Book Reviews

Review Published in NATIONAL REVIEW

Apocalypse Revealed- It's Scary

Navtej Sarna

ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood; Nan A. Talese (Doubleday); Pps 376; US $ 26.00; ISBN 0-385-50385-7

Perhaps the setting of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake can best be explained this way: Take, for instance, a place like Gurgaon. Label it not a suburb but a Module. Spin the place forward another eighty years to a time when people consider the dotcom bubble to be prehistory. Within Gurgaon, Laburnum, Hamilton, Regency and other such optimistically named places will not then simply be overpriced apartment blocks in which you wish you had bought a flat when the going was good but competing powerhouses, or Compounds with names like Healthwyzer, OrganInc and so on. These compounds will not be peopled with airhostesses, young executives and adolescent filmmakers but with driven scientists and corporate cutthroats. The foursome putting on the ninth hole will not be talking about last night's Page three party but planning the latest genetic splicing that will cut out jealousy or hate or love out of a human being or whatever then passes for a human being. The denizens of this module will not keep miniature daschunds- there pets will be rakunks (rat plus skunk, minus the smell); they will not order in chicken tikkas but produce Chickienobs Nubbins, which is all chicken breast, no bones and other stuff. And when they want to go to another module for a conference, say a module called NOIDA, they will not travel by some antiquated eight lane highway but by a bullet train that will speed safely through a Pleebland called Delhi- a place to be avoided because the Pleeb's who live there will be ordinary people-people who fight, protest, scrounge and save, joke and cry.

Atwood's latest novel work begins even further ahead in time, when even the world of Modules and Compounds has vanished, victim of a bio-cataclysm that is almost a revenge of nature against vain attempts by man to play God. What is left is a haunting wasteland, populated by near perfect two dimensional creatures, created in the scientific compounds that have been reduced to overgrown tombs by the cataclysm that has destroyed it seems all humans except the protagonist of the book- Snowman aka Jimmy, walking around in the devastation with a sheet around him like a royal toga, wearing sunglasses with one lens, holding on to six brown empty bottles of beer just for the memory, smelling like a walrus, 'existing and not existing.'

LIKE THE abominable snowman, except that he is not scary, he is just a 'goon, buffoon, poltroon'. As he scrounges the wasteland for food and goodies- a joltbar, some Scotch, a second lens for his glasses perhaps, and lives in his tree house, Snowman also acts like a philosopher and a prophet for the perfect, innocent beings who gather around him, child like creatures with perfect bodies who have had all feeling and emotions that can make man unhappy spliced out of them, creatures who have inherited the earth when our grandchildren made sure, by their arrogance and greed, that the brave new world they created would inevitable go sour. These are the children of Crake, Jimmy's one time best friend, his creation, each one naked, each one perfect, 'each one a different skin colour-chocolate, rose, tea, butter, cream, honey- but each with green eyes'.

After allowing the reader a chilling glimpse of this bleak landscape of the future, Atwood begins to tell her tale, weaving Snowman's present predicament with his memories of his days as Jimmy. She tells of the shiny scientific success that the men and women of the generation of Jimmy s father created, of the competitive race between one Compound and another to take over as many functions of God and Nature as possible, and of their clear and uncomplicated objective of making money by doing just that. And if that sickened someone, if someone could no longer carry on without questioning the ethics or the objectives, like Jimmy's mother did, then opting out was not easy. The CorpSeCorps, a sort of big brother, a moral police force, was always watching, with the aid of all that technology had given them. Jimmy's mother finally does leave and manages to escape, only to become an occasional risky postcard, a glimpse on television and finally a haunting victim of a firing squad, for her son. But in so doing, she encapsulates all that makes human beings so special- the doubts, the questions, the decision that makes all the difference, the foolishness to die for their beliefs.

Jimmy's days are filled by his best friend, a young scientific genius called Crake. In their more innocent times, the two spend their adolescent leisure in playing strange computer games- Extincathon, Kwiktime Osama, Three-dimensional Waco and so on, watching Noodie News on television or open heart surgery (live time) and surfing pornographic sites on the web. At one of these sites, Jimmy, and unknown to him, even Crake, is bewitched by a porn-world Lolita, dressed only with the ribbon in her hair. She is Oryx, the other part of the title of the novel. Departing from the futuristic landscape, Atwood follows Oryx s story as she is brought from a village somewhere in Southeast Asia, at a time which surprisingly sounds very much like ours, or even earlier, and one wonders that in a world where so much has changed, why hasn't anything changed in that part of the world at all?

Time moves on- 'the coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane....' Jimmy cannot keep up with Crake. While Crake is picked up the equivalent of Harvard, where student services includes the provision of sexual partners of chosen, race, colour, size, so that the students do not waste time in the chase but concentrate on the work in hand. Jimmy on the other hand, is a wordsman, not a numbers person, and he can only make it to an institution named Martha Graham Academy that seems to be a liberal arts college leftover from our days, sunk in apathy, where plagiarism off the net is a cottage industry. What happens thereafter the reader must find out for himself. Atwood will lead the reader with a sure hand through the maze of questions that inevitably come to mind- how did Crake create those perfect creatures? What went wrong, to reduce the scientific paradise to the blasted heath around which Snowman walks around in his sheet? What happens to Oryx, the sex-slave who holds no bitterness, the fascinating picture on the net that becomes lover and Muse?

Quite clearly, Margaret Atwood is in complete command of the material at hand. Equally clear is her vision of the future and the train of her argument. If we keep going the way we are, if moral corruption, vanity, cynicism and rampant scientific development combine, then anyone of us may end up being Snowman, wandering a wasteland alone, scrounging for leftovers, fighting to stay away from predatory pigoons (pigs plus humans, used to grow human organs), trying his best to hold on to memory in the form of wordlists-fungible, pullulate, pistic, cerements. At times, the narrative becomes too abstruse, a trifle too loaded with jargon and at such times one wishes for the relative simplicity of a Brave New World or a 1984. But then perhaps we have moved further down the road in the last few decades and the hells that await us are far more complicated, far more frightening than those imagined by Huxley and Orwell?