A Response to Oryx and Crake

"That was a really disturbing book," the optometrist at the store said when I asked if she'd read 'Blindness'. I've heard people say the same thing about 'The Road' and 'Oryx and Crake'.

It's true; these books are disturbing. They are dystopian novels, dystopia defined as "a state in which the conditions of life are extremely bad as from deprivation or oppression or terror." I wondered what it meant that these kinds of books have a category. Is this category chosen because of the author's despair? Or hope? Or a combination? Do you just wake up one day and decide "I'm going to write a book about deprivation and oppression and terror"? Why not just watch the daily news. There is something decidedly deliberate about these novels that the daily news is not.

I read all three of the above books, and saw the movie version of Blindness. And while they are creepy, disturbing, depressing and bleak, oddly, I found myself uplifted at the end of each of them. I wonder why, and I don't just mean that rhetorically. Is it an attribute of dystopian literature? Perhaps not; I don't recall feeling this way after George Orwell's 1984. Perhaps it is a subset of this type of literature, because I can't help thinking this encouragement is intentional. We are meant to be warmed by the young boy in The Road saying, "we're the keepers of the fire, right?" And for all of his cynicism, we are relieved it is Jimmy and not Crake who becomes Snowman at the end of Oryx and Crake.

One of the questions books like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and the sequel The Year of the Flood raise is whether humanity is a product of technology. Maybe that's the nature or nurture question. If we stripped away all our techie advances, what would be left? Would it be enough to survive? And is survival different than living? Okay, that's more than one question, but I think this kind of dystopian novel invites us to reflect on these very questions. And that's not a bad thing to do, because you end up taking those questions with you in the here and now. The world we live in has a lot of echoes in Oryx and Crake, but it isn't the same. There is still time to reflect and assess.

Jimmy isn't necessarily a nice guy but you can't help liking him. He's funny and forlorn. At least he feels guilty about the gene-spliced pigs being bred for harvesting human organs. His friend Glenn simply assumes this is the logical next step. You never quite know whether Glenn (a.k.a. Crake) is trying to save or condemn the world, or merely just a sociopathic reincarnation of Richard Dawkins (questions which The Year of the Flood elaborates on). But you know that Jimmy feels remorse and attempts to take responsibility for his moral cowardice. And underneath all the cynicism, Jimmy is kind. When Jimmy and Glenn meet Oryx, an Asian human-trafficking refugee, their friendship and their differences are put into relief. Oryx and Crake is Jimmy's telling of how the three of them were caught up in their time, which is eerily like our time, and how they each tried to come to terms with those times.

The Year of the Flood tells the same story from several vantage points. In a way, I think it picks up where Oryx and Crake leaves off. If the latter asks whether 'words' or 'numbers' will help us survive, the former wraps that dichotomy with the question of faith. Faith in what is the question, but no spoilers here. In The Year of the Flood we meet God's Gardeners, a eco-retro-christian hybrid sect that wants to save the planet by going back to the land. While somewhat irritating at times, something rings true in their assertion, through the words of AdamOne, that the battle is as much for our souls as for the planet. The inner and outer connect.

These two books are one continuing story in which Atwood brings her scathing irony to bear on the question: Where are we headed? She allows herself to get ahead a bit, and ask "What if...". But there is also a deep sense of humour that bubbles up in these books, as if hope cannot truly be trampled down. Humour implies comedy, and comedy always deals in redemption. I'll let you decide whether you think it works, but I was very glad to have read these books. I hope she writes a third one. 

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