book examines fiction that grapples with the reigning environmental and technological crises of our time. Dr. Traub holds a PhD from the University of Oxford. Her article on the resurgence of Romantic sublime conventions in climate-change narratives is included in “Cli-Fi in American Studies: A Research Bibliography,” compiled in 2017 by Susanne Leikam and Julia Leyda.


1. Subsequently cited as MAT to distinguish it from the final novel in the trilogy.

2. See LeMenager for a discussion of “genre trouble” in climate fiction, positing that cli-fi’s generic hybridity/malleability arises out of the “representational impasse” posed by climate change and an accordant sociological desire for less rigidly demarcated artistic forms.

3. I have written elsewhere on the revival of Romantic sublime narrative conventions in contemporary ecocatastrophic fiction. See Traub, “Ecocatastrophic Nightmares.”

4. See Taylor’s analysis of dread and fear in the face of existential ecological threats in Poe’s writing, and Solnit’s essay for a description of the paralytic effects of alarmist climate-change coverage in the media.

5. For a detailed account of theories of incongruity and their limitations, particularly in relation to the affective dimensions of humor, see Farber. Also see Galleymore’s analysis of the “dark ecology of comedy,” incongruity, and climate change.

6. Among the titles frequently cited as staples in the contemporary climate fiction category, perhaps only Cormac McCarthy’s unerringly bleak The Road has performed on par with, or better than, Atwood’s trilogy: the former novel sold over 1.5 million copies between its publication in 2007 and 2011, according to a Nielsen study (, consulted 13 Feb. 2017). In comparison, by 2013, when MaddAddam appeared, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood had together sold nearly 400,000 copies, according to Publisher’s Weekly (, consulted 13 Feb. 2017).

7. The notion of “porosity”—designating fluid, open boundaries, and agential interactions between human and non-human objects or bodies—is one that has become commonplace in ecocritical scholarship and debate, particularly in the domain of material ecocriticism. See Iovino and Oppermann.

8. For Bakhtin, “In the modern image of the individual body, sexual life, eating, drinking, and defecation have radically changed their meaning: they have been transferred to the private and psychological level where their connotation becomes narrow and specific, torn away from the direct relation to the life of society and to the cosmic whole” (Dentith 230).

9. Subsequently cited as OAC.

10. See Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet for a description of theories of risk and the “risk society” from Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, among others. Heise’s analysis draws useful ties between such theories of risk and ecocatastrophic narratives.

11. “Since the Romantic period, nature has been used to support the capitalist theory of value and to undermine it; to point out what is intrinsically human; to inspire kindness and compassion….We discover how nature always slips out of reach in the very act of grasping it….Just when it brings us into proximity with the nonhuman ‘other’, nature re-establishes a comfortable distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Morton 19).

12. For an extended discussion of the generic dimensions of climate fiction and around the ecocritical burden of “care” or ethical engagement, see Johns-Putra and Kerridge, respectively.

13. In Gene Roddenberry’s cult series of 1966 and its successive TV and film franchises, the utopian global government of the narrative present is preceded by a nuclear holocaust.

14. The “Extinctathon” is a potential nod to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), in which acquiring nearly extinct animals proffers social status in the post-nuclear ruins of the US.

15. For a more in-depth discussion of Atwood’s MAT as Menippean-style satire, see Marta Dvorak’s essay, which also analyzes the trilogy for its use of “metatextual generic parody” of works of fiction such as Frankenstein (125–26).

16. Subsequently cited as YOTF.

17. See Gaard, Estok, and Oppermann for a discussion of ecofeminist traditions in environmental literature.

18. Atwood’s serious approach to the hymns is well documented: she collaborated with Orville Stoeber to set the lyrics presented in YOTF to music for an album entitled “Hymns of the God’s Gardeners.” Numerous live musical performances have since been staged, some attended by the author herself. [End Page 105]

19. Vonnegut’s repeated short phrase “so it goes” produces a related sort of incongruity: it follows nearly every diegetic instance of absurd death and destruction in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s meditation on the horrors of world war and the unthinkable destruction wrought by Dresden’s firebombing consistently juxtaposed that horror with absurdist jokes and irreverent authorial interventions.

20. In a 2010 interview with Mick Brown, McEwan stated: “The thing that would have killed the book for me, I’m sure, is if I’d taken up any sort of moral position…I needed a get-out clause. And the get-out clause is, this is an investigation of human nature, with some of the latitude thrown in by comedy.”


Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. London: Virago Press, 2013.
———. “Margaret Atwood. The Road to Ustopia.” The Guardian. October 2011. Web. 13 July 2017.
———. Oryx and Crake. London: Virago Press, 2013.
———. The Year of the Flood. London: Virago Press, 2013.
Bouson, J. Brooks. “A ‘joke-filled romp’ through end times: Radical environmentalism, deep ecology, and human extinction in Margaret Atwood’s eco-apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 51.3 (2015): 341–57. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
Branch, Michael P. “Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor.” The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. Ed. Greg Garrard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. 377–90.
Brown, Mick. “Ian McEwan Interview: Warming to the Topic of Climate Change.” The Telegraph. March 2010. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism : Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
Coulson, Sandra. “Atwood Gives Her Work Light-hearted Treatment.” The London Free Press. June 2003.
Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader. New York: Routledge, 1995. E-book. 16 May 2017.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. London: Millennium, 1999.
Dr. Strangelove; Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Keenan Wynn. Columbia Pictures, 1964. Film.
Dvorak, Marta. “Margaret Atwood’s Humour.” The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Ed. Carol Ann Howells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 114–29.
Farber, Jerry. “Toward a Theoretical Framework for the Study of Humor in Literature and the Other Arts.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 41.4 (2007): 67–86. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.
Gaard, Greta Claire, Simon C. Estok, and Serpil Oppermann, eds. International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
Galleymore, Isabelle. “A dark ecology of comedy: environmental cartoons, Jo Shapcott’s Mad Cow poems and the motivational function of the comic mode.” Green Letters 17.2 (2013): 151–63. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
Garrard, Greg. “Solar: Apocalypse Not.” Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. 2nd ed. Ed. Sebastien Groes. 123–36.
Greer, Andrew Sean. “Final Showdown. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood.” New York Times. Sept. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Heise, Ursula K. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2008.
Iovino, Serenella, and Serpil Oppermann. “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 19.3 (2012): 448–75.
Johns-Putra, Adeline. “Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theater and ecopoetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism.” Wiley interdisciplinary reviews 7.2 (2016): 266–82. Web. 2 June 2017. [End Page 106]
Kerridge, Richard. “Ecocritical Approaches to Literary Form and Genre: Urgency, Depth, Provisionality, Temporality.” The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. Ed. Greg Garrard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. 361–76.
LeMenager, Stephanie. “Humanities after the Anthropocene.” The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Ed. Ursula Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. 473–81. Web. 14 July 2017.
Maland, Charles. “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.” American Quarterly 31.5 (1979): 697–717. Web. 3 Dec. 2016.
McEwan, Ian. Solar. 1st ed. London: Vintage Books, 2011.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007.
Seymour, Nicole. “Toward an Irreverant Ecocriticism.” Journal of Ecocriticism 4.2 (2012): 56–71. Web. 5 July 2017.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Why Doesn’t Climate Change Get the Attention It Deserves?” Mother Jones. 10 July 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Stableford, Brian. “Science Fiction and Ecology.” A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. David Seed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Taylor, Christopher. “Solar by Ian McEwan.” The Guardian. March 2010. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
Taylor, Matthew. “The Nature of Fear: Edgar Allan Poe and Posthuman Ecology.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism and Bibliography 84.2 (2012): 353–79.
Traub, Courtney. “Ecocatastrophic Nightmares: Romantic Sublime Legacies in Contemporary American Experimental Fiction.” Arizona Quarterly 72.2 (2016): 29–60.
Trexler, Adam. Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2015.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death. 1969. London: Vintage Books, 2000. [End Page 107]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.