Sunday, September 9, 2012

Oryx and Crake

     I just finished reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.  It's a stunning piece of fiction. Her writing is silky, resonant. Her ideas are plausible, frightening. In fact, it is the scariest book I have ever read. I will be spending a great deal of time contemplating the implications. It is also the most dangerous thing I have ever read.

     I suppose I should give a synopsis of the book at this point but I don't want to spoil anything for you because I encourage you to read it. But for clarification purposes, I will state that it is merely a speculative fiction novel (the author's choice of description) concerning the end of the world brought about by the hubris of one man with the pseudonym of Crake. That is a rather simplistic view of the novel, I assure you, it is much much more. We are told the story from the point of view of Crake's friend Jimmy, his only friend in reality. I identified with Jimmy, poor poor Jimmy.

    The novel spun me off on thoughts about social engineering via science, what should we do and what we shouldn't do and is there truly a difference. Ethics are fuzzy when it comes to what some might consider progressive acts and this got me to thinking about a previous post; one that was about wheat and one where I have been personally elaborating and extrapolating about the implications of trying to "benefit mankind" via science.

    The sins of science are legion. There are the Tuskeegee experiments and the atomic experiments (which we didn't know at the time whether a nuclear explosion would destroy the atmosphere or not) just to name two out of many. Do not even get me started on things such as virus development. I am a big proponent of science but as we go farther along on some paths it becomes apparently clear that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

    During the last 30 years or more, scientists have been playing with the food chain. Why wouldn't they? They wanted to increase yields and make food more nutritious. In short, they wanted to cure hunger and feed the world, noble aims. They took wheat and made it "better"sometimes through genetic modification and sometimes through hybridization (a process not unlike what early humans did - just more efficient). Yields have grown and wheat has become more "nutritious" but there are side effects to this meddling. Celiac disease (an allergy to wheat gluten) has exploded and people have become more obese. Coincidence or effect? We are still trying to advance the growing of wheat. We are also funding studies to find out what our meddling has done to us.

   There have been experimental studies taking older strains of wheat like Einkorn that do not cause the same biological response that most of the wheat we consume today does. That is telling.  I have never been on the bandwagon for or against genetically modified foods. I had always thought that we had been modifying our food for thousands of years but there is a distinct difference: we are not allowing these strains to evolve though honestly evolution and adaptation are not necessarily the happily ordered and benign concept we think it is.  Evolution is messy, things fall off the map while others prosper, living organisms sometimes develop nasty side effects and traits from being pushed one way or another in their environment. Evolution takes time and makes changes with a certain panache, a smattering of chaos in the order.  But evolution does not employ biologists and profits do not grow through natural selection and accolades do not come from staying status quo, nor does evolution follow development timelines or hunger for monetary grants.

   Still we work incessantly to improve upon our world.  Well, we should but perhaps with some forethought and acceptance. I do believe that the "Five Stages of Grief" is one of the most important concepts to come out of the 20th Century. In addition, I believe that mankind is continuously going through this cycle. It is a major component of the human condition but we tend to skip over acceptance. We are fierce when it comes to accepting the things we find repellant like hunger and death. We have whole industries fighting the former and the latter but that is also part of our existence as humans. Every article I read about a scientist finding some type of Methuselah gene fills me with dread. We are not meant to live forever with swollen bellies and unmarked faces.We do not want to accept one day that we will die even if that means overpopulation and a scarcity of resources; we can figure how to fix that later, right?

   Does that mean I believe we shouldn't cure diseases and improve our lot? No, I believe we should but with caution. Do I also believe that certain industries cause disease intentionally so they can save us with an expensive cure? Not really but I do wonder sometimes. Do I believe we should try to stamp out hunger? Certainly. But one of these times we will miscalculate a "minor" side effect and we will all be the worse for it. Perhaps that has already happened but only time will truly tell. Perhaps, time is telling us now.

   Why I view Atwood's book as dangerous is that it really takes no position on such things - much to her credit. There is a definite outcome that she deftly extrapolates from events in the novel. The telling is so natural. Whether the author believe the outcome is negative or not, is questionable perhaps (especially after reading her comments after the book though I desperately want to believe her analog is Jimmy and not Crake). However, there are a great many people who believe like Crake that we should wipe it all out and start over again. Except, it won't be "us" starting over. We won't be here.

     It's funny how much I read on the internet concerning the self loathing of our species. Some think we should just disappear and let the animals take over because they are nobler. Animal behaviorists probably cringe at the stupidity of this thought process having seen what animals are capable of in their environments.  Insipid, supposedly high minded ideologies are inherently dangerous because they encompass the notion that they should press their will upon others because they are smarter, more intelligent. On the internet you see a lot of this, mostly borne out of insecurity or political mindlessness. But these visions are limited in scope and aren't as holistic as they should be. Maybe these same people would take up Atwood's novel as a blueprint, in some ways they don't have to because their actions already mimic what's in the novel.

     We need more books like Oryx and Crake, dangerous or otherwise, they speak to concepts not normally questioned or debated in our society. We need the Ray Bradburys and Rod Serlings, now more than ever. We need a presentation of higher concepts envisioned intelligently to their bitter end to save us from our folly and to ensure our future. The past 40 years we have lost that type of thinking in favor of simplifying concepts for entertainment consumption.  Atwood's book will have me thinking for a long time and that's a good thing.



  1. One of my favorite authors. A Handmaid's Tale is my all-time favorite book. I just started "Alias Grace."

  2. Oh you would love this book. It is one of her rare works of "speculative fiction" like A Handmaid's Tale. There is also a companion book to Oryx and Crake called The Year of the Flood. I call it a companion book because it is neither a prequel or a sequel but is set in the same world at the same time. I was amazed how easily she adapted herself to the male voice even though sometimes it seemed a bit uh too misogynistic? Oryx, the main female character, is not nearly written as well as the male characters. Though her back story is very interesting. I will say this, though it is rare for me to do so, Oryx and Crake is probably for readers 16 years or older. There are many disturbing things on various disturbing levels.