Among the bobkittens and rakunks
On a wet winter’s night, the Beamers gathered around to share a warm container of Chickie Nobs and some hot comments about the End of the World as We Know It and what comes after, as described by Margaret Atwood in her post-apocalyptic tale, Oryx and Crake. While the bobkitten crackers were ginger-free, our thoughts regarding a genetically engineered New World Order had a bit of zing.
The Last Man on Earth, Wrapped in a Sheet
Oryx and Crake is the first of a trilogy that Atwood has written, dealing with a number of current issues such as climate change, natural resource deletion, widespread use of genetic engineering, increasing inequalities of wealth and opportunity, and the commercialization of every aspect of life. Under such a load of social pressures, it would be easy for the book to collapse into dystopic pessimism. But Atwood tends to inject some humor into her commentary, making the introduction of new pet animals like the rakunk (part-racoon, part-skunk) seem both comically bizarre and yet touchy and understandable.
The protagonist of the story, Snowman, details his life after and before the collapse in alternating sections. We follow him both in the present as he tries to salvage more useful items from the abandoned corporate campus where he worked and in the past as he reminisces about growing up (as Jimmy), watching his parents’ marriage fall apart, and meeting his closest friend, Crake, a genius who is both obsessive and aloof. Snowman/Jimmy (and we debated over whether he was truly one or two characters in the book) is more commentator than actor, a characteristic that did not endear him to most Beamers. Given his position as the last human standing in an environment that was no longer tailored for us, he reminded me of Robert Neville, the lone survivor of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Liz agreed with the parallel but found that she enjoyed reading about Neville’s struggles more than Jimmy’s laments.
Games People Play
Jimmy is rather ordinary, especially in the company of the gifted children of the corporate compound in which he grew up, the smartest of whom is Crake (aka Glenn, with 2 n’s, after pianist Glenn Gould, whom Chris noted as another aloof genius). But Jimmy serves as the Everyman for the tale, someone with flaws and with virtues, someone who argues for trying to preserve what is good and beautiful, even if it is not efficient or perfect. Jimmy and Crake play a number of games in the book, including “Extinctathon”, a trivia contest involving extinct species, one that inspires Crake’s ultimate projects. The one that caught my attention was “Blood and Roses”, a 2-person game of human atrocity versus human achievement, in which Jimmy usually took the side (often losing) of aesthetics, trying desperately to figure out how many “Mona Lisas” make up for the fire-bombing of Dresden.
We debated some of the (in)famous philosophy class questions, such as the Trolley Problem (switching a runaway trolley to kill 1 person instead of 5 people), to see if we could pinpoint whether we would prefer to act or to remain passive, like Jimmy. Not surprisingly, we failed to come up with a uniform answer, but we did uncover some of the depths that Atwood subtly layered into her narrative.
Slogging toward Bethlehem
It did take some work, though, to make those discoveries, work not to everyone’s taste. Chris commented favorably on the literary quality of the book, but he did resort to the dread ‘s’ word (“slog”) to describe his reading experience. Nick, too, found himself skimming the book initially to try to determine if it were worth reading, but he did go back again and again till he read it all the way through. Pete, our newest member, was also partial to the ‘s’ word, finding much of the interesting speculation and social commentary to be hiding under more character development than he would expect in a genre work. I was the only one to find the writing to be worth the effort for the various satiric riffs that Atwood sprinkled throughout, like chocolate chips in a tollhouse cookie. Most of us, though, did not want so much dough.
The biggest conundrum was accounting for Crake, particularly the resolution of his scheme, as it involved the killing of both Oryx and himself. Did he mean to die? Or did he mean to kill Jimmy? Liz pointed out that Crake earlier was musing over whether it was right to kill a loved one to spare them pain, to which Jimmy replied, “How much love? How much pain?” So, if Oryx and Crake were infected and facing a painful death, then it would make sense for Crake to maneuver Jimmy into killing them.
But why did they have to die, at all? My thought was to remove variables that would upset the “experiment” of the Crakers, the genetically engineered humans whom Crake created to replace us wasteful and destructive people. In the new world of the Crakers, there would be no more hunger (their digestion permitted them to survive on grasses), jealousies or sexual tensions (as they had definite estrus in promiscuous groups, like bonobos), or curiosity (replaced with placidity). There would be no need nor use for someone to guide them (Oryx’s role) or to tamper with their environment (Crake’s job). Pete noted that much of Crake’s action in the book resembled someone playing a game, a very detailed, very complex game, and one in which pieces could be sacrificed coolly to insure victory, or at least to produce an interesting series of moves.
The Child is the Mother to the Woman
Oryx, herself, was a character we could admire, even if the focus on her early life in the Asian porn industry was a bit belabored for most Beamer tastes. Pete was interested in the dynamic of her dual relationships with Crake and Jimmy, and the various emotional responses (Oryx amused, Jimmy jealous and competitive, Crake mostly oblivious). Liz admired Oryx for being a survivor, handling her abusive past in a much less self-destructive way than Jimmy approached his own, rather sterile, childhood. How much she realized she was being used and how much she hid behind her insouciance we debated, particularly with the revelation of her involvement with Crake’s world-ending virus. Still, even if it would have upset the “experiment”, we would have liked to have her survive and to keep teasing Jimmy about his choice of sheets as protective clothing.
[In a post-script note, Kathy added that the young Oryx’s survival skills, which involved compliance and identification with abusive men, did not serve her well when trying to be an independent adult, leaving her only able to simulate, and not truly feel, love.]
She Blinded Us, with Science!
Another issue was the believability of the genetic engineering (aside from the Chickie Nobs, which we all loved). Could we expect to see such massive and specific changes made in humans to convert us into Crakers? Liz thought that Atwood had fallen prey to the “gene for” fallacy, the mistaken notion that every human trait is traceable to a single location on a single chromosome and that by adding/removing those modular bits of DNA, organisms can be easily reconfigured like the options of an automobile. Of course, even within the narrow parameters that Crake established, we could see the Crakers escaping their programming, with some individuals (like the aptly named “Abraham Lincoln”) beginning to assume leadership roles despite having hierarchy removed from their social relationships. Much like blades of grass poking up through the pristine asphalt of their newly paved world, the Crakers were breaking down their genetic walls. Even without curiosity, the Crakers were searching for meaning, taking Jimmy’s side of the “Blood and Roses” game.
Tonight, on the Literary Fiction Channel …
Overall, we came down a bit ambivalently on the book. While there was a general recognition of its literary merits, the payoff was not quite worth the effort, in regard to recommending the book to other sf/f fans. Where we could see numerous parallels to The Space Merchants by Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth (our December 2014 selection), with its ad-man protagonist positioned as an assistant to the movers-and-shakers of a corporate world facing eco-catastrophe. But the brevity of the earlier work stands it a bit ahead of its bigger, better written cousin. So, instead of finishing the trilogy, we will likely be waiting for the TV adaptation to find out whether the Crakers inherit the Earth or have to give it back to the recalcitrant human survivors.