Saturday, May 24, 2003

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: A Future of Hope or Despair?

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
May 24, 2003


Pigoons and snats, wolvogs and chickienobs: man made creatures; manipulated, blended, genetically spliced and coalesced into caricature of darkest fantasia. What does humanity’s future hold in store?

There is no way that one can be certain where this world would be heeding to. Would it be a paradise that everyone dreams about where sustaining peace would reign over chaos? Or would it be total anarchy and war ravaged world full of despair? What would it be?

Margaret Atwood’s newest novel Oryx and Crake is based on this enigmatic subject.

Sometimes in the future, when the entire world is divided sharply between the have and have-nots, when the corporate culture are tucked in heavily “CorpSeCorps” protected compound from the dismayed ordinary folks in the “pleeblands”, a startlingly apocalyptic future is portrayed with all necessary bells and whistles splattered in this novel to make it a memorable one for the readers.

It is through the amazing advancements of science that our world have seen dramatic improvements in life for billions of people, though the impact might be far and between among groups or nations depending on the wealth of individuals. Nevertheless collectively, there indeed progresses have been made in every aspects of life, liberty and freedom. The previous decades’ racism is shunned. Unmanned rockets are launched for Mars. We are getting snapshots of earth from mars now; even man-made machine has crossed our solar system. New and improved drugs are getting manufactured. Physics is in its glorious stage through tremendous development in increasingly applicable quantum mechanics.

Progress is the magical word. But it is the same word that can be hijacked by the people with insatiable greed and thirst for unlimited power. Oryx and Crake is about this dark side of human species. What could happen if unchecked profit seeking deeds under the guise of “progress” take the modern world to unexpected course? What could befall if in this fatalistic future world civil liberties become the things of the past? What could transpire if only the few selected groups of people enjoy all the wealth and comforts whereas the majorities are left to deal with hunger, manufactured diseases and endless wars and terrorism?

Margaret Atwood began writing this novel in March 2001. She was almost halfway of writing Oryx and Crake, then the terrorists struck WTC in that inglorious morning of September 11. Ms Atwood reminisces the event in her website: “I was sitting in the Toronto airport, daydreaming about Part 8. In ten minutes my flight would be called. An old friend of mine came over and said, "We're not flying." "What do you mean?" I said. "Come and look at the television," he replied. It was September 11. I stopped writing for a number of weeks. It's deeply unsettling when you're writing about a fictional catastrophe and then a real one happens. I thought maybe I should turn to gardening books - something more cheerful. But then I started writing again, because what use would gardening books be in a world without gardens, and without books? And that was the vision that was preoccupying me.”[3]

And Oryx and Crake is that story where all the books been incinerated, only the selected ones are digitized, where arts, literature are being looked at with mocking gesture, where love and romance are replaced by mechanical lust and virtual flush.

Margaret Atwood describes a not-so-distant future, where the progress turn onto its lopsided head, and there are transgressions made on nature, genetic manipulation reaches its peak, dogs and wolves are blended into wolvogs, painless chicken production through chickienobs where drum sticks or chicken breasts are getting grown from artificially created chicken like creatures. So disturbing and palpable the scenes that one might feel a bit uncomfortable next time opening a greasy Kentucky Fried chicken deal of the day pack.

Here is one more excerpt from the author’s description of her novel, “Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?” [3]

Australia’s The Advertiser compares between The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake:

“In 1986, her The Handmaid's Tale predicted a monocultural and patriarchal America ruled by right-wing fundamentalists reacting extravagantly to perceived threats from Islam. Now she is advancing a new and perhaps more terrifying near-future scenario, one in which she has already registered an interest.” Her characters in The Handmaid's Tale gene-splice a sterility-causing virus based on mumps. They plan to slip it to Moscow officials in caviar, but abandon the idea because the virus is uncontrollable and therefore too dangerous. In her latest novel, Oryx and Crake, such caution has given way to corporate greed and scientific megalomania. Atwood has brilliantly imagined a technological dystopia where ethics and responsibility have been thrown to the wind and bio-engineers play God: "The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment ... and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate," she writes.” [2]

This is the story of Snowman, the protector of Crakers. Crakers are the new artificially created humanoids, devoid of all the negatives of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, who look at Snowman as the messenger of their creator. Snowman, who in earthly life was known as Jimmy, survived the apocalypse where almost the entire earth population were wiped out by newly invented and distributed botched pills called “BlyssPlus”. These children of Crakers, the green eyed men and women, bio engineered in the lab, eat only grass and leaves, they have built-in system hard-wired in their existence that protect them from all the follies of men like cheating, adultery, murders, racism or religious impulse. Their creator Crake made them to be free from all human vices. They don’t know what is jealousy, lust, rage or envy. They purr their wounds and minor infections like felines without needing modern medicine. They are designed to replace the “imperfect” human race; and Crake who in earthly life was known as Glen, designed them to take a jab at “CorpSeCorps” and corporate greed for which his scientist father was murdered when he had found out the devilish plan being cooked in the name of profits and science. Glen was super-genius; and he pursued his own schema of purifying the world, mending its endless problems by wiping out the entire human race and replacing it with his bio-engineered humanoid creatures.

Jimmy had an unhappy childhood. His father was a highly paid researcher for several bioengineer companies, and his mother, who was herself a researcher but had resigned after she had found out that the company was “meddling with the building blocks of life”. This had created a rift between Jimmy’s protesting mother and complying father who did not see any devious scheme in the scientific work he was involved in. Jimmy used to eavesdrop to his parents’ constant arguments and quarrels and was somewhat aware of the moral dilemma her mother was going through. In the end his mother ran away to join the underground rebel movement in the “pleebland” who were opposed to the “meddling with the building blocks of life”.

In his troubled childhood, Jimmy met Glen (Crake) at his school; they became best friend; they spent time playing gruesome online games in various internet sites, and prowled through various horrific TV channels that displayed live executions.

In Jimmy and Crake’s time, there are severe changes in world climate; global temperature has risen quite a bit, many coastal cities are now submerged under ocean, frequent sudden storms are the normal affairs.

This is also a story of triangle love, where Jimmy and Glen loved the same girl, Oryx, who was an Asian girl, sold in her childhood in some economically devastated place in Asia. Jimmy and Glen had met her through their inflamed teenage years’ incessant virtual lust filled browsing, and when they had finally met her many years after, the story of this girl’s life’s ordeal, the excruciating humiliation and imprisonment that she had gone through made Jimmy sympathetic toward her and that also made him enraged against those monstrous child-sellers who prowl through poor parts of this futuristic world, but strikingly similar to our present world, undetected.

“Snowman! Oh Snowman!” exclaim the Crakers, surrounding Jimmy, they want to hear stories, they want to hear about the world, where they came from, meaning of life and existence. To them, Jimmy has all the answers. And Jimmy provides them the simplistic explanation to the way of the world, the obliterated world where vengeful and greedy teetering human species have done the unthinkable at last. They have contributed wiping out their precious civilization and existence.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is one of her monumental achievements, it is filled with nostalgia, yarning for a bygone world, friends, family, lovers, the fearful agonies in the dark of the night perching in a tree. All the boastful achievements, glitzy styles amid the hunger of the billions, the ultimate exploitation of the poor, the permanent division of economic classes, these all read like unraveling of a premonitory poem that warn the rage-ripen world and its prehensile citizens in every single page of this unforgettable story.


References

1. Margaret Atwood, “Oryx and Crake”, McClelland Stewart Limited, Canada, April 2003.
2. Katharine England, “Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake”, The Advertiser, May 24, 2003.

3. Margaret Atwood, “Writing Oryx and Crake”, Random House, January 2003

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Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is: sohelkarim@yahoo.com.

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