DIY MFA Reading List: “Oryx & Crake” by Margaret Atwood

Maslow postulated that humans mature a bit like legos – from the ground up – achieving self-actualization gradually, after covering off on the basics: food, water, safety, sex and the like. Only after securing these building blocks can we begin to develop the more advanced requirements for a life worth living: friendship, family, intimacy, morality, confidence, self-esteem.

The more we develop, the closer we come to achieving Maslows’ ideal of a self-actualized existence: a creative, spontaneous life free from the illusions of prejudice or propaganda.

The denizens of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian science fiction novel Oryx & Crake live in a rapidly devolving world in which they must struggle to achieve the simplest of Maslow’s needs. Food is so scarce it must be grown in sterile bio-factories. Religion has all but disappeared. Society has fissured into the “neurotypical” Pleeblanders living in the polluted slums of New New York and the more intelligent and wealthy ruling classes, who segregate themselves in gated communities replete with armed security forces and moats, where they develop flash-in-the-pan sex pills or body enhancement drugs or pharmaceutical utopias that the Pleeblanders pay dearly to consume.

This is capitalism on steroids – in the immortal words of Don Henley, “everything, all the time” – and nobody is happy.

Least of all our protagonist Snowman. Before the world ended Snowman called himself Jimmy. But as the book begins we find Snowman sleeping in a tree, the last human survivor of a global plague brought on by his childhood friend Crake.

Snowman isn’t alone, though. Crake left behind a race of multi-colored midgets Snowman has taken to calling “the Crakers”. The Crakers have been genetically engineered to avoid the nasty traits which Crake postulated brought about the downfall of the human race and, ultimately, the planet: greed, fear, jealousy, a taste for meat. Crakers subsist in an innocent utopia, soaking up sunlight and eating grass and leaves (thus minimally impacting the planet), and they’re driving Snowman crazy.

Snowman lives by the beach, and is increasingly threatened by the dangerous wolvogs and rakunks (genetically altered hybrid animals that have multiplied in the years since the human race disappeared). Returning to the city for a supply run, Snowman remembers the arc of unfortunate events leading from his sad childhood to the end of the world as we know it, taking the reader along for the ride. Atwood flashes back and forth between the past and the present as she describes a future in which very few aspire to a life worth living.

The most a kid like Jimmy can hope for is a plum job at one of the elite bio-factories, with plenty of porn and home-grown livestock to keep him producing high concept advertising campaigns. As long as Jimmy’s maximizing company profits at the expense of the less fortunate Pleeblanders beyond the compound gates, his tenuous grip on happiness is secure.

This book was a pleasure to read. Though it lacks the emotional heft (and political depth) of Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, “Orxy & Crake” effectively extrapolates the threats of overpopulation, global warming, bioengineering, and rampant consumerism to present a future vision of a world that is hauntingly familiar.

Atwood does an excellent job of capturing Snowman’s voice, alone and obsessed with memories of the good old days: booze and sex and porn, unable to evolve past the stunted adolescence he just barely achieved before things fell apart. As Snowman makes his way steadily from the sun-blasted beach into the Pleeblands, the evidence of the chaos he was complicit in creating confronts him with a spooky kind of understatement:

Now he’s reached the Compounds. He passes the turnoff to CryoJeenyus, one of the smaller outfits: he’d like to have been a fly on the wall when the lights went out and two thousand frozen millionaires’ heads awaiting resurrection began to melt in the dark. Next comes Genie-Gnomes, with the elfin mascot popping its pointy-eared head in and out of a test tube. The neon was on, he noted: the solar hookup must still be functioning, though not perfectly. Those signs were supposed to go on only at night.

And, finally, RejoovenEsense. Where he’d made so many mistakes, misunderstood so much, gone on his last joyride. Bigger than OrganInc Farms, bigger than HelthWyzer. The biggest of them all.

He passes the first barricade with its crapped-out scopers and busted searchlights, then the checkpoint booth. A guard is lying half in, half out. Snowman isn’t too surprised by the absence of a head: in times of crisis emotions run high. He checks to see if the guy still has his spraygun, but no dice.

Next comes a tract kept free of buildings. No Man’s Land, Crake used to call it. No trees here: they’d mowed down anything you could hide behind, divided the territory into squares with lines of heat-and-motion sensors. The eerie chessboard effect is already gone; weeds are poking up like whiskers all over the flat surface. Snowman takes a few minutes to scan the field, but apart from a cluster of dark birds squabbling over some object on the ground, nothing’s moving. Then he goes forward.

Now he’s on the approach proper. Along the road is a trail of objects people must have dropped in flight, like a treasure hunt in reverse. A suitcase, a knapsack spilling out clothes and trinkets; an overnight bag, broken open, beside it a forlorn pink toothbrush. A bracelet; a woman’s hair ornament in the shape of a butterfly; a notebook, its pages soaked, the handwriting illegible.

The fugitives must have had hope, to begin with. They must have thought they’d have a use for these things later. Then they’d changed their minds and let go.

This bleak atmosphere permeates the novel. And when Snowman does finally encounter a few surviving humans, rather than reach out to them, he views them as a threat. Even stranded, alone, seemingly the last man on earth, Snowman is unable to conceive of an existence stable enough to sustain friendship, or intimacy.

Atwood has recently released a sequel to the book, entitled The Year of the Flood. Hopefully we’ll get to see what happens to Snowman, as the final scene of this book leaves his future (and the future of the human race) in doubt.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.