Sunday, 19 September 2010

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic

A few scribbled comments (amounting to more than 1000 words – oops!) to round Atwood off for now, this time an article written by Stephen Dunning in 2005.

I quite liked this article. He starts off by reminding the reader there are essentially two kinds of dystopias: the Orwellian and the Huxleyian. The boot stamping on your face forever, or the more subtle vision of Huxley's Brave New World, which emphasises the carrot rather than the stick, but is no less totalitarian. Dunning places Oryx and Crake into the Huxleyian tradition, and with good reason:

It finds our current vulnerability to unprecedented disaster arises not from dystopian societies with hostile political structures, underwritten by oppressive metanarratives, and established through threat of imprisonment, torture and death, but rather within the qualitative vacuum of a culture that has lost its "great" narratives.

(Dunning 2005: 86)

This loss of 'great narratives' is of course a post-modern concept, borrowed directly from Lyotard, although Dunning refuses the post-modern label and prefers “late modernity” (although this does force him to translate 'postmodern' into 'late modern' whenever he discusses it in the text, and then I have to translate it back in my head...anyway). This culture, Dunning goes on to argue, has lately, with the fall of the Soviet Union, lost even the political alternative to the old religious narratives, leaving only unfettered scientific progress behind. A pattern can be discerned, I would say. Dunning claims that the “sacred narrative” (Dunning 2005: 87) is being excised from the world and replaced with ideas stemming from “the laboratory and ledger” (science and capitalism).

Much like DiMarco's text on homo faber, Dunning also goes back to antiquity and then to the beginning of 'modernity', when science ousted the old traditions, without however truly offering an alternative. He speaks of 'orders of desire' (which I believe corresponds to the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs):

Modernity can offer no convincing rationale for pursuing second-order desires, which require the suppression or deferment of first-order desires to achieve higher ethical (often communal) goals, precisely because, as both Huxley and Atwood recognize, modernity rejects the traditional cultural narratives that give such goals their authority.

(Dunning 2005: 87)

I should read more Lyotard, but I would assume such a traditional cultural narrative might be something like 'God', who, through the advance of science, has now become a mere “God of the gaps” (Dunning 2005: 88), only powerful wherever there has been no scientific explanation yet. Oryx and Crake is then a “darkly comic critique of our triumphant scientific modernity that is only now beginning to reveal its true shape, having finally exhausted the resources of the world it has systematically destroyed” (Dunning 2005: 88-89). Sounds a bit post-postmodern to me, I must say!

Dunning's article, as the title suggests, focuses on psychological, or therapeutic elements in the text (another postmodern concept, incidentally). Thus we see the relationship between Jimmy and Crake, and the relationship between the compounds and the outside world, as elements of a mentally ill world (or culture). One of the major elements is the lack of communication between people: when Jimmy entertains himself by having love affairs with bored compound wives, they are entertained by his way with words: “it is telling that they find his considerable linguistic skills appealing, suggesting that on some level, they recognize the nature of their deprivation, the cause of their extraordinary loneliness. Community, even a community of two, requires communication.“ (Dunning 2005: 91). Likewise, the image of Jimmy and Crake as adolescents sitting back to back with their computers seems to suggest that “they are not present to each other at all, or perhaps virtually not present” (Dunning 2005: 92). This, of course, is hogwash, brought on by Atwood's amazing inability to grasp what a video game is actually about (which is quite staggering, considering how central a role her 'Extinctathon' game plays), but Dunning nonetheless probably captured her authorial intent with the scene. In essence, the separation between mind and body is becoming more and more acute, which leads to a sort of split personality for those afflicted (where the body, for instance, is merely entertained by pornography, executions and violence). This is a typical Freudian concept, Freud also belonging to the modernist tradition (Dunning 2005: 94); the separation between the id, the ego and the superego.

Crake's solution to Freud's problem (that we all have base, often destructive needs, that have to be sublimated or expressed in some less destructive way for society to survive) is to entirely replace homo sapiens with his own species – the Crakers – through genetic manipulation (Dunning 2005: 95). As I already mentioned in some of my other article reviews, this kind of backfires, with Jimmy-Snowman teaching the Crakers in the post-apocalypse of Gods and Goddesses and giving them the beginnings of a mythical framework just like the one Crake attempted to eliminate. Atwood could probably not have made it more obvious through the Crakers' 'exodus' from 'Paradice (Dome)', after all. Dunning has an interesting insight into Crake's character here: why would he kill Oryx (who is important to the Crakers) in front of Jimmy, knowing full well this would make Jimmy kill him, while leaving the Crakers in Jimmy's (a “words” person) hands? Why not leave Oryx alive, or why not take care of the Crakers himself? Dunning suggests that Crake is, ultimately, only human, and that in killing Oryx he follows his own inner qualitative and unscientific first-order desire to own her in death, which would not be possible if either both Jimmy and Oryx survived, or Jimmy and Crake did (Dunning 2005: 96). Curious stuff.

The end result, however, is what we see in the post-apocalypse: new “sacred narratives” being constructed by the prophet Snowman and embraced by the Crakers who, despite Crake's intentions, remain at least “marginally human” (Dunning 2005: 98). “Thus, whatever solutions we may hope for must come at least partially by way of recovery, recovery of some form of great narrative that reestablishes culture firmly in the cultus from which science has torn it” (Dunning 2005: 98). In other words, “numbers people” 0, “words people” 1. Hooray!

Dunning, Stephen. 2005. “Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic” In Canadian Literature; Fall2005, Issue 186: 86-101.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: homo faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake.

“Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (2003)critiques modernity’s commitment to homo faber—he who labors to use every instrument as a means to achieve a particular end in building a world, even when the fabrication of that world necessarily demands a repeated violation of its materiality, including its people.”

(DiMarco 2005: 170)

This is basically the point DiMarco is trying to make in her article, which much like previous criticism I have read focuses mainly on the two characters of Jimmy and Crake and what exactly they represent. Crake, then, is “the quintessential homo faber” (DiMarco 2005: 170), the working man, the creator-man, the tool-using man. One of the theorists working with this concept is Hannah Arendt, who (quoted in DiMarco 2005: 174), says thathomo faber is contrary to animal

laborens because he has always destroyed nature, not worked with it.” As good a description as any of Crake, I should say. The problem, DiMarco (2005: 174) notes, is that in modern days homo faber has turned from altruistic, ethical and community-oriented goals for his powers of creation towards more selfish and inwards-looking goals – in the case of the scientists running Atwood's dystopia it is the pursuit of money and power and immediate physical gratification. The blame obviously lies with capitalism and commodification – a cornerstone of post-modernism – which Atwood is here attempting to overturn.

DiMarco, like Bouson, makes much of the division of labour between people: first there are the compounds and the pleeblands, then within the compound the 'words' and 'numbers' people, and finally Crake's own invention, the Paradice Dome which is a compound within a compound (DiMarco 2004: 177-179). DiMarco (2004: 178) calls this “[p]ower through enclosure”, the idea that there are 'wild' areas and 'civilized' areas and that it is within the civilized, metropolitan centres that the 'work' of the homo faber takes place. The problem, of course, is that the work of the compounds, although marketable, is hardly ethical or desirable or even necessary, and as we get to the post-apocalyptic part, we come to realize they are dangerous (such as the human-eating Pigoons). Interestingly, DiMarco seems to think Crake engineered the bio-plague for profit (DiMarco 2004: 183), and that seeing it as anything else (such as 'culture' work) would be a misunderstanding. This probably explains why DiMarco glosses over what Bouson called the 'assisted suicide' of Crake by Jimmy in the end, giving only this very odd interpretation of events: “[Jimmy] cannot allow her—or Crake—to re-enter Paradice in their known human existence, for both have “sinned” against the potential goodness of humanity. So he shuts the doors on them both and stands alone in Paradice.” (DiMarco 2004: 187). Although this fits with the general neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist reading of DiMarco, I personally think it stereotypes Crake's character too much: Oryx and Crake may be an exercise in the evident, but it would be a mistake to think the characters are mere archetypes.

DiMarco ends with an analysis of Jimmy's character, who according to her “has the ability to be compassionate and ethical, to see himself as embedded within the world as opposed to separate or above it” (DiMarco 2004: 187-188), and who has a closer relationship with nature and the living other (e.g. animals, plants): this is curiously reminiscent of God's Gardeners that we are introduced to in The Year of the Flood, although DiMarco obviously could not have read that book at the time of her writing this article. Some good points are made regarding Jimmy's character: despite all of his vices, what comes through ultimately is a likeable and ethical person who, unfortunately, did not have the same backbone has his mother had in rejecting the compound, homo faber world. When that world collapses, and we are left with the post-catastrophe world, Jimmy suddenly comes closer to the animal laborens, working only to live. “As he journeys toward Paradice it is as though he moves backward through history, tending to the reality that consumption for physical and emotional sustenance and survival is potentially separate from production for economic gain.” (DiMarco 2004: 190). The final part of DiMarco's article deals with the choice Jimmy is left with at the very end: should he hide from, attack, or interact with the other three human survivors he comes across? And if he chooses to interact, what kind of society will they rebuild? Will they follow in the footsteps of homo faber and instrumental philosophy, thus restarting the whole escapade, will they entirely abandon homo faber and find “some new way of community building and caring for one another” (DiMarco 2004: 194) or will there be something in between?

Way to go asking the question post-apocalyptic literature has been asking since the beginning!

DiMarco, Danette. 2004. “Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: homo faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake”. In Papers on Language & Literature; Spring2005, Vol. 41 Issue 2: 170-195.

Friday, 17 September 2010

““It’s Game Over Forever”: Atwood’s Satiric Vision of a Bioengineered Posthuman Future in Oryx and Crake” by JB Bouson.

I recently read an interesting article by one Bouson, JB (whose gender I've yet to determine, but I'm leaning towards a she), and thought I'd jot down its contents before I forget.

The article is in regards to Oryx and Crake, in particular its vision of our very own bioengineered future. Bouson calls it a 'dystopian' novel, Atwood herself prefers 'speculative fiction', but I am not budging my label of 'post-apocalyptic'. The first point Bouson makes is “the division between the humanities and the sciences through the stories of her two male characters, Jimmy and Crake” (Bouson 2004: 140): aside from marketing jingles, Atwood's future seems to have no use for “word” people at all, focusing solely on “numbers” people like Crake. This, it seems, is at the centre of Atwood's dystopian vision: a world where scientists hold all the power and the liberal arts have become “little more than worthless pastimes” (Bouson 2004: 144) is also a world without ethics. The most ethical, altruistic scientist we find in this whole novel is probably Crake, and his solution is very much in character, but simultaneously very much not a solution at all: “in a strange twist on the idea of scientific imperialism, uses science not to conquer the natural world but to control human nature by creating his bioengineered and environmentally friendly hominids, the Crakers, as a replacement for humanity” (Bouson 2004: 141). Crake, then, represents the “the 'postmodern' scientific mindset that openly flouts the 'laws' of nature posited by modern science and works to collapse boundaries among species” (Bouson 2004: 145). However, it is exactly in the 'Crakers' that Crake fails: he is unable to genetically remove the desire to sing and dance, for curiosity, and ultimately for symbolic thinking of the kind that leads them to regard Crake as a God, Oryx as a Goddess, and Snowman/Jimmy as their prophet.

In other words, despite their set of strange characteristics, the 'Crakers' are human in all the important aspects. Likewise, the last apparent human survivor is a “words” person, someone who, in what Bouson terms the “post-catastrophe” world, is constantly plagued by words and wordplay, by clichéd bits and pieces of self-help books and whatnot. “If Atwood uses the clichéd language and borrowed speech that runs through Snowman’s mind to discredit her character, she also works to redeem him, in part, by revealing his reverence for art and language.” (Bouson 2004: 152). After civilization ends, as Jimmy notes, all that remain are the words, the stories, the legends: and these he is, during the whole course of the novel, passing on to the Crakers. The saving grace, then, of humanity, and the ultimate discrediting of the Crakean view of life.

Bouson, J. Brooks. 2004. ““It’s Game Over Forever”: Atwood’s Satiric Vision of a Bioengineered Posthuman Future in Oryx and Crake”. In The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2004 39: 139: 139-156. Available: DOI: 10.1177/0021989404047051.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

On The Beach

Nevil Shute's On the beach (1957) is different. Very different. Perhaps the world it portrayed – one where Australia (and indeed the whole southern hemisphere) has narrowly escaped nuclear annihilation, only to succumb months later to the radioactive winds blowing in from the northern hemisphere – is what makes it so different. On the beach is post-apocalyptic in every sense of the word, except for the fact that the society described (mainly Australia) is in no way descending into barbarism and chaos: rather they are accepting of their fate, to various degrees, and life goes on to the very end. T.S Eliot's famous quote, which also adorns the title page is apt: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper”.

It made me think of the ad-hoc difference made between “plot” and “setting”, as if these two things were somehow divisible: the plot was good but the setting boring, or the setting was compelling and interesting but the plot was bland. It seems to me that what makes post-apocalyptic novels stand out is that the setting very often IS the plot. As I wrote in my post on the chronotope, the post-apocalyptic world is one that is re-discovered, as in a travelogue, and no-one would demand a travelogue to have a plot beyond the descriptive: “I came from here and went there and saw this”. In On the beach, the setting is one of a still-living and breathing Australia waiting for the inevitable, together with the submerged scouting trips by the last operational US submarine Scorpion all along the United States coastline which allows for a glance into what will soon be true in all the world.

The plot then, naturally, is 'merely' the lives, thoughts and feelings of those still alive to witness this – in particular the burgeoning but never consummated love affair between Commander Dwight Towers and Moira Davidsson, Peter Holmes and his slightly delusional wife and their newborn baby daughter Jennifer, and the egghead John Osbourne with his Ferrari and newfound passion for racing. Each tells a slightly different and quite compelling version of how to cope with the whimpering end of the world. Perhaps the only thing marring this setting and plot is the hunch I have that radiation would not work in the way Shute describes it, notwithstanding any potential 'cobalt' bombs used – the lethal fallout would have rained down and disappeared long before reaching Australia, and even if not it would have been rendered mostly harmless in 15 months time. The real problems, it seems to me, would be the unimaginable social turmoil brought on by such a war, the collapse of industry and most probable the inevitable famine and unstoppable mass of refugees from the areas of conflict. Although Shute addresses the issue of petroleum no longer being available, in the book it is truly a minor problem: trains and electric-powered trams, together with bikes and horse-drawn carriages can apparently completely replace fuel driven transport with nary a hitch. Likewise, until the very, very end (as in a few days until the radiation arrives), there is no sign of normal day-to-day business changing at all: people still show up at work, buy and sell things, plan their gardens and otherwise go about their lives, despite (or perhaps because of) the inevitability of their demise. It's a testament to Shute's skill as a novelist that he manages to pull it off.

Because he does, he really does. On the beach is a quiet, contemplative, incredibly solemn view of the post-nuclear holocaust. We are left with the image of empty houses in the morning air, completely untouched, bathed in the deadly, invisible and incomprehensible new threat to all life on earth that had been unleashed just slightly more than a decade before Shute's book was published. A new kind of sublime for our age, the nuclear sublime.

Of course, the nuclear sublime is now receding, and what comes next...well...that'll be for my thesis to find out, maybe?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Formulating a research question

“Usually, people wait for things to occur before trying to describe them. (Futurology has never been a very respectable field of inquiry). But since we cannot afford under any circumstances to let a holocaust occur, we are forced in this one case to become the historians of the future – to chronicle and commit to memory an event that we have never experienced and must never experience.”

(Schell 1982: 21)

When I explained to the professor in charge of the pro gradu seminar the topic of my thesis, he asked incredulously: “POST-apocalyptic fiction? Has the apocalypse already occurred?” Upon which I informed him it was, happily, science fiction I was going to write about.

This does however pose a problem, as Jonathan Schell also observed in his seminal The Fate of the Earth (1982), a book concerning the ever-looming threat of nuclear war of his time. I am supposed to produce an academic, perhaps even scientific text concerning events which have not, and hopefully never will occur. Where to start? How to approach the topic, the books, the narrative? For this, the good people at our department have provided us with the tools to formulate a or several research questions, questions that our texts should attempt to answer. I am now going to try to spell out at least a few such questions, around which I can work.

The questions need to be very carefully formulated, obviously. First of all, they need to be open ended: if they can be answered “yes” or “no”, they are no good. Wh-questions is key. Secondly, they need to be non-trivial: of interest to a larger community (whether the academic one, or the world in general) as well as avoid presupposing the answer in itself. Third, it needs to be empirically answerable from the available data. Obviously the key to all scientific discourse; in this case, obviously, the 'empirical data' must be the novels, rather than actual physical events (therefore, the question too must pertain to the novels, rather than an non-existent objective 'apocalypse' or 'post-apocalypse'). Finally, it must be motivated by a hypothesis: however open-ended the question is, and however much it avoids presuppositions, there is no point in formulating a question if one has no idea of what one is looking for.

A tall order, I'd say.

Nonetheless, these questions (I do not think I can manage with just one) will form the basis of my thesis, and will therefore need to be carefully thought out – even if they are amended later. I am currently considering writing about Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things (1987) and potentially Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003). As support I have quite a number of other post-apocalyptic novels, including Nation's Survivors, Matheson's I am Legend, Shute's On the beach, Mary Shelley's The Last Man and Christopher's Death of Grass. I have also recently acquired Mike Ashley's (ed.) very recent Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF (2010), which contains a slew of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories and novellas which, no doubt, can be of some use to me as well. But the initial trio, with a particular emphasis on McCarthy, are my main focus.

In the questions below I have used just McCarthy since, frankly, it's too much to write something like “Auster, Atwood and McCarthy in their respective works” all the time.

How does Cormac McCarthy's The Road fit into the context and historical progression, if any, of post-apocalyptic science fiction of the last four decades (1970-2010)?

What are the narrative/rhetorical/symbolic etc strategies that McCarthy utilizes in The Road in order to create the fiction of a believable post-apocalyptic world?

How does post-apocalyptic fiction mesh with the idea of Lyotard's meta- or master narrative, in particular considering McCarthy's The Road, Auster's In the Country of Last Things and Atwood's Oryx and Crake?

The third question would enter into the wonderful world of post-modern theory, although that might just be fun, really. Combined, all three questions would create a tripartite thesis, in which I place the novel(s) in a historical context (after defining what 'post-apocalyptic' means), perform a deep reading of its/their actual content, and then finally apply a piece of postmodern theory on them to see if they sink or swim (i.e., I enter, briefly, into the possibility of post-postmodernism, and whether or not these novels might apply).

This could work.

Edit: Since writing this, I have put some more thought into it, and changed my last (and most important) question to be something like:

In what way(s), if any, are McCarthy's, Atwood's and Auster's post-apocalyptic tales pushing the boundaries of (post-apocalyptic) (science) fiction: have they entered into the realm of the post-postmodern?

I'm digging my own grave here, of course, with trying to define 'post-postmodern', but I'd still like to try!

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1986. The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge. University of Manchester: Manchester.

Schell, Jonathan. 1982. The Fate of the Earth. Jonathan Cape: London.