Warning: There will be some spoilers below.
Shortly after I finished the Hunger Games Trilogy I wandered through Easons on O’Connell Street, all lonely and forlorn. I had no more books to read. I found myself wandering over to the pile of Hunger Games books which Easons had labelled as Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic fiction (can’t remember the exact title but it was something like that). Thinking about this I trugged home wishing that I could erase the Hunger Games and Fallout games from my head so I could relive the joy of discovering these new and exciting worlds again. Later that evening I moaned to my trusty companion who said that I should read Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood. So, being eager to returned to a world post-disaster I thought I would give it a go.
The story opens with a character called Snowman, who seems to be the only human left after society has collapsed after a mysterious disaster. He is a hermit and his only contact with other sentient beings is either through fighting off genetically modified creatures like pigoons, rakunks and wolvogs and by meeting the Crakers, who are genetically modified humans. We learn what happened to the world through a series of flashbacks to his previous life when he was Jimmy. It is through the story of Jimmy that we learn what the world was like before the disaster and what led to the downfall of the world as Snowman knew it.
There are some really strong themes in the book which I think really make this such a good story. I have picked my favourite ones for discussion:
Privilege and Poverty
One of the most striking themes in the book is the societal inequality and the gulf between those with privilege and those confined to poverty. The people with commercially valuable skills such as scientists and advertising experts live in corporate compounds which are developed and maintained by the companies that they work for. They have very comfortable lives with high wages and access to some of the best education, leisure and healthcare facilities that this future had to offer.
Everyone else lived in the pleeblands. These were dangerous communities were poverty was rife and opportunities were fewer. Crime was a reality for these residents and many turned to it to stay afloat. They did not have the comforts or stability that the compounds offered.
However the pleeblands boasted a type of freedom that the compounds did not have. In the compounds their standard of living are directly linked to their employment and their value as developers of commercial product. They are totally sheltered and cocooned and no one is allowed to leave the compounds without strict permission. The compounds are heavily monitored by security and the resident’s freedoms were severely limited. Atwood describes how Jimmy overhears adults reminiscing about when they could travel when they pleased and scarily “when voting mattered”.
It was to the pleeblands that compound residences escaped to when they became disillusioned with the system. It was in the pleeblands where the revolutionary activities took place. Atwood showed that no place has it all and once you scrat the surface of a place like the compounds the underneath can be quite unnerving.
Overall the people I found myself feeling sorry for the most were the people living in neither the pleeblands or the compounds. They were the people who lived in isolated areas and were running out of food. These people had to sell their children so they could survive. This is heart breaking especially as this is not unheard of in our world today. This was bleak poverty and a tough decision for parents to make, selling one child to save the others.
Desolation of the environment.
Even in today’s world, debate about the environment and how best we can mange it balanced with economic interests is ongoing. Atwood describes a world where it is too late for those debates and the environment is horribly damaged. Jimmy, who has no previous knowledge of the world before, overhears his mother talking about how “everything was ruined” and her grandfather’s orchard which was destroyed by drought and the beaches consumed by coastal erosion.
Economic interests have won out to the detriment of the planet. Animal testing is commonplace with animals even being used as organ carriers. Many species have been wiped out and illnesses are invented just so companies can sell cures.
After the event the environment reclaims its space. It starts to breakdown human civilisation and take back its domain. All the human ingenuity and technology did not matter and nature will win out.
It is a message that we should take heed of before it get too late. In particular I liked the inclusion of the warning about unproven unscientific medicine and its devastating impact on endangered species. Disdain for “credulous morons who thought that eating its horn would give them a boner” is quoted from the book and is an important message as animals today are being slaughtered to the point of extinction, for quack alt-med products.
Isolation and what it does to the mind
Aside from the large overall discussions about the environment and of poverty vs privilege, some of the smaller, more personal themes were the ones that really stuck with me after I finished the book.
One of those was the reality of isolation and what it can do to the human mind. We are social creatures and the lack of human contact can negatively affect a person’s mental health. Snowman, who we meet at the start of the book, is pretty much alone. All he has is the Crakers, who he finds odd, and his memories. He spends his time trying to stay alive, imaging that Oryx is taking to him and cursing Crake for leaving him all alone. He repeats words to himself, trying to prevent their loss from the world and his mind.
Readers can really feel his sense of isolation and his attempts to cling onto his mental capacity. He craves human (non-genetically modified) attention and feels hopeless and depressed. Instead of feeling grateful that he is left alive he struggles with it and sees it as a curse rather than a blessing. It is very easy to sense his frustration and yet marvel at his survivor’s nature helping him to keep on going. Atwood did a very good job at creating this sense of isolation and Snowman is a brilliant conduit for these feelings.
This world is not a particularly child friendly one. Extreme poverty, uncertain futures and neglect all still influence the lives of children despite all the technological advances.
The most extreme example of a tough childhood is that of Oryx. Sold by her impoverished mother to a business man who used child labour, she left home to work selling flowers on the street. This then turned into bribing paedophiles to ensure the business man’s silence. After his murder she was then sold to child pornography production company. At times this narrative was really difficult and disturbing to read. The most unsettling thing for me about this storyline was how Oryx herself dealt with it. She did not want to discuss it with Jimmy and when she did she spoke about it like it was a normal, inconsequential part of her life. She spoke fondly of the camera man who taught her English and how the films that they made broke up the monotony of her boring days. In the end she was rescued from a garage and she defended the man arrested, saying that he just wanted to save her and that he gave her an education. For her this was just her life and part of her past. The incidents were normalised for her and she did not feel the same sense of horror as Jimmy and undoubtedly the reader felt.
For Jimmy and Crake, the children of the compounds, their childhoods were difficult but in different ways. As mentioned before living in the compounds was dependant on being a part of the corporation plan. This often meant parents working long hours, being distant or absent for parts of their children’s lives. Under this environment of parental neglect Jimmy and Crake filled their time playing disturbing video games and watching vile programmes involving murder, pornography and animal torture.
Jimmy’s home life for me seemed really, well, sad. Yes he was comfortable in financial terms, he lived in the compounds, got a good education and had access to leisure activities but his home life was really lacking. His Dad, a top scientist, was often busy and forgot Jimmy’s birthday. As he was an only-child this should not have been too difficult to remember. His mother was struggling with personal issues and because of this she neglected Jimmy and sometimes was outright abusive. In fact when she leaves home she takes with her the most important thing in Jimmy’s life, his pet Killer.
How Atwood describes Jimmy’s reaction to his mother leaving is fantastic. He hates her for leaving and taking killer. Yet despite this when he still “yearned” for her. He continued to worry about her and what type of danger that she might be in. She sent him postcards and he felt like he disappointed her and he wanted a chance to make her happy. This contradiction of feelings may seem a bit strange to some people. She was horrible to him so why does he still care for her? The reason is, that she is his mother and it is so hard to break that bond. I worked for a time in children’s services and time and time again children would maintain loyalty to their parents even if the parents had put them through hell. I am really glad that Atwood portrayed this through this relationship as the more people understand how common this contradiction is, the more we can understand children who may be feeling these conflicting emotions and acting out because of them.
Disdain for the Arts
In the book the boys graduate and go onto college, Crake with his scientific mind goes to the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute while Jimmy goes to Martha Graham, an arts college. The Watson-Crick Institute is a well funded, shiny campus with state of the art facilities. Martha Graham on the other-hand, is crumbling and neglected. The books in the library are rotting and the bright minds are staying away. The money followed where money could be generated. The arts were not seen as worth funding as they were no longer particularly wealth generating.
During these times of austerity and cut-backs this is a debate which is heating up in many countries at the moment. Where should precious funds go? In Ireland at the moment arts funding is being cut and there is talks of merging cultural bodies to save money. On the other hand money is being thrown at tech companies and start ups as they are seen as eventual money makers. Is this right however? What exactly should be sacrificed? Can heritage and the arts be considered as valuable as science and technology? These are questions that are being debated right now. In the world of Oryx and Crake however it had already been decided, to the apparent detriment of society.
What makes a human?
We learn that Snowman is not totally alone. He has neighbours called the Crakers who are genetically modified humans. They were created to try and take all the so-called bad things from human nature. For example they eat just for nutrition and have sex just for reproduction.
Snowman does not take to them mostly because they are without imperfection. He describes them as “they’re placid, like animated statues”. They are not aware of some basic things that humans take for granted and seem like they are from another world. Snowman uses the example of toast and asks how he would explain it to them. In these ways the Crakers do not seem human. Them seem to lack some of the traits that would be considered to determine humanity.
But as the story progressed the Crakers displayed traits that made them seem more human. The were curious about the world that they lived in and where they came from. They question Snowman about this and show a great sense of wonder. To Snowman this is ironic as they start to build a god like image of Crake and Crake really hated the idea of god. The Crakers also try to help Snowman when he decided to go on a journey and they feel a sense of loyalty to him and want to protect him.
This shows that the idea of a human being is not as clear cut as it may seem. What makes a person, human is one of those questions that has been discussed since discussion was invented and I do quite like the way it it portrayed in this story.
Importance of Conflict
From a story telling point of view this novel really brought home for me the importance of conflict in story telling. If it was just a story about the happy, peaceful Crakers and Snowman talking to himself in a tree, it would be very boring. To be honest when I started reading the book I wasn’t that taken with it and found it a bit dull. But by introducing the back stories of the characters, the contradictions in society and by displaying the hypocrisies of human nature it made the story take off and it became quite exciting.
Oryx and Crake was a great read and I would recommend it. As mentioned above, I did find it quite slow to start and all the different characters quite confusing. But as the story developed it became compelling reading and I could not put it down (even though I was meant to be studying for a First Aid exam). At times it was difficult to read, especially the sections dealing with Oyrx’s past. But I applaud Margaret Atwood from not shying away from the topic and writing about it in an honest, clear way. This is the first Margaret Atwood book that I have read but it will not be the last.