Look On My Works, Ye Mighty: Oryx and Crake
I find Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake most eerie in its finality: Snowman up a tree, drinking to be drunk, hiding from the heat and insects, lost in fantasies or memories or both. Waiting for the end. Hoping for a deus ex machina, and knowing that such hope is a lie.
Would any of us have more grace, in his place? I think not.
I find this both humbling and frightening. Fact: if/when the world as we know it comes crashing down, we’ll all be snowmen; we’ll all melt away just as quickly, in mind and body. Even so, as a reader, it somehow seems ludicrous in text. How can the saga of humanity conclude so abruptly?
Crake has some thoughts on this that mirror my own (I love Crake’s monologues. Everything he says is both radical and true, and therefore shattering) – he has a conversation with Jimmy about humanity coming too far to survive a single breach, a single fissure in its progress. No one has real skills any more; everyone goes to college and majors in things about as useful as Holistic Healing. (Sorry, English majors. Joyce won’t help you survive the apocalypse.) Very few individuals are left who can plow fields, or dig wells, or weld. All it will take is one break, Crake says, and humanity will crumble and blow away like so much dust.
Not the most inspiring message for a book – but who says it’s necessarily fiction?
This weekend, I discovered a group of people who define themselves as Rawlsian survivalists, eerily reminiscent of God’s Gardeners (no, Professor Clayton, I am not spoiling Year of the Flood, but it’s relevant) in that they seem to be awaiting some kind of Waterless Flood, colloquially termed The End of the World As We Know It or “TEOTWAWKI” in their circles. They even reference Biblical lines supporting their beliefs, in another arresting parallel to Atwood’s world – or vice versa, I suppose, as it’s silly to just assume that art precedes reality. At any rate, their doctrine of preparedness and hard survival skills is alarmist at a glance, but increasingly sobering the more you read. I made the mistake of perusing all of this at about one in the morning – and then two, and then three, since it’s haunting material to stumble over after midnight.
Crake would love it.
If you’re curious, I direct you to their Bible of sorts, a text written by the theorist Rawles himself. Click on the “Read First Chapter Free” link, and you’ll find yourself in a nonfiction account of the sequence of events in Oryx and Crake (and also The Road, if any of you have read that). There’s also a website. The author describes how a single event – Atwood’s hypothetical pandemic is one example of many, situated amid nuclear holocausts, electromagnetic pulses, solar storms or asteroids – would ultimately set a chain of events in action. Mass exodus of the cities. Gravitation towards loosely populated areas, especially with access to water. Scavenging. Formation of alliances. Widespread death.
As a way to prepare for this pending doom, these God’s Gardeners – excuse me, Rawlsian survivalists – meticulously stockpile goods in caches reminiscent of Cold War bunkers, taking care to have wood-burning stoves, oil lamps, and other rudimentary technologies that would, in all seriousness, be the keys to survival in a post-tech world. They teach themselves farming lore or snare setting, stockpile grain, and keep a gun to hand (probably wise; even an apocalypse without genetically engineered monsters will have its violence).
In this technology-heavy world, it’s tempting to laugh at all of this as paranoia. Even so, a word of caution: there really is no app for the apocalypse. Really, if it happened tomorrow – no internet, no conveniently stocked grocery stores, no electricity, no purified municipal water, nothing – what would you do?
In all honesty, I’d probably pull a Jimmy: I’d be up in a tree with some alcohol, howling at the moon and pretending that I believed in my own survival.