Firstly, if you’ve never read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, do so immediately. However, side effects include: pondering what exactly makes someone human, wondering about the bioethics of genetic engineering, and bemoaning the two-sided coin of the beauty and sheer ugliness of this world.
If you’re up for that and constant overthinking for about three days on your morals (and enduring some very base language and situations — it is a dystopian society), pick it up.
This dystopian book (a trilogy actually, which I am currently making my way through and am loving so much that I bought it for my own personal collection) entertains the possibility of the extremes of genetic engineering for profit. Without giving too much away, the people in this book are loosely split into two categories: science types and wordsmiths. The goggle-wearing clans compete for the top-paying jobs at the large corporations that have more-or-less taken over the class structure. Meanwhile, the nose-in-book nerds are shuffled around depending on how competent they are at advertising for the scientific discoveries.
Since I do my best to balance on this see-saw, you can imagine how much I connected with this book.
What Atwood does phenomenally well is her manipulation of language. Two best friends (the scientific prodigy, Crake, and the mediocre master of words, Jimmy) are forced to live in this rapidly evolving world on both sides of this interesting divide. However, it isn’t necessarily what is said; rather it is how it is said.
Crake and Jimmy are both romantically involved by the end of the book (no spoilers here). What is fascinating is how Crake is reduced to nothing but the basic human drives: food, water, and sex. There is no description of emotion when he pursues his woman, if pursuit is even the right word. It is all very matter-of-fact and the reader (myself) is left wondering how this relationship is even at all fulfilling.
But for Crake, it is! He is fulfilling a basic human drive. For all this knowledge and all his ability to cut and paste genes into a sequence, he is reducing himself to nothing to but needs. His brain is simply a machine that functions to keep him alive. What kind of life can that be?
Falling in love, although it resulted in altered body chemistry and was therefore real, was a hormonally induced delusional state, according to him [Crake]. In addition it was humiliating, because it put you at a disadvantage, it gave the love object too much power. As for sex per se, it lacked both challenge and novelty, and was on the whole a deeply imperfect solution to the problem of intergenerational genetic transfer
And Jimmy. The entire book is told from his perspective. Can you even imagine the torture of being in this black and white world that’s melting into a cacophany of grey and never being able to find the correct words to describe any of it? Even if you could, words are useless; there are nothing but sprinkles on a cake that has already been genetically modified to thrill your taste buds. What the point of sprinkles when they have no taste or color??
Stupid sprinkles. Stupid science.
When any civilization is dust and ashes,” he said, “art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning—human meaning, that is—is defined by them. You have to admit that.”
Just as Crake is reduced to nothing but needs, Jimmy is described as being so much more than that. There’s a depth to his life that Crake simply cannot understand.
So here I am, reading this book. I understand both sides. I’m the zebra. Part of me is the white lab coat, data-oriented, goggle-wearing scientist. The other part of me is the tragically understanding pair of reading glasses, the dark writer who broods about what I’m trying to say, the dictionary-toting girl who knows the ultimate power of words.
This post started out about me wondering if my soul overpowers the three basic human drives and I came to the conclusion that I’m a zebra.