The ‘Posthuman’ Future as Both Utopia and Dystopia in Oryx and Crake

/, Samantha/The ‘Posthuman’ Future as Both Utopia and Dystopia in Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake imagines a near-future, where the technology to improve humanity abounds, but is ultimately used to destroy it. The text delivers its brand of morality with a heavy hand, and within it many prominent themes of Science Fiction converge. It is an ecocriticism, and a cautionary tale, blurring the lines between utopia and dystopia. Ultimately, it asks whether utopia can be achieved in the act of creating a ‘posthuman’ race.

The novel begins in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, where Snowman, who was Jimmy in the pre-pandemic world, is perhaps the last human on earth.  He is surrounded by, and charged as protector of, a new species, which he refers to as the Crakers. They are aesthetically perfect, unerringly moral and well-meaning, but they lack humor and any knowledge of the old world. They are unable to comprehend the quirks of Snowman’s human biology, such as his facial hair, or need for clothes, or the vestiges of the now-defunct civilization that they view mostly in the form of the litter that washes up on the beach. They are perfectly adapted to their environment, while Snowman is sunburnt, gaunt, and plagued by insects.  If Snowman is indeed the last human, the prospects for humanity are bleak, his name a nod to the precarious future of his species.

“Where is my bride of Frankenstein?

[i]” Snowman/Jimmy asks the absent Crake, his old friend who, we find as the story goes on, engineered both the Crakers and the apocalyptic pandemic that annihilated the species.

“The theme of the ‘posthuman’ alteration of the human that was dormant in Shelley’s Frankenstein comes to the fore in Oryx and Crake as Atwood speculates on the proclivities of contemporary technoscience and probes the nature of the human,”[ii] Suparna Banarjee writes.  But here Atwood in some ways reverses the ethos of Frankenstein. In this work, it is a lone human that must survive in the world of posthumans, misunderstood, and assailed by the elements. In Frankenstein, the creature’s romanticism and his culture make him a sympathetic character. These qualities humanize him. The Crackers have been designed to forego such high-minded pursuits, while Snowman remains a vestige of them.

Crake as creator shares Victor Frankenstein’s moral ambiguities. “Had he been a lunatic or an intellectually honorable man who’d thought things through to their logical conclusion? And was there a difference,” Jimmy ponders at the aftermath of his work. [iii]

Crake crafted these beings to be the inheritors of the wasteland he created with his pandemic, as the future, and as the solution all of the ills he saw in society. He cobbled together and spliced the traits of many animals to achieve this end. The Crackers purr like kittens to heal with their sound frequency, smell like citrus to ward off mosquitoes, subsist on vegetation that they recycle with their own bodies, and have strengthened immune systems. They need no clothes or housing as a result of their perfect acclimation, effectively eliminating material wealth and its moral implications among them. Mating is done only when a female is in heat, once every three years, and is void of emotional attachments. “It no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child may be, since there’s no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for law. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence and downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders.”[iv]

They are Crake’s vision of utopia, his solution to the novel’s second dystopia, that of the pre-pandemic past. In this highly developed capitalistic technocracy, luxurious corporately-owned Compounds house society’s elite, while the poor suffer outside of them in the Pleeblands.

Scientifically produced commodities, such as Happicuppa, a genetically modified coffee bean, drive laborers to poverty and starvation outside of the compounds, causing violent uprisings that are met with increasingly violent suppression. Health companies manufacture illnesses and hide the pathogens in the vitamins they peddle to ensure profits. Real, unadultered food is a rarity; and weather patterns are troubling.

There are moats and high security guarding the compounds from the outsiders. Banarjee  writes, “totalitarian hegemony of the Compounds are explicitly likened to feudalism.[v]” The novel’s pre-pandemic world is one of classist, and often predetermined, inequity, which is slowly unraveling socially and environmentally.  In this, Crake sees no hope, though he is in a privileged position with access to unfathomable technology and intelligence. “Very soon, the demand is going to exceed supply for everyone,” he tells Jimmy.[vi]

And so he spreads his sickness, effectively wiping out most of the race, and replacing it with a species that cannot replicate the same problems. Crake’s is the post-1960’s utopia Raymond Williams describes, one borne of the wasteland, a “product of a defeatist assessment of the possibilities of transformation in good and fertile country.”[vii] For Crake, utopia cannot be reached by humans at all; it can only be reached by the creatures of his design once he has dismantled the human world. It is a morally ambiguous vision, which does not even include the creator himself. Williams writes, “Utopia then lies at the far end of dystopia, but only a few will enter it: the few who get out from under.”[viii]

But, ultimately, even for those included within it, Crake’s vision falls short, and his utopia is a superficial one. “The world is reduced to an artificial ‘Paradice’ amid a vast wasteland and humanity is a group of robot-like humanoids perfect in a plastic way but devoid of human complexity, of human specificity itself,”[ix] says Banarjee.

“Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war.”[x] Without culture, though humanoid, the Crakers are clearly a product of the technocentric, dehumanizing past they were created to dismantle.

This pre-pandemic past had no use for the humanities. There was one decaying institution, Martha Graham, devoted to the arts, its library decaying and books covered in mildew, and its students relegated to second tier jobs upon graduation. “The need for the humanistic functions of studying the extra-material aspects of life and sensitizing people about those elements of being human have been made absent by the capitalistic power-structure and the philistine society.”[xi]

While Jimmy, even in his life before the pandemic, is a remnant of the old order of human, Crake is an embodiment of the new one. He excels at math and the sciences. He attends the world’s Harvard-equivalent, Watson and Crick, where he studies in luxury. He is himself a product of the technocracy he rails against, and as such the finer aspects of humanity are lost on him, and on his new world.

It is not insignificant that Crake’s one chosen survivor of the pandemic is a devotee of the humanities, or that through his teachings, the Crakers begin to exhibit some of the traits Crake had tried to prevent them from developing (art in the form of a representation of Snowman[xii], a predilection for leadership[xiii]). At the novel’s end it remains unseen whether Jimmy/Snowman will continue to cultivate their humanity,  whether a variety of other factors or humans will come into play, or whether the Crakers will continue in Crake’s image, remaining innocent but without substance. What is apparent is that Crake’s technological solution to a technological society shares that society’s core problem: an inability to see beyond material needs.

[i] Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Anchor Books, 2004, p. 169.

[ii] Banerjee, Suparna. Science, Gender and History : The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 3 October 2016, p. 126.

[iii] Atwood, p. 343.

[iv] Atwood, p. 365.

[v] Banerjee, p. 93.

[vi] Atwood, p. 295.

[vii] Williams, Raymond. “Utopia and Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, 1978. vol. 5, no. 3. Jstor. 4 October 2016, p. 214.

[viii] Williams, p. 214.

[ix] Banerjee, p. 92.

[x] Atwood, 361.

[xi]  Banerjee, p. 101.

[xii] Atwood, p. 361.

[xiii] Atwood, p. 153.

By | 2018-01-07T15:01:56-04:00 October 5th, 2016|Essay 2, Samantha|0 Comments

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