scary scary science

by ishmael

Actually, a better title might be “scary scary biology,” but let’s not discriminate here: the most obvious villains in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake are the unscrupulous geneticists, but I’m sure the chemists were in cahoots and those physicists are always up to something, right? Right.

One time in college I saw part of a zombie movie that some friends of mine were watching, complete with ravening hordes, moldy-looking flesh, and a last human on earth with a gun and a bunch of energy bars looted from the remnants of civilization. Oryx and Crake has a lot in common with that movie, whatever it was, and as someone who really doesn’t enjoy zombie movies, I have mixed feelings about this book. I would certainly never see a movie adaptation of it if one existed, though I did read the whole thing.

To be clear, this was not a bad book by any measure: Margaret Atwood is an excellent writer, and she crafts a pretty vivid future world as a setting for this first entry in a trilogy. I admire the craftsmanship and all that; it’s the story that I didn’t particularly love. And why not? I guess it boils down to the fact that I’m an optimist. Now, I like a good dystopian novel as much as the next person (and I do enjoy a good sci-fi novel), but this one went a little too far for me. [mild spoilers coming, fyi] Pharmaceutical companies running amok, unbridgeable class divides between scientists and the rest of humanity, genetically engineered chicken-creatures that have no real heads…um. No? The flap notes describe this all as “an outlandish but wholly believable realm”; yes outlandish, but I refuse to believe most of this stuff. I do believe wholeheartedly in anthropogenic climate change (not that it should be a matter of belief; it’s simply a fact), so I’ll give Atwood her crazy weather patterns on future-Earth, but I just can’t, or won’t, take the rest as a possibility. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that it’s supposed to be over the top to scare us into action, and that believing in the exact future described in Oryx and Crake isn’t really the point, but to be honest, I find the present to be scary enough without looking for more trouble (viz: Syrian civil war, Donald Trump, global temperature records, zombies). In sum, I found Oryx and Crake to be depressing and creepy, and for all he had a tough time of it I had no sympathy for the narrator.

Atwood has written two more books in this future (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam) and I know they have both at the library. I haven’t yet decided if I want to read them or not. On the one hand, I like to finish things neatly if I can, and I’ve certainly read worse stuff before; but on the other hand, I’m not sure these books are good enough that it’s worth wading through them when I don’t enjoy them all that much. The fundamental message in Oryx and Crake is not subtle (humanity carries the seed of its own destruction and all that); I don’t think I need to read the sequels to pound that any further into my brain.