How to Water God’s Garden
The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Review by Alexios Moore
In her latest two novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Atwood returns to speculative fiction, extrapolating upon current trends in everything from entertainment to ecology. In the now familiar “not-so-distant-future” Biotech Corporations have replaced governments, the border between wealthy and poor is vast and heavily guarded, and our relationship to Nature has been corrupted through bioengineering. The poor or pleebs live in work at SecretBurgers or sell their bodies, coated in fabricated scales, at Scales n Tails while the rich live on HelthWhyzer compounds guarded by the CorpSeCorps, developing drugs to extend their lives while mounting occasional forays into the pleeblands for a taste of radical chic.
The campy quality of her Atwood’s lexicon acknowledges the absurdity of the situation and honey coats the bitter political pill that might cause some readers to cough up the work and dismiss it as propaganda. But these twinned novels (Atwood described them as simultanials) have a more complex delivery system than a typical work of speculative satire. The dichotomy between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the powerless, is clear in both the narrative structure and the language, but the levels of ethical liability and the potential application to our own world is left to the reader. The question raised here is not, “How can we avoid this fictional future?” but rather “How did we arrive at this very real present?”
Snowman narrates the first novel in the diptych, Oryx and Crake. He is a Caliban figure who believes himself to be the last man on earth after the pandemic known as the Waterless Flood has swept over the planet. Atwood intersperses Snowman’s struggle to maintain his sanity and fulfill his role as the caretaker of the genetically engineered humanoids, the crakers, with flashbacks of his previous life as Jimmy. The self-absorbed son of a HelthWhyzer scientist, Jimmy only survives because of his friendship with the Machiavellian genius Crake who is both the mastermind behind the Waterless Flood, and the designer of the crakers.
Hierarchy could not exist among them… there was no territoriality… they ate nothing but leaves and grass… theirs sexuality was not a constant torment to them… there would be no family trees, no marriages and no divorces… they would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money.
The Crakers (imagine humanoid smurfs) are crafted using the same bioengineering that precipitated the crisis and conjured up from the same hubris that led humanity to its destruction, but that irony is lost on Crake who is depicted as borderline autistic-a Mr. Spock uncomfortable with the aspects of humanity that make us vulnerable, especially love. In the tradition of great tragedy it is Crake’s love, or irrational sense of possession (as he describes it), for Oryx that triggers his internal meltdown, which releases the flood.
The first novel (only because it was released first) is primarily concerned with masculine pathologies and the mechanisms through which they are expressed through digital media and embodied in corporations. Atwood is concerned with how institutions promote and justify the space between the poor and the rich, men and women, humanity and nature. These dichotomies shape the form and mark the content of these partnered novels.
If I have failed to mention the lone female protagonist, Oryx (the focus of a doomed love triangle), it is because she remains a cipher for both Jimmy and Crake-a girl/woman who folds herself into whatever shape necessary to fill the emotional vacuums of the two damaged men.
If we were curious about how the other half lives while reading Oryx and Crake, we had to wait for the release of The Year of the Flood to discover that the other half is barely surviving. Toby and Amanda, two very different women, alternate the narration, as they describe the traumatic path that lead them to God’s Gardeners and through the waterless flood. God’s Gardeners is a Quaker-inspired, radical environmentalist movement whose members refer to one another as Adam and Eve. Excerpts from their Oral Hymnbook are threaded throughout the novel (they were performed live during Atwood’s book tour), as are letters from their leader, Adam One, to his flock:
Do we deserve this Love by which God maintains our Cosmos? Do we deserve it as a Species? We have taken the world given to us and carelessly destroyed its fabric and its Creature… No, my friends. It is not this earth to be demolished: it is the human species.
As this excerpt implies (despite its Saganesque cadence). God’s Gardeners are not the peace-loving hippies they appear to be. One of the many linkages between these two novels is the relationship between Adam One and Crake: the utopian idealist and the clinical pragmatist. Their conversations occur, like much of the macro-level decisions, off camera. Our narrative view is from below where history is lived, not written.
Toby and Amanda meet as teacher and student among the God’s Gardeners. Amanda and the other students refer to Toby as the “dry witch” for her presumed asexuality, while Amanda finds her sexuality to be a double-edged sword. Her path crosses Jimmy’s when, early in the second novel, he breaks her heart at the Martha Graham Academy for the Arts. It’s the only school he could get into; she is a scholarship student. In this particular collision, she comes away worse for wear. The lives of both women are littered with incidents of abuse and manipulation at the hands of damaged men. Atwood doesn’t seem to judge their character, but she does question their privilege to impress their pathologies upon the less powerful and continue on as if it was simply the way of things.
There is something implausible and claustrophobic about this tight web of relationships, as if the death of humanity were being played out on a tiny, off-off Broadway stage. I had difficulty visualizing the city and perceiving what might be going on in the rest of the world. The limited scope is clearly intentional, but the best of speculative fiction provides the right economic, political and social details, without calling attention to them, so the reader has enough material to construct a satisfying scaffolding of the world’s architecture. This may be a comment on our limited range of view and a decline in communal experience despite the championing of the web as universal, egalitarian space.
Jimmy, Amanda and Toby all float though the Waterless Flood in protective bubbles: Amanda in theSticky Zone at Scales N Tales, Toby at the AnooYoo Spa, and Jimmy in a laboratory airlock. Inside the bubbles the characters experience the pandemic much as most Americans experience wars, earthquakes and pandemics. They watch it on television. Unfortunately, these bubbles, like all bubbles, are temporary and when they are forced to leave their safe zones they discover an inhospitable wasteland, overrun by bioengineered wolvogs and escaped painballers-the fruit of science and war.
The Year of the Flood feels more real, more human, than Oryx and Crake. The world that Crake and Jimmy inhabit in the first novel feels more like a bubble than a world, and the “real world” from their perspective, feels more virtual than real. While the gap between the powerful and the powerless expands, the border between the real and virtual becomes more porous. The violence and rape in the Year of the Flood is visceral and jarring. It is meant to awaken the empathy that Crake and the men who control our institutions are incapable of (consider Cheney’s smirk).
The abuse that both Toby and Amanda endure brings into relief the dichotomy between the protagonists of the two novels. In the first novel we experience the arrogance and unconscious privilege of the aristocracy, and in the second work we meet its twin-the sublimated rage of the oppressed.
It seems that only the crakers, in their programmed inhumanity and semi-divine “otherness” might be able to return the mantle of humanism to the world. The culminating scene, like the ending of many post-apocalyptic narratives, leaves the question open as to whether the survivors might be able to redeem themselves, and by extension, our planet. Perhaps, as in much of Humanistic thinking, the real project is internal. Perhaps our cumulative personal transformations might be enough for collective redemption. It is now, as in the end, all about ourselves.