Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Fear of a blank planet: Atwood (2003), Oryx & Crake

I ended up running a hybrid book-club-seminar thing with the students on the LUCSUS Masters course earlier this semester, for which I was asked to suggest a list of “cli-fi” books that the students could choose from. (Yes, I know, “cli-fi”; I’ll return to that bone of contention some other time.) Long story short: the list went out, the students selected their titles, and I was confronted with the necessity of reading three canonical works of climate-related sf which I’d never gotten round to reading before. The first of these was Atwood’s Oryx & Crake.

“How had you never read that before?” asked a friend, which was a reasonable question. I suspect it had to do with my identifying with a much more limited notion of what science fiction was about back then—and, relatedly, to do with the rather sniffy reception that O&C, and indeed Atwood in general, received from the sf critical establishment at the time. Part of that stems from a chauvinism that has been beaten back somewhat in the wake of the Blog Wars of the Noughties and Teens, but which is far from dead; Atwood has long delighted in twitting sf’s generic parochialism, not least through her staunch insistence that what she writes isn’t science fiction but rather speculative fiction. (Hence the notorious “talking squids in outer space” beef, which is indicative of just how successful an act of trolling that statement was on her part—and, more positively, of the extent to which things have changed; Stephen Baxter’s “get a life, woman” riposte at the time would likely not be reported in implicit approval today, f’rex). To put it another way, sf culture had yet to forgive Atwood for playing with the toys without asking to be allowed into the clubhouse; some parts of it probably still haven’t. That she doesn’t seem to care—and that she not only rags on sf for its perceived limitations, but (perhaps more importantly) gets the opportunity to do so in publications that rarely ask sf writers for their opinion on anything other than their own latest book, if that—serves only to amplify the resentment.

But reading O&C, a lot of other reasons for its rejection from the sf canon at the time become apparent. The foremost of these is its relentless mockery and exposure of an escapist technofetishism which was still pretty prevalent at the time: sf still saw itself as a serious literature concerned with the merits of technological progress, which might well be critical of the particulars, but certainly wasn’t going to throw out the Enlightenment-humanist baby with the unevenly-distributed bathwater. O&C is many things, but one of those things is a scathing indictment of better-living-through-technology scientism—and whether consciously or not, sf is (or at least still was in the early Noughties) a colleague of scientism, when it wasn’t its unashamed cheerleader.

(Yes, this is a massive recent-historical generalisation of sf, but hey, this is a blog post; fund me to write a book on it and I’ll gladly dig into the nuance.)

I also recall O&C being criticised for its over-the-top style, which was perceived as unserious; I particularly remember dismissals that focussed on the names Atwood gave to technologies and products and companies, which were supposedly absurd and sophomoric. Which they are, of course; that’s the point. There was probably more than a bit of projection here, given that the clunky punning neologism was a staple of the technological-utopian texts of the so-called “golden age”, but mostly it strikes me as a huge misparsing of what the book is trying to do. I mean, it’s so obviously a work of satire, with a lineage that stretches through Vonnegut and back to Swift, and perhaps even as far as Voltaire; it’s thus no surprise that attempting to read it as a serious “consequences of technology” novel in the limited sense that sf has tended to deal with such questions would result in bouncing off it pretty hard. Plus it’s not as if it wasn’t obvious that Atwood was capable of writing in a much more serious and realistic register, even if you’d only read The Handmaid’s Tale. The style was not a limitation, it was a very deliberate strategic choice—and I wonder if it wasn’t calculated, at least in part, as an extension of the talking squids critique, a very pointed thumbing of the nose at the generic self-conception.

What was somewhat alarming to me was how relevant it still seems—even setting aside the grim recognition of reading that final section during an actual global pandemic (and the arguable irresponsibility of positing a pandemic that is released deliberately by an (anti)humanist megalomaniac). Some of the social trajectories in O&C‘s USA—particularly the whole gated-communities and educational-elites set-up—are very on-point.

But the thing that really stuck me most powerfully was the characterisation. For me, O&C is as much about the hubris of a narrow and positivist/quantitative intellectualism and toxic masculinity as it is about climate change or genetic engineering in particular. I found myself remembering that when it was published, the New Atheists were still very much in the ascendant, and that they were a precursor to the whole men’s-rights-G*mer*Gte-Pepe-NeoReo-LessWrong cult of rationality which… well, yeah.

That said, Atwood doesn’t spare the lash on the left or the arts, either; the story’s few feminists, refuseniks and avatars for the arts and humanities are depicted at least as monstrously as their notional opponents. That’s in no small part due to Atwood’s unwavering fidelity to Jimmy/Snowman as the narrative focaliser: the cynicism he was raised with—that he was raised in—is relentless and cruel, and he has internalised it almost completely. Everything we see is filtered through that nihilism and privilege… and that, I think, is what makes it feel oddly contemporary, because that perspective (and its consequences) are writ very large in the world as it is right now.

But perhaps the most incredible trick is that, despite Jimmy’s clear monstrosity, he somehow remains a sympathetic character: as warped and broken as he is, the making of him is shown sufficiently clearly that even through his own eyes—even filtering for the self-pity that is fundamental to his identity—the horror of being Jimmy, of being Snowman, is always apparent. Atwood frames this as an isolation from “nature”, and an immersion in an extrapolation of the early internet which is, again, alarmingly proleptic with hindsight: Jimmy and his peers are immersed in system that is always ready to gratify their worst hungers and impulses. It’s our familiar friend the Dopamine Machine, but notably not as a tech-determinist intrusion: the impulses were there long before the positive-feedback loop of gratification served to amplify it into a howling screech of nihilism.

(I’m reminded also of Porcupine Tree’s “Fear of a Blank Planet”, which I believe was influenced by Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park; there’s an interesting essay to be written there, perhaps, given the vast gulf of positionality between those two authors.)

What hasn’t aged well is Atwood’s portrayal of the East/West binary, as manifest through Oryx and her backstory; this is uncomfortably Orientalist, or so it feels to me, and while you can argue that Oryx’s passivity and acceptance of her lot acts as an avatar of the female As Jimmy perceives it, it nonetheless results in a rather essentialist ying-yang look at the world. I strongly suspect it was well-intentioned, to be clear, with Atwood looking to present the East as the counterpoint to the privileges and of the Western male elite, and as the externality upon which that privilege draws for its sustained advantages. But even as an avatar for the acceptance of a systemic and inevitable suffering, Oryx feels a little too much a stereotype for comfort, and Jimmy’s POV doesn’t really provide a get-out for that.

Discussing O&C with the Masters students, I was somewhat surprised to find that none of them had picked up on the biblical allusions, particularly in the final phase of the book; this may have something to do with the secularism of predominantly European middle-class Zoomers, and likewise something to do with the rarity of reading as an entertainment medium. (Maybe half of the students claimed to be regular readers, but none of them had ever read anything that they had identified as science fiction before.) Perhaps because I did have quite a bit of exposure to biblical themes and story-forms in my youth—and perhaps because I’ve long been extremely bookish in general—the grotesquely twisted new-creation-story vibe of the book’s final stages were almost telegraphic for me: the hubris of the (new-)atheistic scientist-genius Crake mutating into a sort of secular self-apotheosis, the fall from grace, the exit from Eden (or Paradice, rather)… and a bit of Old Testament Cain and Abel, as well. (Worth noting, perhaps, that O&C came out not long after Negotiating With the Dead, whose Cain-and-Abel theme left something of a mark on me when I read it in 2011.)

With all that said, I feel that despite its frequent inclusion in the canon of climate fiction, O&C is less a serious look at climate change as a scientific phenomenon (though perhaps less unserious than we might like it to be) than a look at the culture of technocratic hubris and arrogance that sustains the extractive/emissive externalisation of consequences that is the causal root of climate change. It is dark, relentless and very, very sad—and as such, perhaps the OTT satirical style is the only way that Atwood, or anyone else, could pull it off.