The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Visions of a future sans human frailty

Oryx and Crake By Margaret Atwood, Doubleday, $ 19

What little town by the river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn'
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

— John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

“When any civilisation is dust and ashes… art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning — human meaning, that is — is defined by them.” Thus spoke Snowman — not of the carrot-nosed variety, he claims, but of the “abominable” kind — trying to hang on to the last vestiges of creativity in a wasteland emptied of its people.

When disaster strikes, it is art that keeps man alive. It is art — or rather the emotion, the yearning, the ideals, the pain, which fire it — that is proof of life. Behind the heartache of the “Bold Lover”, who could never kiss the fair maiden was Keats’s own torment. And though imperfection may sometimes lead to tragedy, without it, humanity cannot exist.

Oryx and Crake tells the tale of a future that could result from attempts to do away with human frailty. The grim warning: it is a future that could so easily be ours, if we let it happen. The “Crakers” are a genetically-engineered “perfect” species, created by Crake, a scientific genius, whose answer to the human plight was to remove all characteristics unpleasant in themselves and those that lead to unhappiness and destruction. So, body odour is replaced by a citrus aroma (also useful to ward off insects). Sexual desire is done away with in favour of a biological cycle designed for procreation which comes around once in three years (preventing unpleasant phenomena like unrequited love while controlling the population and aggression, and by default, killing the source of art.). The digestive tract is modified to be able to process vegetable matter and recycle excreta (animal products being no longer required, wastage is thus minimized).

“There’s no more jealousy, no more wife-butchers, no more husband-poisoners. It’s all admirably good-natured: no pushing and shoving, more like the gods cavorting with willing nymphs on some golden-age Grecian frieze,” thinks Snowman, in the days when he was still Jimmy, a normal boy — then man — living in a normal world.

Crake was Jimmy’s best friend. The boys were separated when they left their elite, purified, corporate compound life, Jimmy — the wordman — to attend an arts school and Crake (whose real name is never revealed) — the numbers guy — to master the tricks of genetic-engineering. They drift apart, to be reunited years later when Crake, having climbed the ladder in a company called RejoovenEsence, hires his old friend to work at the Paradice project. There, Jimmy also finds Oryx, the woman he has been obsessed with for years, having first spotted her when she was a sex-slave for a child pornography website. Only, by then, she is Crake’s lover, in addition to being a survival trainer to the Crakers. The hand that has created these morphs also destroys human civilization in the process, by spreading a killer disease, to wipe clean the slate to propagate the perfect genetic punch. Crake “didn’t believe in nature… or not with a capital N”.

Far-fetched' Hardly. In a world where designer babies are becoming a reality and human cloning the cause of crazed cults, this is hardly a leap far into the future. It is all frighteningly possible if commerce fuels development. Pills can just as easily cause disease as cure it, if that serves the greater financial good. A disease that, quite intentionally, wipes out humanity is barely a stretch of the imagination in a world of anthrax scares, SARS, Ebola and even HIV. Many of the problems rampant in this world — possibly sometime in the next century — already exist today. Sexual trafficking, selling of children, mindless segmentation of education: development seems to be taking people backwards, or it has continued in its failure to uplift.

Elements of Cat’s Eye creep into Oryx and Crake. Atwood’s scientific bent of mind had emerged in Cat’s Eye, though on a much more personal level. Here, she juggles science with words to chilling effect. The structure, common to many of her works, is also back, weaving past through the present. She revisits disturbed childhood, in a similar tone. But most reminiscent is the return to art school. Jimmy’s days studying at the Martha Graham School for the Arts is the perfect platform for her playfulness with images.

Atwood, as always, luxuriates in her words, but this fictional uncharted world gives her a wealth of opportunity to create her own language. “Paradice”, where the Crakers have been developed and contained initially, is a “splice of paradise”, no doubt. The names Oryx — a variety of antelope — and Crake — a marsh bird — are species nearly extinct. She creates rakunks (racoon + skunk), wolvogs (wolf + dog), pigoons (pigs that are altered to have a number of human body parts instead of their own internal organs). The police of this future are called CorpSeCorps. Or at least, it is these men who protect the compounds for the intellectual elite. The ordinary folk, the plebeians, live in the “pleeblands”, overrun with disease, vice and toxicity.

“Why am I on this earth' How come I’m alone' Where’s my bride of Frankenstein'” cries Snowman. But there is no one to hear him, or so he thinks. He believes he is the lone human amongst Frankensteins of modern technology. A man of words, he survives the battle waged and lost by science, by the men of numbers. But what kind of survival is this' It is he who is now the monster. Or is he' The annihilation of the human race is not as easy as Crake had thought. A resilient lot, neither the manipulations of a megalomaniac nor generations of neglect and abuse can erase all traces of it, at least not with a poison pill.

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