Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Book Review: The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake

I once had an English teacher describe science-fiction author Octavia Butler as a "woman with a hard mind." I've taken that to mean that Butler was a writer who was not afraid to push hard on the ideas--to take a complicated idea, like say, the psychology of slavery, or the cruelty of Darwinian-style evolution, and see how it really works in human society.  She didn't let any of her characters off the hook.  Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is also a woman with a hard mind (do we expect it less, because she's a woman?) Her novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are, together, the telling of a viral destruction of most of the human population. She calls her writing "speculative fiction," (not wanting to sully her work with genre associations, I guess, although science fiction is speculative fiction) and she pushes hard on the ideas.

These books are set in the near future (my guess would be 50-100 years, though it doesn't really matter), in what can be called a dystopian world, although a lot of what she describes is...now, depending on where you stand.  Think of the quote from William Gibson that goes:  "The future has already arrived, it's just not evenly distributed yet."  No one is spared the implications of corporatism, climate change, over-population, and widespread genetic manipulation--not the characters, not the reader.  Jimmy, the narrator of O&C,  is horrified when he first sees the bizarrely-modified headless lab chickens with tube-like appendages that grow "ChickieNobs," which are nugget-like chicken chunks.  Later when ChickieNobs are a commonly-available fast food item (sold by the bucket!) he munches on them without a thought, clearly over the shock of their origin.  Plus, they're delicious. Jimmy: implicated.

Some time before the events of the books take place there has been a corporate takeover of civil and military defense, with all security now being administered by the CorpSeCorps (not to be confused with the Corpse Corps, an undead biker gang that takes over small towns), who are allied with various large corporations.  The corporations have their own compounds--think suburb+golf course+shopping mall--where their employees live and work inside the safety of walls.  Outside the walls of the compounds are the pleeblands, filled with the unprivileged working class, vice industries, organized crime, cut-rate genetic manipulation, street gangs and chaos.

The corporate system has enabled market-driven scientific experimentation and innovation, including growing human organs for transplant inside oversize pigs, splicing species to create luminescent roses and glowing green rabbits, and creating an all purpose sex pill called BlyssPluss (there are a lot of cloyingly-spelled words in Atwood's future) that kills all STDs and enhances pleasure and virility.  O&C follows the story of Jimmy and Crake, friends who grow up in the HelthWyzer compound.  TYOTF follows the story of Toby and Ren, women who get involved with the religiopolitical group "God's Gardeners," a pleebland cult devoted to a vegan interpretation of Christianity, and resisting modern genetic and technological atrocities.  Characters in the book overlap in implausible ways (Ren was Jimmy's lover in high school, and then her childhood friend was his roommate in college, then he shows up at the strip club she works at, and later dates her best friend--wait, how many people are there in the future? And all the main characters survive the plague?)

There are a lot of ideas in these books--but for the purpose of my review I'm going to stick with the ideas about the relationship of science/commerce with nature.  There is some mention of climate change--the seas have risen enough that there is now a New New York, and the crumbling partially-submerged high rises left just offshore are now a haven for sea birds (kind of an eerie, beautiful thing to imagine).  The weather is unpredictable, there are daily thunderstorms and sporadic tornados, and the sun is so intense that people can't venture outside during the day without a protective covering (kind of like a burqa?), and the air in the pleeblands is so polluted you need an air filter mask (like in Beijing?) Also, Texas has dried up and blown away (does anyone care?)

In Atwood's dystopia the left-brains have gotten an upper hand.  The "creative class" has been relegated to second-rate institutions like the Martha Graham Academy, while the science geniuses like Crake get funneled to corporate-sponsored highly-funded schools like Watson-Crick U.  Here ethics are low, hubris is high, and the statue outside the school is a spoat/gider, the first successful animal splice (who would want such a creature? I asked myself...until I found out that it is real).  Other animal splices of the future include "pigoons", mentioned above, "human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host"; "bobkittens," miniature bobcats created to control the glowing green rabbit population; "rakunks," a raccoon/skunk hybrid created as cute pets for compound kids (she's looking at you, Japan); "liobams," a lion/lamb splice engineered by a religious faction tired of waiting for the prophecy about the "lion lying down with the lamb" to come true; and my favorite, "wolvogs," creatures that look like dogs, but are extremely vicious. They are placed in security moats.  Don't ask why. It's like asking "why would you put a laser beam on a dolphin?"  Atwood is bringing in a lot of issues here, one being how difficult it is to manage the impact humans have on nature.  She's specifically referencing the risky game of introducing one species to offset the rapid growth of another, then dealing with an increased population of the introduced species, and subsequent decimation of tangential populations of flora and fauna (implicated: foxes, goats, kelp, see this list for a list of 100 of the worst invasive species).

In general, Atwood makes a case for the idea that people who are physically disconnected from the earth are also emotionally and spiritually disconnected.  She describes Jimmy:  "There had been something willed about it though, his ignorance.  Or not willed, exactly: structured.  He'd grown up in walled spaces, and then he had become one.  He had shut things out."  The vegan cult members are not always likable either, some turn into destructive fanatics and others are scolding and bitter, but they are at least cultivators.  They keep a rooftop garden where they grow vegetables, and everyone participates in things like soap and vinegar-making to support the commune.  They have a brilliant hagiography of saints:  St. Rachel Carson, St. Dian Fossey, St. Farley Mowat, of the wolves.  Their daft new-ageism blends wonderfully with Atwood's dark, sly humor,  which is exemplified in the cult's hymns and sayings, and the sermons of their leader, Adam One, such as this excerpt for "April Fish Day":
"Let Love and aid be brought to the Sea creatures in their present peril and great suffering... from the Creatures of the shallows to the Creatures of the depths, the Giant Squid included; and remember your Whales, that You created on the fifth day, and set in the Sea to play therein; and bring help especially to the Sharks, that misunderstood and much-persecuted breed."
Although Adam One seems out of touch, much of what he preaches is touchingly optimistic in the face of the extinction and perversion of so many creatures, the pollution that chokes away human existence, and the imminence of plague death.  To the God's Gardeners, the flood is redemptive, a cleansing of the human blight upon the earth, and a chance to return to an ecological paradise.  When Toby questions why Adam One reassures a compound deserter (Jimmy's mother) of her decision, though the information she has is of no value to them, he deftly responds "We must cast a wide net...although some of the fish may be small.  Also we must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there's nothing they can do, they will do worse than nothing."

Here is where Atwood finds human value, in empowerment to action, in forgiveness, in compassion, and in acceptance of the ineffable power of nature to destroy and renew.  At the end of O&C Jimmy leads Crake's artificially created race of people to a new habitat, and at the end of TYOTF Toby leads Ren on a mission to save her best friend, who has been kidnapped.  Jimmy and Ren and Toby all meet where the books ultimately overlap; in the wooded hinterland of the city where the survivors have all come to begin their lives again.  Near the end of their stories, Toby and Jimmy both have moments where they marvel at the sheer beauty of the world--it makes them feel something, but they don't know what, a kind of faith or love, amazement at least.  They marvel at beauty in the absence of humans, and in the promise of their own absence.

Toby:
"Yet each flower, each twig, each pebble, shines as though illuminated from within, as once before, on her first day in the Garden. It's the stress, it's the adrenalin, it's a chemical effect: she knows this well enough. But why is it built in? she thinks. Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we're about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy?"
Jimmy:
"On the eastern horizon there's a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow.  Strange how that color still seems tender.  He gazes at it with rapture; there is no other word for it. Rapture. The heart seized, carried away, as if by some large bird of prey.  After everything that's happened, how can the world still be so beautiful?  Because it is.  From the offshore towers come the avian shrieks and cries that sound like nothing human."

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