Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Reading Oryx and Crake in the time of debt ceiling brinksmanship

I'm not quite sure when my long-held optimism about the human race took shape, but my read of history for some time has been that human life is steadily improving, that our progress, notwithstanding major setbacks, has been moral as well as material, and that we are adaptive enough to continue to increase wealth, freedom and peace. There's always been the caveat that global warming or some as-yet-unimagined disaster could undo all -- or that we would bioengineer or own evolution or replacement. But I've felt reasonably confident that the progress of the last few hundred years -- long lives, better health, less subjection to violence, more scope for more people to exercise their faculties -- would continue.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy, which I've read in the last couple of weeks, has dinged this optimism.  It's a double dystopia, with two narrative presents:  an anarchic world of balkanized corporate dominance and environmental degradation prior to the near-extinction of humanity by an engineered superbug, and a remnant community's life in the ruins - and interaction with a community of genetically engineered human mutants designed to be more pacific-- after the "waterless flood."

As I read straight through the trilogy, I found myself slipping in and out of suspended disbelief.  My basic feeling was that the quasi-dystopia before the near-extinction of humanity is a powerfully imagined world, while the social life of the band of survivors of the "waterless flood" is cartoonish -- though  at the same time, the evocation of the language and inner life of the bioengineered mutant Crakians with whom the human remnant interacts is remarkable and haunting, an interior Eden. The weakest part is the back-story, taking up much of the final volume, of the remnant community's protector and founder, Zeb. He's a superhero, not a character, and his account of his dealings with supercriminals of the underworld reminds me a little of children's author Madeline L'Engle's attempts to imagine gang life: not, shall we say, an insider's account. His narrative voice is self-deprecating tough guy, as if Bono had been a drug lord.

Those caveats aside, the earlier narrative of several characters' trials in the pre-flood anarchic thugocracy is fully imagined, as is the nasty brutish society of the global failed state: its faux-civilized, luxurious corporate compounds, in which whistleblowers and would-be escapees are ruthlessly eliminated; its decayed urban infrastructure, where everyone is a squatter; its depraved online entertainments (real-time executions and child sex always on tap), its vicious streetwise child gangs, its multiple forms of sexual slavery; its cults formed in reaction to the chaos (the cult central to the tale is in fact lovingly if slightly mockingly evoked, its theology quite sophisticated).

Entering this world has colored my understanding of our own, and our future. Three malign factors plausibly converge:  global warming, which drowns the coastal cities and triggers mass extinctions, disrupting the human food supply; genetic engineering, which further corrupts the natural environment; and the overwhelming of state authority by corporate elites (in cahoots with corrupt latter-day "prosperity churches"), who develop private police forces that merge and morph into a leviathan answerable only to itself.

At one point Crake, the young genius who later engineers both the destruction of most of humankind and a race of more pacific human variants, explains that once the central cables of our built environment are cut, our technological society could not be rebuilt (except, presumably, from its starting point, over millennia):
“It’s not like the wheel, it’s too complex now. Suppose the instructions survived, suppose there were any people left with the knowledge to read them. Those people would be few and far between, and they wouldn’t have the tools. Remember, no electricity. Then once those people died, that would be it. They’d have no apprentices, they’d have no successors...All it the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever” (Oryx and Crake, p. 261).

Crake, a teenager here, is talking about the destruction of the world he knows, the proto-dystopia of the trilogy's narrative past. What's truly scary about Atwood's work is that it's easy to imagine our world devolving into that proto-dystopia, the world before the catastrophe -- and that there would be no way back from such a world, either.  That, ultimately is I think Atwood's conclusion, astonishingly enough: that the murderous Crake, who wipes out most of humanity while designing its successor, was right to do so.  Quasi spoiler alert: toward the end we learn that the saintly more or less collaborated with the murderous. The not-so-saintly Zeb sums up:
“All the real Gardeners believed the human race was overdue for a population crash. It would happen anyway, and maybe sooner was better” (MaddAddam Location 5014).

Reading the final volume (Maddaddam) as the current debt ceiling crisis draw to a head, I can't help but feeling that perhaps the GOP is on the brink of shoving the world into anarchy.  What's behind the drive to roll back the bid to make health insurance affordable for those who lack it, and to radically cut spending from a baseline already so radically reduced that the GOP itself can't write a budget within its constraints?  I would say a libertarian fervor that masks the determination of elites to increase their advantage, maximize their share of the nation's wealth and control over its government, and hence over the built environment and energy policy.   The GOP's global warming denialism, and blockage of a concerted effort to reduce emissions, could lead us into Atwood's world. The party's debt ceiling denialism could trigger a global depression, or at least a severe recession, for which the party nominally in power will be punished in the next election.  Global warming, income inequality, and a culture hostile to effective regulation of business (e.g., genetic engineering) could all accelerate.  A debt ceiling breach could be a tipping point.


  1. One alternative would be a significant war, which would both reduce populations and produce plenty of work for almost everyone. Not something I want, of course, but I believe there are lots of people who would find it exhilarating.

  2. Atwood's trilogy can also be seen as a cautionary tale of the consequences of disengagement and pollyana optimism. Stay involved. Educate yourself on the issues. Know who supports which policy. Support in any and every way you can those whose ideas you agree with. It is the only way.