Margaret Atwood is a very special lady. She is an extremely talented writer and one of the best living for simple wordsmithery. If you haven’t read her The Handmaid’s Tale, stop reading this article, go to Amazon, and buy the Kindle version so you can start reading as soon as possible. No, seriously. Atwood the author is unassailably great, and Atwood the public persona is quick, witty, and charming. One reason I like her so much is that, in contrast to many other knights of cultural development, she loves the changes being wrought by the Internet and social media. Unlike crotchety Jonathan Franzen, who once had the balls to say of Salman Rushdie’s Twitter use that he should know better, and that 140 characters blah blah death of English blah blah blah. Authors who say things like that seem bizarrely out of touch with media, considering that media is the vehicle for their success. Atwood, on the other hand, loves the Internet, mainly because basic literacy (I said basic literacy) is a prerequisite for participation, and it gives youth a platform for writing, getting their writing published, and receiving criticism, a platform that was not present when she was coming up.
This type of forward thinking, openness to technology, and general flexibility of mind has led her into the realm of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is a euphemism for science fiction used by people who think that once science fiction gets too smart you have to call it something else. Her justification is that spaceships and aliens cannot actually happen, but that the events she writes about can actually occur with the technology available to us today. She’s so damned good at it that she can call it whatever she wants. Her main claim to fame in the SF world, other than the previously mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale (buy it now) is the recently concluded MaddAddam trilogy, a post-apocalyptic series.
The world of the series is a near-future extrapolation of how things currently are. Corporations have become megaconglomerates that have more power than most nation-states. If you have a job with one of them, you live in a compound, which is like a gated community but with much better security. If you do not have a job with them, you live in the pleeblands, which is a wasteland of crime, poverty, and questionable foodstuffs. One of the most successful restaurants is Secret Burger – where the source of protein in your hamburger is always a surprise! Secret Burger is very popular with many criminal organizations. I’ll let you connect that for yourself.
Atwood’s dystopia arises from bioengineering. We get glimpses of some of the biogenetic horrors of the world in the lead up to the apocalypse. One example is the extremely popular Chickienobs, which are genetically modified chickens. They no longer have neurons, or beaks, or much of anything other than meat. They are giant, bulbous amalgamations of breasts and drumsticks with a tube of nutrients that goes in at one end and a tube of waste that comes out the other. Another questionable transgenic organism is the pigoon – pigs that have been modified to grow replacement organs for humans. These pigs are gigantic because they have to have space to grow extra lungs, livers, hearts, and even cortical tissue. None of these things – the massively impoverished populace, the overpowered corps, or the questionably engineered animals – actually bring about the end of the world. A massive outbreak of an Ebola-like virus basically melts humanity where it stands. The narrative of the first book, Oryx and Crake, starts after the apocalypse and explores the buildup to the biocatastrophe through flashbacks. The book’s post-apocalyptic start means the action opens on the sole survivor of The End: grim, frightened, and alone. The first few paragraphs are my favorite start of any book ever:
Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in,
wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm
of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.
On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow.
Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette
against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the
birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted
car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.
Out of habit he looks at his watch – stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band,
still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face
is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence
of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.
Atwood accomplishes so much in so few paragraphs. The protagonist waking up and wishing he were just not there anymore, the artifacts of a crumbled civilization discarded in the ocean, and most hauntingly, the fact that “[n]obody nowhere knows what time it is,” because as far as Snowman knows, there is nobody nowhere. A horrifying and deft way to signal just how alone he is. Well, not quite alone. One of the characters that we meet through flashbacks, Crake, a brilliant geneticist, has bioengineered a perfect humanity. He started with human stock and made modifications until he ended up with post-humans. To name just a few modifications, the children of Crake are not physiologically predisposed to violence, they can survive by just walking around eating leaves and grass, and their sweat repels insects. They represent a new origin story, a modern Genesis.
Snowman’s main motivation for the book is taking care of these “Crakers,” who survive the outbreak. Caring for this fresh-out-of-the-box humanity, even just surviving himself, is a dubious proposition in the new world. Most obviously, the old methods of food delivery, medical care, and shelter building disappeared with the disappearance of humanity. Most unsettlingly, many of the previously innocuous gene-spliced species now pose a danger to Snowman. The best example of this is the pigoons, which have escaped and are now approaching human-level intelligence. In one scene of the book, they almost trap Snowman raptor-style. How the hell are they this smart? Well…
Life, ah, finds a way.
In the absence of humans to keep them under control and penned in, the pigoons escape their enclosures and the human brain tissue they were growing for transplantation gives them the capacity for thought. This is just one of the endless bioengineered dangers Snowman has to deal with in the world he wakes up in.
Oryx and Crake is a great book, but it is also part of a great trilogy. The trilogy does not progress in time as most do. In the present of the narrative, it inches forward as its flashbacks cycle to fill in more and more of the blanks in the pre-apocalypse world, fleshing out the past more with each book. The two sequels sometimes lose something in treading over similar ground, but Atwood is such a talented worldbuilder that any depth or texture she adds is welcome. Each cycle back builds more and more on the circumstances that led to the end of the world, and explores more and more deeply how a sick civilization dies and how a new civilization continues after an extinction event. I mentioned earlier that Atwood considers her work speculative (not science) fiction because it projects a plausible future based on the technology and society we have now. That plausibility factor makes this trilogy all the more compelling and terrifying. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Image credits: Wiki, Drinking Cinema (take a guess which one)