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.