Disturbing prophecies of the future of our world have riddled literature for years. 1984 and Brave New World are perhaps the two most well-known dystopias but they are certainly not the only ones. Others include the Anthem, the Uglies series, and Fahrenheit 451, yet perhaps the most disturbing is Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s second work of dystopia, which seems to be the next step of the world in which we currently live.
Oryx and Crake is set in a world obsessed with technology, scientific progress, and a general lack of concern for the planet on which we live. Does this sound familiar? Because it’s the world I see every time I walk out the door.
The novel is told from the perspective of a man named Snowman as he tries to make his way through a world ravaged by mankind and remembers a time when he was a boy named Jimmy and wasn’t the last man alive. Jimmy grew up in a compound built for scientific geniuses that spliced genes, cured all human illness, created new diseases (and thus new cures), and strove for immortality. He grew up surfing the net where he could watch anything he could imagine – international kiddie porn, executions, a woman who taped her entire life a la The Truman Show, a naked news show, and much more; he grew up playing games with names like Kwiktime Osama and Barbarian Stomp (See If You Can Change History!); he grew up eating imitation foods like SoyOBoyburgers and ChickieNobs. When he was a teenager, he made friends with a boy named Glenn who became a man named Crake and fell in love with a girl that he would only ever know as Oryx. One day, a plague hit, wiping out the entire human population, except for Snowman and a group of immune human genetic splices – the Crakers.
Oryx and Crake poses some important questions. The most obvious is whether a man can become a god. This future world is riddled with new animals – glowing green rabbits, the gider/spoat, rakunks (raccoon-skunk splice), pigoons (enormous pigs that grown human organs), and more. Ultimately, the focus is on immortality. But is immortality acceptable? Should man be populating the already ravaged Earth with these new creations?
Be warned: spoilers ahead!
The most morally-charged question of the novel revolves around what Crake did. Crake designed and orchestrated a world-wide plague that literally melted nearly all of civilization. In their place he left an improved version, man 2.0 if you will – a genetically modified human race that is immune to everything including the plague, peaceful, herbivorous, content, and untroubled by thoughts of religion, art, and war. Is it morally acceptable to destroy a corrupt civilization that is destroying the planet itself, thus “fixing” the world? As I reader, I could not help but say yes; as a human, I could not help but ask Are they really so different from us?
Ultimately, in this, my second reading of Oryx and Crake, I found the most significant question to be of art and war. Another game that Jimmy played as a child was Blood and Roses – the Blood team attacked with human atrocities and the Roses team had to sacrifice human achievements to prevent them (i.e. “one Armenian genocide equaled the Ninth Symphony plus thre Great Pyramid); whoever had the most pieces of art by the end of the game won. This suggests a link between the two categories – one is not possible without the other. Human achievement is directly linked to the emotions that beget war and violence. The Crakers, who lack the capacity for violence, are also without the ability to create art. Is a life without aesthetics, without beauty and love and art, worth a life of blind contentment? Are the Crakers truly human without these capacities – what is to differentiate them from the wolvogs and rakunks?
Crake’s ultimate failure comes as a triumph. Not only do a few humans (the first version) like Snowman survive, but the Crakers are not what he wanted them to be:
Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they 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)
Like children, the Crakers ask questions, searching for explanations for how the world works – the first steps to creating a religion that provides answers (a process that Snowman helps to speed up). In Snowman’s absence, they create a likeness of him and create rudimentary percussion instruments – their first attempts at art. They still lack the apparent capacity for violence, but I can’t help but think that it’s coming, to inspire their art and defend their religion. It is inevitable.
Atwood manages to ask these questions and many more while sustaining an excellent narrative. Snowman is captivating not just for the image of the world that he depicts but as an individual. I feel the pain of his love for Oryx and his confused wanderings through a world that doesn’t love him. I care about him as much as the larger narrative, which is the mark of success in any novel; if you don’t have any investment in the characters, then the rest of it is moot. Atwood’s writing is unusually but wonderfully stark – people shit, people fuck, people ooze blood out of their pores. Atwood doesn’t prettify or waste words; she tells things as they are. Her novel is honest, in language and in content. I just reread it and found aspects to it that I didn’t notice before; I am confident that this would be true in every rereading. It is definitely won of my favorite novels and I recommend it to anybody who likes to think.
Oh and for those who like series, after Oryx and Crake was published, it became the first in a series. The Year of the Flood, which came out last year, is the second novel in the MaddAdam trilogy (to be discussed soon), and the third is yet to come, meaning more to love!