Monday, 16 August 2010

The Art of the Evident

Margaret Atwood's two recent forays into the world of post-apocalyptic/dystopian literature is, I think, a successful one. Although I would say that something in the environs of 80% of both novels concern the dystopian, near-future world destined to destroy itself, the apocalypse itself (and the post-apocalypse) is such an important event that everything else in the novels is informed by it (meaning I can discuss them as specifically 'post-apocalyptic' novels).

The below is fantastically spoilerific, and the novels themselves quite good, so I really, really recommend not reading this unless you enjoy spoiling the story.

Oryx and Crake (2007) is the first novel in the series. It begins quite powerfully, describing all the necessary elements of Atwood's fantastical world in a single chapter: a man calling himself Snowman lives in a tree on the scraps of yesterday, his only companions odd, created humans ('Crakers') to whom he functions as a sort of prophet or demi-god. We are given an idea of the pre-apocalyptic world first through the brand/company names: BlyssPluss, ChickieNobs, AnooYoo, HelthWyzer, HappiCuppa, and so on. A hyper-consumerist-capitalist society, in other words. We also learn, very soon, that almost all natural species of our world have long gone extinct, replaced by lab-grown gene splices, including a particularly nasty species of giant pig, called a Pigoon – by virtue of being like a balloon in size. Visible from the beach, the towers of some city that was caught in the rising waters of global warming is now only home to sea birds. The environment is harsh, there are daily storms and the sun's rays are more harmful than not, suggesting a hole in the ozone layer. A hyper-consumerist-capitalist, morally bankrupt, god-complexed society. If it weren't for the abject misery of the Snowman, the reader is probably already happy that the old was swept away.

The story then turns to the Snowman's childhood – or, more precisely, Jimmy's childhood. It is told in a precognitive manner, with constant references to the future, which gives it an almost breathless feeling. Now we are truly immersed into the dystopian, pre-apocalyptic world of Atwood's. Jimmy is a 'compound brat', a child living within the safety and comfort of corporate-run compounds, surrounded by walls and safeguarded by the sinister CorpSeCorps (yes, “Corpse Corps” - the art of the evident in action). Jimmy's father is involved in the creation of the Pigoons, as well as many other gene-spliced animals, including Jimmy's own rakunk (raccoon-skunk) he names Killer. His mother, on the other hand, seems to have once been a top scientist, but now spends most of her time at home smoking too much and generally not living up to the American Dream. She is a subversive, a person who has realized the utter corruptness of the system, and has decided to escape it (which she eventually does, an act that haunts Jimmy for almost the rest of his life).

Contrasted with the compounds are the “pleeblands” - where regular people live, except that it is assumed the pleebs are filled with diseases, poverty and crime (and nothing in either book seems to suggest otherwise). The pleebs – once again, she couldn't be more obvious in her naming – are us, the rabid consumers who fund the whole corporate horror culture, swallow their slogans whole, and generally act exactly like 'they' want us to act. To drive the point home as cleanly as possible, Atwood has replaced the government, the army, the police; everything, with the CorpSeCorps (Corporate Security Corporation; alternatively Corps as in the Marine Corps). Ostensibly, they are there to protect the corporations as a private security contractor, but in reality they control everything in the same way Big Brother controlled everything in 1984: through violence and surveillance.

Using classic storytelling techniques, Atwood tells two tales at the same time (the post- and the pre-apocalyptic ones), with the same protagonist. As time goes on, the two timelines close in, and soon we are reading about how Jimmy survived the man-made apocalypse, rescued the 'Crakers', and ended up naked and alone in a tree by the beach. The two characters in the title, Oryx and Crake, are there for a reason: Jimmy is, after all, just the eyes, ears and mouth of the reader-author, since he is mostly incapable of actually doing anything, instead merely observing and following the flow. Crake is his one and only friend, a boy-genius who grows up with an intense dislike for the human race as a whole and a desire to, in short, replace it with a wholly new one. These are the Crakers that he creates, with a long range of characteristics, habits and so on that would, in his eyes, eliminate the destructive tendencies in human nature (the most oft-cited example of these changes being seasonal mating, coupled with a 'group sex' kind of tradition in which there can be no obvious father, and therefore no obvious family units). Sex is also the way he goes about ending the human race, by creating a pill called “BlyssPluss”, a sort of super-viagra that is apparently irresistible to any who try it. He spreads it across the whole world, and they begin the pandemic which in a few short weeks wipes out almost everything and everyone. Oryx, on the other hand, is the one person who can make Jimmy act (through his love for her), which he does, at the very end when he kills Crake for killing her. It may be noted that it was never really explained why things went down the way they did in the end, but perhaps Crake had it planned all along: kill her, have Jimmy kill him, then have Jimmy lead the Crakers to safety, and then let Jimmy die (since the Snowman, although Abominable, is also quite a hopeless survivalist).

The second novel, The Year of the Flood, concern a different, but interconnected set of people in the same world – in the same city even – as Jimmy, Crake and Oryx. The two main characters, Toby and Ren, are both members of a sect called God's Gardeners, who were also mentioned in Oryx and Crake. The Gardeners believe in the imminent coming of the Waterless Flood, which will wipe away all but the faithful. Their belief is a fascinating mix of new age eco-green thinking and modern-day scientific Christianity, and their thoughts take almost complete control over the characters in the novel: each chapter, more or less, begins with “The Gardeners used to say...” or “Adam One used to say...” (Adam One being the leader of the sect). Although there are plenty of rather frightening aspects to the cult, as there must be, it does seem like Adam One, the founder and leader, really is as sincere as he appears to be. Once again, the novel mostly concerns itself with the childhood and adulthood of the characters involved, including B(Ren)da, the childhood sweetheart of Jimmy, but this time the past and the present (pre- and post-apocalypse) seem to come together much more strongly. The children they grew up with return as adults, the survival skills they learnt are put to use, their creeds, holy days and traditions are used as a basis of a new culture, and their old enemies still stalk the new wilderness. It may be noted that Oryx and Crake ended in a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger that is finally resolved in The Year of the Flood, in quite a masterful manner. Atwood also goes deeper into the world she created, seeing as all her characters are now pleebrats instead of compound children. The pleebs, it seems, really are as dangerous and inhospitable as the people in the compounds believe, unless you find yourself inside a corporate stronghold of some kind, which both Toby and Ren do. I do not believe this novel can be read without first reading Oryx and Crake (or reading it afterwards – either way, both are needed for the full picture) – there are plenty of events, characters and groupings that only really make sense after reading both novels.

I called this essay (post?) 'The Art of the Evident', because that is the strongest impression I got from reading Atwood's work. From the fanciful product names to the endless lists of never-explained-but-clearly-immoral jargon, Atwood's dystopia is a frightfully obvious vision of all that can and will go wrong in the world if we allow it to continue in its current downward spiral. Everything she does or writes just piles it on higher. Instead of real leather, they have 'fleather'. Instead of real hair, they have 'Mo'Hair', the result of a gene-spliced lamb of some kind. Instead of animal meat, they have soy-everything. Except, of course, the ones who do want 'animal protein', who will eat endangered species to get it – or why not the ones who are so desperate for an animal protein burger they'll buy a SecretBurger (the 'secret' meat being so ridiculously thinly veiled that it's not even a veil, really). The HappiCuppa franchise is really just Starbucks, except even nastier on the rainforests (supposedly). HelthWyzer first makes you sick with their pills, and then make tons of money off the treatment. ChickieNobs are chicken muscles grown on sticks – 'no brain, no pain', although that too might just be marketing rather than truth. There are religious groups like the “Known Fruits” or the “PetroBaptists” which consists of, well... Hell. A name like “Petrobaptist” is pretty much about as in-your-face as you can get! It is all very, very 1984, except of course it has been updated to 2012-standards instead. The final obvious thing is of course that it was all coming to an end -anyway-, even without Crake's specifically engineered plague: generally when we read a contemporary post-apocalypse, the end seems neither inevitable nor desirable (since we live in it), whereas in Atwood's novel, it is both.

I would not claim post-apocalyptic fiction is subtle most of the time. You take an inconceivably terrible event of some kind, which brings an end to the-world-as-we-know-it, and then you putter about the aftermath, bringing to fore this or that aspect of the world we left behind (often discussing in length the causes of the apocalypse and ways to prevent it). Survivors, as I explained in an earlier post, is particularly flagrant about this, but all post-apocalyptic works enjoy their own special brand of pathos. This is probably why we like reading them, after all! Atwood, however, takes this lack of subtlety to a new level. She creates a whole world, run by short-sighted idiots, and then she kills it through the self-same methods that allowed said idiots to run it. She does it through amazingly skilled prose, believable characters, fantasy-author level and beyond world building (this is meant as a compliment), and a great storyline. Make no mistake, they're eminently readable and enjoyable books.

But they are also pastiches. There is a certain point up to which you may write about evil corporations taking over the world before it becomes vaguely ludicrous (that point is crossed when they're called “Corpse Corps”). The horror/wonder of genetic modification can be discussed up to a certain extent, and then it just crosses over into “what the hell” land (Lamb-Lion splices for religious purposes is pretty much up there). The disparity between the rich and the poor, the well-educated and the “plebs” can be discussed at some length, but there has to be some leeway for regular, normal people as well (this point is crossed when every single feature of the 'pleeblands' is described as if from the eyes of someone who's watched 24/7 news coverage of gang warfare in the inner city and has extrapolated this to encompass everything that is not within a compound). Atwood's Earth is a living, breathing world, teetering on the edge of oblivion, and the fact she managed to pull that off is a testament to her skill as a writer. That notwithstanding, it ends up reading like a Kilgore Trout story delivered straight (or, as if Kilgore Trout was suddenly given the ability to write good prose, instead of just coming up with good ideas). Kilgore Trout, of course, being Kurt Vonnegut's famous science fiction writer, who in turn is modelled after Theodore Sturgeon.

I'm not so sure, though, that it is a pastiche of a post-apocalyptic novel. In fact, the post-apocalypse is every bit as serious and gritty as any other described. This pastiche/parody/over-the-topness is more a feature of the pre-apocalyptic world, her dystopian vision. Atwood's book asks us to consider the environment, consumerism, endangered species and genetic modification, and gives us a hypothetical and somewhat exaggerated extrapolation of what might happen if we continue following the trends she's perceived in the world. I wonder if this may be that can be termed a post-post modern book as well, and if it is in that case one of the first post-post modern works of post-apocalyptic fiction (I'd love to say post-post apocalyptic, but that might be reserved for book three ;). A fascinating, if very different, breed of books, nonetheless.

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