Saturday, September 04, 2004

Dark Future

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, Read by Campbell Scott, Random House, Inc., 2003

The difficulty in writing a good futuristic story, whether just a sci-fi action-thriller that happens to take place in the year 3000 and in space or if you’re writing a dystopian social commentary, is in getting the future plausible enough. We’re all familiar with those old cartoons that had everyone in space suits with ray guns driving flying cars — all by 1984, no less. Most novels of the future prove to be so off the mark in their depiction that they become campy schlock within two or three publishing cycles.

What Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has done with Oryx and Crake is to do the simplest thing in imagining the future. Take what’s going on today and simply exaggerate it, push it a little further. Make life a little more violent, a little more paranoid, a little more electronic, a little more crass.

And she succeeds brilliantly because there is really only one element of the story that was a stretch to quite believe, and that was to swallow that in an era of bio-engineered genetic splices of animals, in a world where corporations have taken over all the responsibility for government, and in a time when colleges auction for students, that people would still be watching DVDs. It’s as if while reading 1984, Orwell had referenced the telegraph.

The story the novel tells happens after a catastrophic, hemorrhagic virus has decimated the planet’s population leaving only one man surviving, a brooding character who calls himself Snowman, and a newly developed species of humanoids called the Children of Crake, or Crakers. As we are introduced to Snowman and his current life, the events in the years preceding the apocalypse are told in a flashback. In the past we meet Snowman as a young boy named Jimmy. He befriends a new boy to his school, Glen, who later adopts the name Crake.

The friendship of Jimmy and Crake has all the classic elements of the overachiever and his shiftless arty friend, their competition that never quite meshes because of their differing levels, the triangle formed by a girl, in this case Oryx, and their eventual divergence. While they are in the same room or same school or company, the novel is more interesting for this weird love-hate relationship. When Jimmy goes away to the lowly Martha Graham College, a technical and performing arts college, and Crake is snatched up by the brilliant egghead school of Watson Crick, Jimmy’s solo story is more tedious and filled with typical sophomoric angst and self-destruction.

It’s only when Crake drafts Jimmy to come work for his company on something called the Paradice Project, writing ad copy for a new drug called BlyssPlus, that the book regains its fascination. BlyssPlus is Crake’s idea of a solution to all the world’s ills. It’s marketed as a cure-all prophylactic, aphrodisiac, anti-viral that will not only keep you horny forever but will also keep you safe from disease while performing birth control functions. There are two things that Crake hides from his guinea pigs. The first is that BlyssPlus will sterilize you for life. The second is even worse.

But what really makes Atwood’s vision so compelling, so real, is the depth of atmosphere with which she surrounds the story. Jimmy’s father works at a gene-organ farm where a new species of pig, a pigoon, has been developed, larger and roomier so as to be able to grow multiple organs for transplant. Some grow six kidneys. Among the other new species are wolvogs, bobkittens, rackunks, most frightening, the spoatgider, a genetic splice of goat and spider bred for larger, extra tough web material to be used in bullet proof vests. Vegetable DNA is tweaked to produce extra large fruits. Watson Crick is a tour through various biological and scientific “advances” and Atwood leaves us in no doubt of what she thinks of this tampering with nature. The frivolity of what nature is being tweaked for is frighteningly believable. Wallpaper that changes color with your moods with matching bath towels. Headless chickens with feeding holes grow twelve drumsticks or all breasts.

In this world of genetic harvesting, competing companies work sabotage on each other by breeding short-lived germs and diseases to introduce to their rivals’ compounds, walled towns populated by company employees. These germs can wipe out new species whole, so the compounds enjoy ultra-tight security and sanitation. Outside the various compounds are the pleeblands, where those unlucky enough to not work for a company or have money or go to a toney college live and die.

The kids in this compound world play games like Three Dimensional Waco and QuickTime Osama, they eat Jolt Steroid bars, but their lives are constricted and drawn for them already within the lines of the company compound. Their only outlets are in interactive games and surfing the net. Blood & Roses is another game, a trading commodity game similar to Monopoly. The Blood side plays with atrocities on major scales like the Holocaust and the Trail of Tears while the Roses side plays with the art and culture of humanity. You can sacrifice a piece of art to prevent a tragedy. A short bit from the rules will give you the feel for the game.

The exchange rates — one Mona Lisa equaled Bergen-Belsen, one Armenian genocide equaled the Ninth Symphony plus three great pyramids — was suggested, but there was room for haggling.

While it sounds oddly horrible and cynical, at the same time it seems a fascinating device for teaching history and art. The problem, as Jimmy realizes, that Blood almost always wins and the world it wins is a barren waste. “That's the point,” Crake tells him ominously. This game is tossed aside for Extinctathon, an online game of destruction, which is the seed of Crake’s later environmentally altruistic atrocity. Bored of games, the two surf the web watching nude news, animal snuff films, go to where Chinese executions are shown regularly, a veritable smorgasbord of atrocity. It is through a pedophilia website, that they meet Oryx.

The character of Oryx is a bit thinly drawn, what we’re told we are to understand might or might not be the truth. She might possibly have been sold from her village to a man in the city who bought children to sell flowers, from him sold to the film company for HotTotts, and from them sold to a prostitution ring, finally ending up working for Crake. Jimmy falls in love with her and it is this love that Crake uses to manipulate Jimmy into doing what he feels is necessary for humanity. When she tells Jimmy of her past, one of the book’s saddest lines registered deep down in my stomach. “Jimmy was outraged by this,” the book tells us. “That was back when he had outage.”

Atwood draws us this richly detailed, all too plausible world, yet the various monstrosities are all presented as local color. She never trips over into dull preachiness and on one level that’s the book’s strength and its weakness. With such a terribly likely future barreling down at us, where chickens that never really live simply produce meat in a vat, the world needs, demands, a loud, moralist voice telling us to stop, stop right this instant. At the same time, the chill the book engenders would be dampened by such ethical proselytizing. Orwell and Huxley didn’t cheapen their art by shrill screeches — yet their worlds have come all too true anyway.

Perhaps in the end, the dystopian novelist is a Cassandra, able to see the appalling future that awaits us, yet unable to ever convince anyone to listen. There is no comfort for a Cassandra in this position, but for those who have ears there is a warning.

The superb independent film actor Campbell Scott reads the book with a world-weary husk of a voice, owning every facet of Snowman/Jimmy’s jaded romanticism. He gives this bleak glimpse into the future a very wistful yet exhausted hope that is in perfect synch with Atwood’s worst expectations.

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