Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood
ISBN: 0771008686

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Back to the Future-Atwood's New Dystopia
by Cindy MacKenzie

Following hard on the heels of her Booker prize winner, The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret Atwood's latest and most disturbing novel, Oryx and Crake, has shaken readers and critics with its highly dystopic view of the future. According to the author's essay found on the website oryxandcrake.com, the novel is not science fiction, but speculative fiction. It entered the author's imagination sooner than she wanted it to, but having arrived, the urgency of its message warranted her time-and now ours. Despite its dark vision, Oryx and Crake is as entertaining as it is compelling and thought-provoking. Atwood's wry humour and pointed irony has the capacity to awaken us from the torpor of smug complacency that so often accompanies the wealth and eye-shielding comfort of a society such as ours.
The novel begins at Zero Hour, a time when "nobody nowhere knows what time it is." The narrator, formerly Jimmy, now (the Abominable) Snowman, a name aptly chosen for its mythic connotations-an unknown reality' that hovers between existence and non-existence, its mysterious footprints pointing backward-describes a post-plague society stripped of vegetation and all other human life except the genetically engineered Children of Crake. Nearing starvation and losing his memory of language, Snowman attempts to review the past to understand how his world ended up this way. No doubt this is the very question Atwood's novel poses as both she and her readers are forced to consider the consequences of the direction in which we are headed.
Drawing on current trends in scientific research, Atwood draws us into a familiar yet strange world filled with genetically scrambled creatures such as pigoons, bobkittens, rakunks and wolvogs. Atwood's cartoonish words deliberately reflect the carelessly executed powers of the mad scientist Crake, once Glenn, Jimmy's brilliant high school friend and mastermind of the bizarre new Paradice' (a gamble on paradise?). And this world, Atwood makes clear, is created by a man who believes in neither God nor Nature. Everything seems real but clearly isn't: CrustaeSoy shrimp, SoyohBoyBurgers, Happicuppa coffee, and Chickie Nobs Bucket O'Nubbins. Communities are clearly delineated between the elite minority protected behind gates and a vast middle class called "pleeblands". Corporate power governs society; commercial slogans become philosophies made, for profit, of course, into fridge magnets so that philosophical complexities are reduced to phrases that will fit their size, and serve as mantras, phrases to live by: "I think therefore I spam", "No Brain, No Pain", "Wanna Meet a Meat Machine?" , and "I Wander from Space to Space."
The creators of this world emerged from a background in which emotional numbness is conditioned. Glenn and Jimmy spend hours in the cyberworld, growing increasingly accustomed to living' in a virtual reality. For long afternoons and evenings, they watch porn sites while smoking marijuana, their perceptions dulled by both the drugs and the complete lack of direct physical contact or genuine human emotion. When Snowman looks back and considers how he missed the obvious signs of the impending disaster of Crake's world, he realizes the significance of that emotional distancing, saying: "There had been something willed about it though, his ignorance. Or not willed, exactly: structured. He'd grown up in walled spaces, and then he had become one. He had shut things out."
For Crake (Glenn) and Snowman (Jimmy), parental bonds are thin if not entirely absent. Jimmy recalls the mysterious departure of his mother and his subsequent way of life with his single father. Subjected to the sounds of his father's erotic tumblings with other women, he is also brought face to face with their desperate attempts to look young and sexy. Atwood's references to plastic surgery and beauty treatments abound and not without great comic appeal: "NooSkins BeauToxique Treatment", "RejoovenEsense", "Wrinkles Paralyzed Forever, Employees Half-Price", and "Fountain of Yooth Total Plunge". Jimmy's disillusionment shows up in a heartbreaking cynicism: "Who cares, who cares? He didn't want to have a father anyway, or be a father, or have a son or be one. He wanted to be himself, alone, unique, self-created and self-sufficient."
When Snowman recalls Crake's story of his father, top researcher of HelthWyzer West, committing suicide by jumping off a pleebland overpass at rush hour, he asks himself: "How could I have missed it? What he was telling me. How could I have been so stupid?"
Language, and loss of meaning, is at the heart of Atwood's vision. When Crake confides in Jimmy, telling him that "Uncle Pete was over at our place all the time" and his "mother said he was really supportive," Crake observes that he said supportive like a quote. Conversations turn into disconnected dialogue conveying no real meaning, compassion or understanding. Jimmy's mother leaves him clothes that are silly and don't fit, all indications that mother and son do not relate to one another. The avoidance of anything that makes us feel pain and even simple discomfort is remedied by a fast fix' like the rhetoric of pop psychology, pills ("When you need to chill, all you need is one pill") and activities that provide mindless distractions from bothersome emotion.
At the center of Atwood's novel is a pointed emphasis not only on the erosion of language, but also, by extension, of the arts, and of human passion itself. Jimmy enjoys the arts but feels bullied by Crake who takes pride in scientific knowledge and the power it bestows, as he shows off his "floor models", his creatures of genetically engineered beauty, and his agricultural hybrids.
Atwood doesn't miss the opportunity to speculate on the consequences of underfunding the arts. Jimmy attends Martha Graham Academy, an institution "named after some gory old dance goddess of the 20th Century who'd apparently mowed quite a swath in her day." The Academy's aims are proudly utilitarian as expressed in the motto: "Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills." A traditional liberal arts program is ridiculed and disdained as being useless as an ancient language: "So a lot of what went on at Martha Graham was like studying Latin, or book-binding: pleasant to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything, though every once in a while the college president would subject them to some yawner about the vital arts and their irresistible reserved seat in the big red velvet amphitheatre of the beating human heart."
Crake, of course, scoffs at the literary arts: "Who'd write if they could do otherwise? I mean, wouldn't you rather be fucking?" Jimmy is made to feel embarrassed about showing emotion or he feels outdone by Crake's thick-skinned intelligence. Indeed, a boy who once loved words, who found "soul" in words, is later-and probably too late-left wondering in a significantly philosophical way:

"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."

The results, according to Jimmy, of the desertion of mind and soul for the pleasures of the body foreshadows the conclusion as he realizes that "the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance."
Crake even improves upon sex, removing many of its emotional complications which he sees as misplaced sexual energy: "Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it's more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp." He defends himself by claiming that such an attitude is less painful: "After all, under the old dispensation, sexual competition had been relentless and cruel: for every pair of happy lovers there was a dejected onlooker, the one excluded. Love was its own transparent bubble-dome: you could see the two inside it, but you couldn't get in there yourself."
Atwood's dark vision is mesmerizing precisely because the fundamental aspects of humanity-mind and soul-have been discarded in her world. The author asks us as she asks herself: Are we as a society conscious of what we are doing and where we are going? In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood describes a world that we are appalled by but one we're familiar with. We are left to wonder as Snowman does, how civilized humankind managed to lose all sense of reciprocity and connection with the animate natural world and meaningful interaction with others as well as ourselves?
And so the novel ends as it begins: at Zero Hour. What path will we follow now?

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