Category Archives: Dystopian Fiction

Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

Reading the Anthropocene:  Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood”

Continuing on with my “Reading the Anthropocene” series, today I’d like to talk about the second volume in Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAdam Trilogy,” ominously titled The Year of the Flood.  Unlike the first novel, which was told from the perspectivenovel of the embittered Jimmy, this one is told from the dual perspectives of Toby and Ren, two survivors of the plague and former members of the religious cult known as God’s Gardeners.  As the novel toggles between Year Twenty Five (the eponymous Year of the Flood) and the past–interspersed with exhortations from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners–we get a glimpse into the lives that Ren and Toby led prior to the plague.  Both women emerge as tenacious survivors in a world that, as becomes clear, is perilous for women, who are often subjected to the violently sexual whims of men like Blanco (Toby’s employer and tormentor for most of the novel), and exploited for their bodies.

If in many ways the first novel portrayed the misogynist worldview of both Glenn and Jimmy, The Year of the Flood acts as something of a corrective, evoking shades of The Handmaid’s Tale with its rigorous focus on the perspectives of its two female protagonists, Toby and Ren (Brenda).  While Brenda’s storyline focuses on her sexual objectification as part of the Scales and Tails strip club, Toby’s focuses on her search for meaning in a world that continues to collapse around her.  While she finds respite for a time with the God’s Gardeners, she is eventually forced to find shelter elsewhere after Blanco continues to pursue her and jeopardizes the entire Gardener colony.  Nevertheless, Toby puts her Gardener-learned skills to good use, and it is precisely these skills that allow her to continue surviving in the harsh, unforgiving world left in the wake of the Waterless Flood (the plague).  While Ren does not possess the same amount of agency as Toby, she is still just as much of a survivor, enduring neglect and abandonment by her mother as well as by  Jimmy (for whom she harbors a long-unrequited love), as well as the harsh exploitation of Scales and Tails.

One of the most compelling (and sometimes frustrating) things about this novel is its mixed tone about the God’s Gardeners.  At times, it seems that the novel wants us to view them sympathetically and their worldview–with its emphasis on returning to the principles of the earth, its compelling mixture of science with genuine religious faith, and their eco-friendly practices–as a genuinely practical alternative to the corporate/military dystopia which surrounds them.  Indeed, several of the “hymns” that punctuate the main narrative are actually quite touching and melancholy, evoking as they do the heavy price humankind has to pay as a result of its pushing so many species over the brink of extinction.  However, these moments of pathos remain at least slightly undercut by the exhortation that begins the Adam One chapters, which routinely refer to his fellow Gardeners as “fellow mammals.”  To me, this always strikes a bit of a humorous note, a sly wink from the narrator (perhaps even Adam One himself?) and a suggestion that perhaps all of this should not be taken too seriously.

Of course, no review of this series would be complete without an obligatory mention of the animal hybrids, especially the pigoons (who of course make several appearances, usually as a torment to Toby).   These quasi-pigs continue to be a menace, disturbing precisely because they so seamlessly embody a strange sort of cuteness with a brutal and sinister cunning.  A new hybrid, the liobam, also makes an appearance, as a bizarre cross between the lion and the lamb, manufactured by yet another religious sect in the hopes of bringing the apocalypse to pass (hence the lion laying with the lamb).

Again, despite the brutality and the animal hybrids, the end of the novel ends on a cautiously optimistic note, as the journey narrative seem to have come to a satisfactory conclusion:  Amanda has been successfully rescued, the remnants of God’s Gardeners have been reunited at last, Jimmy is brought back from the precipice of death, and the People of Crake approach.  Unlike many products of the anthropocene (particularly films like Melancholia and the literary works of authors like Paolo Baciagalupi), the trilogy (so far, at least), seems to be cautiously optimistic about hte advent of the anthropocene.  Humankind might be capable of destroying the world, but these novels suggest that it is just as capable of rebuilding at least a measure of what was lost.

Reading the Anthropocene: Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”

In this, the inaugural entry in my series “Reading the Anthropocene,” I’ve decided to focus on Margaret Atwood’s biting dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, the first volume in the “Madaddam Trilogy.”  The novel, by turns funny, disturbing, terrifying, and even oddly sentimental, is a testament to Atwood’s continuing ability to paint a portrait of a future world that could, feasibly, stem from the one that we are currently in the process of creating.

The novel, set sometime in the not-too-distant future, follows the character Jimmy, narrating both his present (a world in which most of the population has been decimated by a terrible plague), as well as the past (in which he befriends a scientific genius named Crake, as well as an inscrutable young woman named Oryx).  Theirs is a world overrun with science and capitalism, where a select group get to live in various Compounds (owned by corporations), while most of humanity is relegated to the crime and disease-ridden (and thus sinisterly appealing) pleeblands.  After an unremarkable (though quite unhappy) youth, Jimmy ends up attending the disgraced Martha Graham Academy to study humanities, while Crake (originally known as Glenn), ends up at the prestigious Watson Crick Institute.  Gradually, unbeknownst to Jimmy, Crake develops a pill that, while claiming to offer sexual satisfaction to any who take it, is in actuality the host for a powerful virus with which he intends to restart the evolutionary clock, replacing flawed humanity with his own bio-engineered race of humanoids (dubbed either Crakers of the Children of Crake/Children of Oryx).  Using Oryx as his proxy, he spreads the virus around the world, triggering the apocalypse, but leaving Jimmy alive to care for his creations (he also kills Oryx, leading an enraged Jimmy to shoot him in turn).  At the end of the novel, Jimmy realizes that he is not, in fact, the only human left alive, as two strangers walk into his territory.

As this description makes clear, Oryx and Crake doesn’t pull any punches, serving as a needling rebuke of our present cultural moment and our obsession with the endless production of beauty, food, and all of the other fatally glitzy trappings of modern capitalism.  Indeed, one cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy for Crake’s point of view, given how thoroughly we have managed (so far) to ruin much of the planet that we call home.  Like the best dystopian fiction, particularly that which has emerged during the growing awareness of the anthropocene, the novel attempts to make us aware of just how much ruin we are in the process of perpetrating, ranging from the mass extinction of species (by the time in which the novel takes place, many species of animal have gone extinct) to dangers of science gone unchecked.  Even climate change makes an appearance, though in this novel it remains on the edges, a haunting reminder of things to come (it makes a marked appearance in several places in the novel’s sequel, The Year of the Flood).

At times, the novel manages to evoke the viscerally terrifying nature of a world in which commercialized science has run amok, playing havoc and manipulating every aspect of nature in an attempt to reach some intangible, and ultimately unattainable, measure of perfection.  It’s hard to say which of the fantastic creations the novel evokes are the most disturbing, whether it’s the fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly carnivorous pigoons (pigs that were developed as homes for easily transplantable human organs), or the Chickie-Nobs, a genetically modified chicken that produces a steady supply of chicken nuggets (the chicken itself has no brain to speak of, only that part that manages the unconscious functions necessary for the barest survival).  Even the relatively benign creations, such as the rankunks (raccoon/skunk hybrids), still carry with them the idea that they are not completely natural and that, as a result, they might turn sinister at any moment.

Like many cultural products of the anthropocene, Oryx and Crake attempts to make sense of a world gone mad (both in the context of the novel and, one could argue, the world that we currently live in).  The novel expresses a hope that the end of the world as we know it can be understood at the level of the personal (after all, it is due to the actions of a single individual that the virus is unleashed), but also that that individual and his motivations can only be understood in their complexity when we situate them in the world in which they live.  Thus, there is something both comforting and disconcerting about this vision of the end of the world, as we are, at least briefly, encouraged to believe that the end of the world can be understood (and thus, perhaps, prevented) at the same time as we are also encouraged to understand that, in some fundamental way, the end of the world will always remain inscrutable, forever beyond the grasp of any one thinker 0r reader.

Further, like Atwood’s other (and probably most famous) dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with Jimmy/Snowman stepping out to confront the two newcomers to his territory.  While the novel ends on a cliffhanger (we are left wondering who these people are and what they are doing, and we have no idea how they greet the arrival of Jimmy), there is still the faint sliver of hope that somehow, human life has not been entirely extinguished.  Given the lengths to which the novel goes to make Jimmy (who adopts the name of Snowman in his interactions with the Crakers, for whom he is something of a prophet), a quasi-sympathetic character, we hope for his sake (and our own?) that there is still hope that our world can be rescued from the ashes.

That is a hope that, as the full force of the anthropocene becomes more and more obvious with each passing day, begins to seem ever more futile and more ephemeral.  And that, in the end, grants this novel its raw and terrible power.