Saturday, August 05, 2006

"ORYX AND CRAKE" By Margaret Atwood

My friend Sue who is a librarian at the University of Calgary sent me a book called Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. It’s science-fiction of a kind I used to read all the time in my teens -- only then I was reading H.G. Wells and Heinlein. (It was the Fifties.) Wells was the more dystopic and wrote his stories by extending what he saw in the world around him. One of the most memorable was based on the English class system with a split between the aesthetic, privileged, but basically helpless people (landed gentry) who lived above ground and the brutal, oppressed, miserably ape-like people who did all the work and lived underground (coal miners). You can see the same tropes in Lord of the Rings between the Elven people and the legions of “mud people.” (Was there ever a more brilliant moment than one of them being “birthed” out of the side of a bank, complete with a membrane envelope?)

In Atwood’s novel, people have split between the “pure” scientists and the humanists. Crake is brilliant and heartless -- “Snowman” (the narrator) is his ineffective friend (humanities, you know) and Oryx is a little female Third World Sex Slave who has stayed in touch with the natural world. Both men “love” her and she accommodates both. The theme is genetic manipulation.

My local ag rag says that the great majority of grains and beans we’re eating now are genetically altered, so why are we objecting, since we don’t seem to even notice? In this book, the science is so advanced that new animals can be created: pigoons (pigs that grow human parts -- these actually exist), rakunks (clever little pets neither raccoon nor skunk) and snats (rats with snake tails). In fact, even a new kind of person can be created and given a new culture. Crake makes them, Oryx teaches them. In the end the Snowman must try to save them.

Crake in his cynicism has created and marketed a pill that makes every person swoon with pleasure (cocaine, viagra, heroin, meth, et al) but has also embedded in it a time-release virus that will destroy every human on the planet (HIV? Ebola?). The “Crakers” (the newly created people, who are immune to the virus) emerge from their bubble of protection to live on a beach while the Snowman must live in a nearby tree for fear of wolvogs. (I know about them, but they create themselves the natural way.) In a way Crake has opened Pandora’s box, but he put a “hope” race -- I suppose actually the Crakers are a species) in the bottom. Will they survive in this destroyed world?

It’s a clever book and a strong argument about tinkering with the substrate of life itself. Many of the calamities are ripped from the headlines. The “improvements” to the Crakers come from other animals that exist now and they are often pretty entertaining. But I sit here in Valier on an anomalously cool and bright day in August, and I am chilled. The radio at my elbow is describing the Israeli (Crake?) and Lebanon (Oryx?) conflict. The newspaper on the floor at my feet is telling about psychotic snipers in a fancy walled community (walled to keep danger OUT, never thinking it might be already IN).

What makes the book most chilling, even when I was reading it earlier while the temp was over ninety, is that there is no love in it. The closest is the friendship between Craker and the Snowman, but that just turns out to be mutually convenient. The supposed “love” for Oryx is simply fucking. Some scraps of description of her are given, always pointing out how fragile and childlike she is, though she turns out to be remarkably durable and paradoxically self-possessed. The Snowman is almost as much in love with alcohol as he is with sex.

Not only is this characteristic of the book but of our culture. It’s rare for mainstream movies to depict simple affection, the texture of daily life shared with another person, a home not decorated but really lived in. When I read comments and posts on other websites, they are almost always like the assumptions of the Snowman -- about status, sex, and booze. These (and a good deal of xenophobia) are what they know about and what they want. Shock me! Shake me! Blow me away! Me, me, me. Only once did an older man on another blog declare that in his opinion the best and most loving relationship a man could find would be with a “church lady,” who would be generous, kind, and faithful. Forget “hot,” forget “wet,” forget incredible climaxes. One could almost hear the hoots that followed.

So Atwood is simply exaggerating what already exists, the same as H.G. Wells did. I remember one Wells story that had God destroying every living thing on the planet and then flopping a new little critter out onto the beach. God says, “This time I’m going to try to evolve something with a brain that actually uses it.”

So how do I escape all these terrible images enough to stop being afraid to take my shoes off for fear of stepping on a snat? (Chas, the snake part is rattlesnake!)

Making bread. How’s that for a bit of God in everyday life? Classic, eh? I put aside Oryx and Crake and get out The Tassajara Bread Book, The Greyston Bakery Cookbook: Gourmet Specialties from the Zen Community of New York, and Sunset Breads: Step-by-Step Techniques. (I like a little Zen in my Christianity -- leavening, you know?) I can’t eat the sweet stuff and desserts, but there are plenty of savory and ethnic choices.

I’ve been pinching down my calories a little too hard, sticking to low glycemic foods, doing my finger stabs and writing down the scores. I need a little pleasure, a little generosity, a little risk. And when I bake, it does tend to be risky! Once I forgot I had bread rising -- came back way too late to find it all over the counter. I tend to stick to good old muffins. But they’re not quite like yeast bread.

"Tassajara" (Edward Espe Brown) says that the water or milk to mix with the yeast should be blood temperature -- human blood, I'm sure. When the bread is kneaded enough, put it to your cheek and it will feel silky as a baby’s bottom. This is eutopic. Brown can tell many stories of lives that were changed by learning to bake bread.

Instead of ransacking wrecked houses for booze, chocolate and weapons, the Snowman ought to have looked for flour and yeast and to have taught the Crakers to build, not a still, but a reflector oven.

Well, that’s an idea. I wonder if I could build a reflector oven and get a little bit off the electrical grid before it crashes.

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