Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

We humans like to be scared, even in our reading. Ghost stories, tales of Gothic horror, thrillers—in all sorts of circumstances we like to have ourselves scared. But there is another form of fiction that we don’t normally categorize along these lines, but that I find really scary, or perhaps creepy is the right word. These are books that I recognize as revealing something to me in the now, something about me or my world. Those books that take what seems quite normal and then reveal that the situation harbors frightening consequences. Dystopias of the near future can do this very well. Think of the classics, Brave New World and 1984: what makes them so disturbing? Not any thrills in the plot line, but the familiarity they contain, the plausibility they reveal. Indeed, we can think of dystopian writers as the prophets of today—not in the mistaken sense of those who predict the future successfully. Quite the opposite: you don’t want the prophet’s vision to come to pass. The prophet—exemplified by the Old Testament messengers of God—foretells a future that will arrive if the people don’t turn away from the error of their current ways. A successful prophet’s vision of the future does not come to realization. The successful prophet turns the people away from disaster. Thus, we can label Orwell a successful prophet in the sense (or to the extent) that we don’t live in the world of 1984. (The NSA isn’t reading this, right, Big Bro?) In this century, writers of dystopian visions of the future serve as our prophets, and we must count Margaret Atwood among them. 

Oryx and Crake is the first of a trilogy of books set in the near future. (MaddAddam, published this fall, completes the trilogy.) Atwood sets the story in the near, recognizable future; a future with genetic engineering, gated and guarded compounds, and (continued) international sex trade. The tale deals with how one person, Snowman, once known as Jimmy, arrived at a Robinson Crusoe-like existence from that original, familiar setting. While surviving (one could hardly call it more than that) in this new world, the narration recounts the events that led him to his current circumstance. Crucial in the story are two others, the girl Oryx, first seen by Jimmy on a computer screen, and his friend Crake, a genius who rises quickly in the world of genetic engineering. 

Atwood writes from Snowman’s point of view, alternating between his current dire circumstances and the tale of his life that led him into this new world. Atwood persuasively captures a sense of alienated, somewhat nihilistic teenage boys who turn into alienated, somewhat nihilistic young men. This is one of those creepy aspects of the book. One can believe that a young Jimmy (young Snowman) and a young Crake (the nickname of his friend) exist in multitudes today. How do young men endowed with the awesome power of science, especially with the power of biology to alter life, deal with this power? Might they abuse it? When we think about gun violence, as we all too often must, we realize that we readily allow young males (nearly always the culprits) easy access to guns. Look what happens. What if we allow them access to the ability to create and alter life at the most basic levels? Do you feel comfortable with that thought? This part of the tale is as old as that of Victor Frankenstein, but today we have powers that Mary Shelley would never have dreamed of. Who was the greater threat: young Victor or his creation? 

Atwood also plays with the idea of abundance and scarcity, including the problem of jealousy and violence. Will this new world—perhaps not so brave as Shakespeare hoped and not so soporific as Huxley mocked—still engender violence and jealousy? Will the abundance of computer porn and accessible “sex workers”, along with genetic engineering, alleviate the violence created by male rivalry and quests for status? In this aspect of the book, the character of Oryx, a young woman brought to the world of Jimmy and Crake from the sex trade of south Asia, provides an enigmatic key. A wisp of a woman, she remains a mystery of sorts, even to the two men, Jimmy and Crake, with whom she becomes involved.

Atwood’s tale moves fast. Her imagination streams quickly from here to there in a light, deft prose that keeps the tale moving while describing this new world and the characters in it. Atwood doesn’t ruminate. She keeps the plot moving, but the lively pace of events allows Atwood to shine her high-intensity flashlight into as many aspects of these worlds as she can. She doesn’t need to explain; the spotlight of her imagination reveals enough.

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