Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I Am Omega, Part Deux (Oryx and Crake)

But suppose. . . there are others. He wills them into being, these possible remnants who might have survived in isolated pockets, cut off by the shutdown of the communications networks, keeping thenselves alive somehow. Monks in desert hideaways, far from contagion; mountain goatherders who'd never mixed with the valley people; lost tribes in the jungles. Survivalists who'd turned in early, shot all comers, sealed themselves into their underground bunkers. Hillbillies, recluses; wandering lunatics, swathed in protective hallucinations. Bands of nomads, following their ancient ways.

I started Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake right after finishing Thomas Glavinic's Night Work. Both novels are post-apocalyptic tales of the "Last Man" variety, centering on the solitary survivor who persists after the death/disappearance of everyone else in the known world. (Mary Shelley's The Last Man was likely the first work of this kind.) But the similarities end there. Glavinic's Jonas woke up one morning, in the present era, and found himself alone on Earth. No explanation is ever given; the remainder of the book is a Kafkaesque account of Jonas's existential musings and struggles with mounting paranoia. Atwood's Snowman, on the other hand, is initially introduced as the protector/prophet of the Children of Crake, a small band of simple-minded genetically-engineered primitives. Snowman lives apart from the "Crakers" in a vast wasteland that was once a highly advanced near-future civilization. What happened? How did it collapse so quickly?

The focus of Night Work is a single individual. What exactly caused the mass disappearance of everyone else is irrelevant. All that matters is that they are all gone. Oryx and Crake, by contrast, is intrinsically tied up with the sudden downfall of humanity. Like many works in the post-apocalyptic genre (with the exception of those dealing with the supernatural), it is a cautionary tale that predicts a supremely disastrous end to human folly and hubris (nuclear holocaust being a popular scenario). Hence, Oryx and Crake - like such diverse works as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Earth Abides, On the Beach, and even World War Z - is fundamentally concerned with human nature, the societies we create, and the technology we invent. What do each of these books say about us? How do they combine recognizable aspects of reality and, in doing so, enable the reader to relate to and identify with their portrayals of global collapse, however outrageous? I mean, zombies? Sentient androids? Oryx and Crake features God-like genetic engineering and the artificial creation of entire new species.

Still, Oryx and Crake feels real, despite its seemingly improbable premise. Snowman - known as Jim in his old life - is facing starvation. The Children of Crake are not "programmed" to be violent; therefore they cannot hunt for him. To make matters worse, the wasteland in which he lives is populated by dangerous escapees from the old genetic labs, such as wolvogs, snats, and pigoons. In search of food and weapons, Snowman must journey back to his old home, the compound once known as Paradice, where his old friend, nicknamed Crake, had experimented with gene splicing in the hope of achieving immortality. Along the way, Snowman reflects back to the times before the grand catastrophe, beginning (for the reader's benefit) with an overview of the civilization he had lived in and then gradually coming to its inevitable end. In its portrayal of the pre-fall future, Oryx and Crake is distinctly biopunk. Like the cyberpunk genre that developed before it, biopunk stories are often set among the underdogs or outcasts of near-futures that feature amoral megacorporations that take the place of conventional government, artificially enhanced humans, and the use of cyber- or biotech as the means of social control in increasingly unstable societies.

Cyberpunk and biopunk are also meant to be realistic - that is, they are meant to depict a world that could possibly come to exist unlike, say, the intergalactic utopianism of Star Trek or the science fantasy mythos of Star Wars. Cultural and technological trends are projected and built upon. Although cybernetic technology seems remarkably undeveloped in Atwood's vision (people are still using DVD's and CD-ROM's, with email as a primary means of communication) the biotech revolution that began in the early 1990s has exploded, resulting in everything from headless, legless pseudo-chickens designed solely as food sources to plate-sized butterflies used as living decorations on college campuses. At the same time, the human population has also exploded; plus, the environment has severely worsened, while the gap between the "haves" (who live in walled-off corporate Compounds) and "have-nots" (who inhabit the dingy, dangerous Pleebands) has alarmingly widened. In a civilization focused obsessively on the casual, uncontrolled, and unregulated manipulation of DNA, life itself has become a mere commodity to be exploited for maximum commercial and/or scientific gain.
When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. It must have got tired of the soul's constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?

But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.
The anonymous, voyeuristic, and sensational character of the Internet has been taken to its greatest extreme: live suicides, live executions, rampant child pornography, sexual deviancy, ultra-violent gaming. Meanwhile, the kidnapping and assassination of scientists working for rival companies or other countries is commonplace and accepted with blase indifference. As an English major, concerned with the artistic and literary achievements of the past, Jim is basically irrelevent.

In short: Jim's world was already dystopic, even before its fall. Which it probably deserved.

Jim's friend Crake is megalomaniac, borderline sociopathic, and blessed with a genius mind. All qualities held in high regard by their society. And yet, out of the tumultuous world he lives in - where morality has disintegrated, corporations overpower government, human rights are often ignored, dissenters are hunted down, and protests against the biotech-industrial complex are frequently violent - Crake helped to build Paradice. Then, in the midst of the chaos raging outside, he created the "Crakers," drawing on decades of cutting-edge research. The accidental/intentional release of a genetically-engineered virus (perhaps representing the absurdity of humanity playing God and entering territory they should not - like eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge) leaves the Crakers to Jim. Jim, now Snowman, leads them from Paradice, through chaos, and to a new home by the sea. Along the way, he invents for them a mythology, in which they are the "Children of Crake" and animals are "the Children of Oryx," named for Jim and Crake's girlfriend.

(Oryx really didn't have much of a role beyond Snowman's memories of her as an idealized woman and Jim's actual time with her [in the past], which was basically just sex. There's some exploration of her exploited childhood and how it ties in with the commoditization of life, but she never ceases to be an individual defined solely by her sexuality, even in the jobs she does - like handing out BlyssPluss pills to brothels. A very weak character, in my opinion.)

Crake had believed, nihilistically, that all human behavior - from art to faith to love - could be traced back to biological impulses and evolutionary psychology. That humans are simply exalted animal. It was a belief held by many in their world: tweak some DNA, alter the whole for your liking. The Crakers weren't supposed to be "wired" for religion either, but they ultimately demonstrate that maybe their creator was wrong. Maybe there is something more to humanity after all. Or are we doomed by our unrefined natures? Much as he yearns for others like him, Snowman also worries about the fate of the Children of Crake should other normal humans find them - it may well be like the Arawak Indians naively greeting Columbus.

I think Atwood's vision of a biopunk future is pretty exaggerated. For example, whatever became of the organic food revolution that has picked up in recent years? How could the social and political fabric of society have changed so quickly to a land of Pleebands and Compounds? (It is mentioned at one point that veterans of the "dot-com boom" of the late 1990s are still alive, so we're not that far in the future.) But it is a recognizeable world, one that the reader can easily imagine themselves in, and whose feasability they can speculate upon. Oryx and Crake asks us to consider the ethics of genetic engineering and the value of art and life when cold science seems to promise so much. I've been avoiding The Handmaid's Tale because it seems to be another one of those books that everyone reads and everyone swears by, but I enjoyed Oryx and Crake, so maybe I will give it a try.


alotstuff said...

nice blog and have lots of stuff here....

claire said...

I'm reading The Blind Assassin right now and loving it. There are dystopian elements, although it isn't mainly so. I'm actually afraid to touch The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx & Crake, as I'm not a fan of the subject, BUT I might get convinced after finishing Assassin. I've only read Cat's Eye and some poetry and short stories by Atwood, so haven't gone on to her stranger ones yet.

E. L. Fay said...

Alotstuff: Thanks!

Claire: I was actually wary of reading The Hand Maid's Tale too because it just sounded so over-the-top anti-conservative. I had no idea Atwood wrote poetry! That's far harder than writing prose, in my opinion.

Emily said...

In my opinion The Handmaid's Tale IS pretty over-the-top anti-conservative, but I was able to enjoy it by constantly keeping in mind that it was a product of its times. Still, I much prefer Atwood when she's not trying to be a social prophet and is just focusing on telling a good story (as in The Blind Assassin.

Thanks for the thoughtful review!

Thomas said...

I liked your review as well. I read the Oryx when it was first published, so it was nice to get a refresher.

I think the brilliant thing about Atwood, is even when she is trying to make a point, political or otherwise, she tells a great story and she writes it amazingly well.

E. L. Fay said...

Thomas: I agree! Oryx and Crake never felt too preachy or too much like a warning. Maybe The Hand Maid's Tale will be the same way?

mel u said...

I just competed and posted on Oryz and Crake-I liked it a lot but I accept others may find it a bit overblown-I really enjoyed and profited from your post-I referenced your post in mine.

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