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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.

Oryx and Crake
By Margaret Atwood
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.

As intimated, Crake's intentions are purely therapeutic. He recognizes that the environment cannot sustain unlimited human development, and is convinced that humans—victims of their own instincts and imagination—cannot limit this development. At the same time, he sees that the evolution of human culture has reached a dead-end: his own society fails to satisfy the deepest needs even of those it privileges. Thus, within the confines of his high-security, high-tech complex—aptly named Paradice—he develops a therapy to remedy both problems: the complete elimination of homo sapiens sapiens and the creation of a new species of (human?) being—the Crakers, genetically altered to live in complete physical and emotional harmony with their environment.

Atwood effectively prevents simplistic judgment of Crake's project, providing an ending that ingeniously forces the reader to wrestle with precisely the same intractable issues that drove Crake to his desperate solution. Unlike her earlier dystopia, Oryx and Crake paints a world whose outlines are all too credible. She has done nothing more than to pursue the ethos of our dominant cultural projects to its nightmarish conclusion. Christians would do well to heed her warning, and to work toward offering a living alternative to her dream of death.

Stephen Dunning is a fulltime instructor of English at Douglas College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.

The official site for Oryx and Crake has posted an pretty extensive excerpt, discussion questions, and an interview with Atwood.

Other reviews of Oryx and Crake include:

Atwood's world wired with weird scienceThe New York Times (July 13, 2003)
End of the world as we know itLas Vegas Mercury (July 10, 2003)
Science, humor combine in a disturbing futureThe Oregonian (July 6, 2003)

Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:

The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however… (March 17, 2003)
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