Oryx and Crake at the Edge of the World
I wanted to revisit Atwood’s Oryx and Crake in this last blog of the semester. Although we’ve also read Powers’s Generosity and McEwan’s Saturday in class recently, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to write about Atwood’s dystopias one more time!
Specifically, I wanted to talk about Crake and his character motives, which I know we argued about in class. He really is a brilliantly eerie character. I read Oryx and Crake for the first time at the age of 15 or 16, and I found him both unfathomable and disturbing. His engineered apocalypse, coupled with his impassivity (who talks about a parent’s death like that?), genuinely frightened me. I remember closing the book almost feeling more empathy with Jimmy and his self-absorption and willful ignorance (traits which we all share, really, in varying degrees, so perhaps it’s not that surprising).
But after my accumulating classes on Environmental Policy and/or Philosophy, Crake begins to make a little more sense to me. Remember that he is a kid born into an even more corporatist world than our own, rife with corruption and dictated reliance on products. In this world of Atwood’s, the Earth is almost completely used up; America is bisected by a tropical zone, and only mass-engineered, genetically modified food products can feed its masses. Similarly, the gap between rich and poor has widened, as corporate Compounds seal themselves off from the bacteria-teeming ghettos termed “pleeblands.” Some members of Crake’s family attempt to pry into some of these pockets of corruption – and are violently terminated. If you were growing up in such a situation, wouldn’t you have an overpowering sense of futility and frustration?
I certainly have a little more empathy for Crake after an intense semester of studying the different ways in which humans already exploit, brutalize and poison the planet. In a different class, we worked through a long booklist that culminated Speth’s The Bridge At The Edge Of The World (which I cannot recommend highly enough); it points out that the only thing we have to do to ruin the earth is keep on doing exactly what we’re already doing. (It also points out an eerie consensus: some researchers estimate that it’s a 50/50 chance that human society will survive intact through the end of this century.) The statistics regarding our current pollution, waste, and misuse of resources are staggering and often overwhelming.
Or consider Aldo Leopold, author of the environmentalist text The Land Ethic, who pleaded for a new eco-consciousness, and a turn away from industrial priorities. I have absolutely no doubt that Crake studied Leopold, somewhere along the line. Despite his green-advocacy platform, Leopold wrote to a friend privately that he doubted anything could really be done for the preservation of the earth “ ‘without creating a new kind of people’” (qtd. in Speth as well; 200). The diction is arresting: “a kind of people,” presumably, who lacked the desire for individual profit, who would not have the drive for mass production or consumption, and who would remain primary consumers and not expend so much energy on cultivating meat. Sound like any familiar dystopian hybrids?
You can sort of see how a highly educated, psychologically scarred child of this hideous future could begin to brainstorm “solutions” like the Crakers.
All of this is rather morbid. I should establish now that I’m not advocating for a biologically engineered genocide. Far from it! As a policy major, I have faith in the systems that I study, and I hope and pray that we won’t allow ourselves to be swept passively into Crake’s world. I do think that more conventional reform is possible [and necessary] before we reach that extrapolated future (and I’d like to be part of the solution). Still, given the horrific parameters of Atwood’s future, I begin to dimly see how a Crake, thwarted at every possible turn, could begin to wonder if the universe had a reset button somewhere. (Although, hypothetically, if choosing a drastic measure of population control – couldn’t he have sowed sterility, and not genocide? Someone else brought that up, and I agree. On that level, then, one can have no empathy; Crake’s casual violence terrifies me as much as it did five years ago.)
His more specific character motives also upset me. Why spare Jimmy, and not Oryx? That question has always bothered me. – Perhaps because Jimmy knew him from childhood, and could piece together the same chain that I just did: that Crake felt as though there were no other options? Was it a last hope for redemption through vindication? Or was it punishment, for the affair – for corrupting the one thing that Crake felt human attachment to?
Zero hour. Time to go. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.