Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Review: Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)

Atwood’s future world is the stuff of science fiction, but not the often alienated stuff of airport bookshelves and best-seller lists. Her prose has a warmth and heat that insinuates the message past the bull-barriers that keep out fraudulent notions. There’s nothing in here that isn’t demanded by the story, you feel. Nothing extraneous or futile.

Snowman is stranded, alone, in a post-apocalyptic future populated by humanoids with whom he has a thin dialog, due to their lack of sophistication. Who are these people? Why is Snowman alone? What will happen to him if he finds no one else to share his plight? What is he afraid of that causes him to sleep in a tree? Why is he called Snowman?

All these questions, and more, are answered in the course of the novel. And the answers are satisfactory, but to go into them here would spoil the book for future readers.

As to Atwood’s style, it visits the realms of science fiction with it’s guard up.

When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two stray. It must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it had made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?
  But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.

Satire of such an elevated kind is not normally found in science fiction, although the genre might have changed significantly since I last tasted its pleasures, which admittedly was quite some time ago. But this is satire of a high accomplishment, and it is accompanied by strong irony and delicate humour. Atwood has all the registers at her disposal, and she uses them to good effect.

Sometimes her prose is decidedly spooky as Jimmy — who we early start to identify with Snowman, putting two and two together — attempts to get the truth from Oryx — a truth that is too harsh for mortal hearing. Very spare prose, pared down to bare essentials, but still with that trademark warmth, like a poultice on a wound it has itself made:

Oryx said that Uncle En really knew his business, because children would believe other children about punishments more readily than they would believe adults. Adults threatened to do things they never did, but children told what would happen. Or what they were afraid would happen. Or what had happened already, to them or to other children they’d known.

Snowman’s predicament is quite unsalvageable. He tries to look into the future, but it is too bleak even for a glimpse.

Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks as it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.

Jimmy collect arcane words — just to even out the calculation — and when he visits Crake’s institution he finds that the geeks are cruel.

So all of that was a welcome change from Martha Graham, though Crake’s fellow students tended to forget about cutlery and eat with their hands, and wipe their mouths on their sleeves. Jimmy wasn’t picky, but this verged on gross. Also they talked all the time, whether anyone was listening or not, always about the ideas they were developing. Once they found Jimmy wasn’t working on a space — was attending, in fact, an institution they clearly regarded as a mere puddle — they lost any interest in him. They referred to other students in their own faculties as their conspecifics, and to all other human beings as nonspecifics. It was a running joke.

Atwood’s use of language is always entertaining and fresh:
He knew he was faltering, trying to keep his footing. Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see, however. That was the trouble.

But sometimes her prose jumps the fence into the land of jargon. It fits with the tone of the novel, however, and, anyway, it’s not absolutely necessary to understand in detail every nuance that appears to us. As long as we appreciate the tone, it is often enough.

The BlyssPluss Pill was designed to take a set of givens, namely the nature of human nature, and steer these givens in a more beneficial direction than the ones hitherto taken. It was based on studies of the now unfortunately extinct pygmy or bonobo chimpanzee, a close relative of Homo sapiens sapiens. Unlike the latter species, the bonobo had not been partially monogamous with polygamous and polyandrous tendencies. Instead it had been indiscriminately promiscuous, had not pair-bonded, and had spent most of its waking life, when it wasn’t eating, engaged in copulation. Its intraspecific aggression factor had been very low.

Atwood’s sense of fun is also of a very high order. Deism seems a big risk when you’re inventing a new species:

Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war. Snowman longs to question them — who first had the idea of making a reasonable facsimile of him, of Snowman, out of a jar lid and a mop? But that will have to wait.

This is a Very Good Book, a literary sci-fi thriller that ends on a high note, but one that the totality of the narrative can sustain. We finish on the brink of discovery — perhaps. But also on the edge of despair and the end of innocence.

The question is: what will happen?

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