The Living Word: Textuality and the End in the MaddAddam and Southern Reach Trilogies

  • Ruby Niemann (Author)



This paper explores the relationship between the written word and the world beyond humankind in two apocalyptic trilogies: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake [2003], The Year of the Flood [2009] and MaddAddam [2013]) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance [2014]). In these two examples of Anthropocene literature, the end of Man and the end of the Word are neither wholly separate nor entirely constitutive of one another. Both trilogies explore the ways in which a chaotic, lively, a-human apocalypticism is described both by and through language and, more specifically, human and nonhuman textualities. In this paper, I describe how Atwood and VanderMeer’s visions of Anthropocene afterlives decouple writing from human agency and, in doing so, provide ways of envisioning survival after the end of worlds.

In both the MaddAddam and the Southern Reach trilogies, the written word itself becomes a unique link between the human and nonhuman, the living and nonliving (either dead or never what the biological sciences would class as ‘alive’), raising questions about communication, intention, and a postapocalyptic semiotics of the Anthropocene epoch. Both VanderMeer and Atwood detach meaning-making from the concept of writing in a way that, rather than creating purely unintelligible text-acts, turns the written word into something more than a mere conveyer of meaning or even a creator of communal understanding. Language, which has always (or at least since Babel) functioned on some level to constitute an in- and out-group, in these texts forms either a barrier or a conduit between the pre- and post-apocalyptic.


apocalypse, dystopia, Atwood, VanderMeer, Anthropocene literature