Thursday, February 9, 2012

"Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood (2003)



"There's a distant, peaceful murmur from the village: human voices. If you can call them human. As long as they don't start singing. Their singing is unlike anything he ever heard in his vanished life: it's beyond the human level, or below it. As if crystals are singing; but not that, either. More like ferns unscrolling--something old, carboniferous, but at the same time newborn, fragrant, verdant. It reduces him, forces too many unwanted emotions upon him. He feels excluded, as if from a party to which he will never be invited" (105-106).

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003) is told from the point of view of Snowman, apparently the last real human left alive after a deadly plague breaks out across the globe and decimates homo sapiens. He is left with the Crakers: genetically modified, "perfected" human beings that Crake--Snowman's oldest friend--designed.

The story is told by way of flashbacks. In the present, Snowman journeys across a post-apocalyptic landscape to a compound called Paradice, in order to retrieve food and supplies. In his head, he retells his life, and the lives of Oryx and Crake, and the story of circumstances that led him to be stranded in a post-world where humans played God--and ended up destroying their creation.

Oryx and Crake is a devourable book: it is clearly and compellingly written, plotted quickly to keep our interest but not so quickly that we lose sight of the people caught up in the action. In Atwood's formulation, the perpetrators of dystopia are real people, and their visions of utopia--the visions that, eventually, lead to downfall--spring from specific abilities and experiences. Atwood's science fiction is, in short, only incidentally about science: despite the fact that Crake believes, in effect, that scientific outcomes are inevitable (cf. 302-303: "Once the proteonome had been fully analyzed and interspecies gene and part-gene splicing were fully underway, the Paradice Project or something like it had been only a matter of time [said Crake]"), for Atwood in general it is one possibility among many, a style or capability that her characters can select (or for which they can be selected). In this, Snowman and Crake are opposites: the former unable to grasp the numbers and better suited for words, while the latter is all too willing to bend figures to his will.

"Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as [the Crakers] start doing art, we're in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake's view. Next they'd be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings and then slavery and war" (361).

Atwood's book may very well be reducible to this obvious bias: that science is flawed and not comprehensive of the human condition. The above passage may or may not, out of context, convey the sarcastic, derogatory tone in which Atwood presents it, which is contextualized by other subtle refutations that litter the book. She presents a society that has plenty, but that is doing itself in with its plentifulness; a science that destroys itself by its own hand; and a world that, in the final measure, turns back to symbolic thinking--to art--to remediate itself.

"How did this happen? their descendants will ask, stumbling upon the evidence, the ruins. The ruinous evidence. Who made these things? Who lived in them? Who destroyed them? The Taj Mahal, the Louvre, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building... At first they'll say giants or gods, but sooner or later they'll want to know the truth... Perhaps they'll say, These things are not real. They are phantasmagoria. They were made by dreams, and now that no one is dreaming them any longer they are crumbling away" (222).

Still, Atwood's novel tries to be mostly about the people it captures, and not the world it builds. And although this works--although Atwood's characters are deep, logically tied up in their circumstances, and act out their pathologies in sensible or at least understandable ways--it is a book that leaves a somewhat dry taste in the mouth. Perhaps this is because I read The Year of the Flood (a sort of companion book for this one published in 2009) a few years ago, and it is essentially stylistically, conceptually, and structurally identical (no exaggeration, here: identical). Or perhaps it is because the "explanation" for catastrophe--engendered as it is by very human hands--is not terribly satisfying. 

It is also worth noting that Oryx is an entirely throwaway character, in the final vision probably existing in the book exclusively as an explanatory device.

Nonetheless, it is, as I said, "devourable," a very particular quality of books that can't be reduced to any specific analysis but is rather a matter of synthesis. This is not to say that all things that call out to be devoured are, in hindsight, delicious: that bucket of ChickieNobs may prey on your appetites, but may not sit well in your gut.

Oryx and Crake is a book about wanting--wanting, and getting, and not getting. Perhaps the unsatisfactory nature of its finale is a commentary--or perhaps it is only an accident, like everything else in life. 

"He wanted to be walking along a street or trolling through the Web, and eureka, there it would be, the red parrot, the code, the password, and then many things would become clear" (138).

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