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Review by Stephen Dunning


The Terror of the Therapeutic

Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social.

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Oryx and Crake
By Margaret Atwood
Doubleday
400 pp.; $26

When Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985, it provoked strong reactions from both sides of the culture wars: civil libertarians saw it as confirming their fears of an oppressive Christian Moral Majority, while evangelical Christians perceived it as directly attacking their faith.

Neither reaction was entirely justified. If anything, Atwood was warning us about our vulnerability to authoritarian Orwellian regimes that gain public support (or acquiescence) because of their promise to remedy the inevitable social chaos of permissive societies.

Oryx and Crake, her most recent novel, returns to her anti-utopian concerns, but now offers a Huxleyan analysis of our times, in the sense that it considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. Christians may even discover an ally of sorts in Atwood, who here displays a disturbingly prophetic vision that exposes the spiritual bankruptcy at the heart of our therapeutic technological society.

The admittedly odd title refers to two main characters, whose names derive from two animal species, now endangered, but extinct in the near future of the novel. Snowman, the narrator, has close ties to both characters: Crake is his only friend; Oryx, the only woman he has ever loved. Like Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale, Snowman begins speaking as the devastated survivor of a catastrophe that the book gradually discloses. But here the catastrophe goes well beyond the predictable (though painful) cycling of political regimes, for Snowman appears to be the only human alive.

Crake both masterminded this "final solution" and ensured Snowman's survival, and thus the novel is arguably Crake's story, at least in that we must grasp Crake's relationship to his world to understand what drove him to this radical therapy—and the irony is that he clearly acts with therapeutic intent. Oryx's role in the work is much more enigmatic and symbolic. In some sense, she emerges as the oppressed, exploited "Other," incarnating the possibilities of life and love that neither Snowman nor Crake can fully grasp. Yet paradoxically, she also inspires Crake, believes in his therapeutic mission, and assists him (albeit unwittingly) in bringing about the catastrophe. But if she is the abiding mystery at the heart of the story, he remains its prime agent.

His is a distinctly hierarchical world, divided visibly into the few haves and many have-nots. Those gifted "numbers" people who can serve their commercialized technological society profitably find refuge behind highly fortified corporation compounds (explicitly likened to castles), while the ungifted or unfortunate find themselves banished to the "pleeblands." Life for the unprotected is brutal, largely because of the environmental damage produced by precisely the same technology that offers protection to those who can afford it. We learn, for example, of massive coastal flooding (from global warming), of devastating shifts in weather patterns (from both global warming and deforestation), and of deadly UV radiation (from damage to the ozone). In the compounds, the elite rattle around like disconsolate, isolated, voyeuristic ghosts, starving in ways they cannot even begin to describe or address—living in various degrees of frustration and fear.

The novel forcefully suggests that this monstrosity of a world represents science's legacy to us, to the degree that it alone speaks authoritatively, for the language of scientific quantification simply excludes those qualitative concerns (aesthetic, ethical and spiritual) most vital to us—concerns exclusively linked to the despised "word" people in the novel. Those educators who currently witness the relentless devaluation of the humanities must acknowledge that the novel's educational system, which exclusively privileges and rewards "numbers" people, is not that far removed from our own. As "people of the book," Christians should be especially vigilant.

This is the system that produces the exceptionally gifted Crake, the numbers person with the highest numbers of all, and thus a man granted corporate carte blanche, with unlimited scientific resources to engage in cutting-edge research and development in genetic engineering. But Crake has his own agenda, one that goes well beyond the vision of his corporate masters, who see only the possibilities of profit. His virtue (and vice) is that he is willing to follow thoughts through to their conclusions, unhindered by questions of metaphysics or ethics. God, for Crake, is simply, an excisable neural cluster. The new god, of course, is the one wielding the genetic scalpel.

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