Review by Adam Roberts
Here are my three favourite Margaret Atwood science fiction novels, in descending order of favouriteness. Of favourableness. Of favoricity.
My all-time favourite Margaret Atwood SF novel is The Blind Assassin. Not the whole novel, of course, but the 40%-or-so of it that is a Pulp SF yarn, supposedly written by one of the characters. Since my purpose here is not to discuss this novel in any detail, I’ll confine myself to quoting the following paragraph from the SFE3 entry on Atwood. That I am in total agreement with the views expressed in this paragraph can, at least in part, be explained by the fact that I wrote it:
Considerable sf content is also concealed in her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin (2000), a novel whose conventional twentieth-century Canadian frame story of thwarted and secret-ridden family life is folded around a very extensive, and in many ways much more interesting science-fictional Pulp magazines adventure (after which the novel is named). Atwood’s easy command of the pulp idiom contrasts sharply, and to interesting aesthetic effect, with the rather strangulated manner in which the contemporary half of the novel is narrated.
The Pulp idiom frees up Atwood’s treatment of her main theme—broadly, men’s horribleness towards women. I think one of things that makes The Blind Assassin work so well is the way the SF fable is positioned in relation to the ‘realist’ narrative—ironically, obliquely, and not (as in Atwood’s other SF novels) as a satirical extrapolation of perceived contemporary trends.
As this seems to me an important point, I’ll dilate briefly upon it before I go on. I’d say that two main forces are at work in much of Atwood’s writing. On the one hand, there is an extraordinary deftness of verisimilitude, a beautiful command of telling detail (physical and psychological) and the ability to write characters inhabiting their immediate worlds. Her writing in this idiom often feels very real – extrapolated from the actual world in ways that are, skilfully, metonymic; and related to this is the fact that she is most comfortable telling her stories via consecutive narrative. On the other hand, Atwood is drawn to the metaphorical, to the fable and the symbol, to poetry (in The Year of the Flood to actual poetry; I’ll come back to that later). Oryx and Crake (2003) is, amongst other things, a retelling of the Eden story, with a God-the-father (Crake), an Adam (Jimmy/Snowman) and an Eve (Oryx); The Year of the Flood (2009), as its title suggests, plays intertextual games with the story of Noah. This is all fine and dandy, except that these two axes, the metonymic and the metaphorical, are so often at odds. To read the latter by the former is to be struck by how poorly observed much of Atwood’s speculative detail is; and to read the former by the latter is to be struck by a tendency towards mundane agit-prop. By the same token, it is the speculative dimension of these two novels that makes them fly. The problem is that this speculative dimension is, by its nature, untrue. I mean this in a strict sense: there are no such things as pigoons. I know what you’re thinking (mind reader, me): but it doesn’t matter that it’s not strictly true! And I agree with you. Swift’s Laputa is ‘truer’ in an important sense than Zola’s Paris. But the tension, for Atwood’s writing, is the extent to which her art is able to commit to this. At one point in Oryx and Crake Snowman is trying to explain pictures to the Crakers. ‘Flowers on beach-trash lotion bottles, fruits on juice cans. Is it real? No, it is not real. What is this not real? Not real can tell us about real. And so forth.’ (Oryx and Crake, p102). That ‘and so forth’, that deflating addendum, is what gives me pause—does Atwood actually believe that not real can tell us about real? Or is she still, actually, of the opinion that the best way of communicating the real is with the real? It’s the question that goes right to the heart of metaphorical modes of art like SF.
My second favourite Margaret Atwood science fiction novel is The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). This, of course, is a book that has settled comfortably in the canon; still in print and selling well, still read, admired and widely taught, all of which (quite apart from anything else) would render praise of mine redundant. What makes it work, I think, is not its satire on US fundamental Christianity, or its first-wave feminist outrage, or its slightly schematic sfnal worldbuilding. It is the psychological subtlety with which Atwood renders the state of mind of Offred herself. Her horrible situation brings out of her neither despair, nor revolutionary fervour and anti-masculine hatred; rather she picks a path through a kind of poisoned complicity, triangulated between resentment, submission and a kind of dampened desire of her own (this is something the 1990 motion picture gets wrong, I think: Natasha Richardson plays Offred as a fierce-souled fighter, who ends the film by slices the Commander’s throat in bloody revenge. Nothing so clumsy happens in the original novel). What this does is not only to say perceptive things about human psychology as such; it says important things about how structures of oppression are able to subsist in the first place, why it is that human beings downtrodden don’t (as Shelley puts it) rise like lions after slumber.
Not that it is a flawless book. When I first read it, yonks ago, my disappointment pricked at me with the scene in its latter half when the Commander takes Offred to a government-sanctioned nightclub-cum-brothel. Up until that moment I thought Atwood was doing something more complex and interesting in her novel than just sticking Hypocritical Maleness in the stocks to throw sponges at. I thought she was portraying a world in which men, having erected a forbidding theo-ideological edifice in order to keep women in their place, thereupon found themselves snagged in their own webs, their lives leached of the gratifications of power by the very strategies employed to seize power – that is to say, made miserable (less miserable than the women they oppress of course, but still) by their own narratives of self-justification. But, no. Atwood’s vision is that men don’t actually get caught in the repressive hierarchies they erect; they’re all actually getting drunk and fucking whores in secret clubs. A thing that makes me go hmm. Hitler didn’t go back to his Berlin bunker to partake of cocaine-fuelled wild sex-orgies, after all; he went back to eat boiled asparagus and bore his companions with tedious speechifying before lying down on his truckle-bed to his arid dreams of Aryan dominance. One of the (many) expert touches in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is when O’Brien reveals the level of luxury denied to hoi polloi but indulged in by the Party higher echelons – and it’s desperately feeble; a slightly better brand of Victory Gin, a slightly less threadbare set of furnishings. That’s better done, I think.
On the other hand, it has only recently occurred to me the novel’s famous naming convention for its enslaved women (‘Offred’ because she is ‘of Fred’ and so on) might be a riff upon the prefix-noun nature of Atwood’s own surname. Which, actually, is a rather cool thought. She may have missed a trick in not reserving for herself the twitter handle ‘@Wood’.
That brings me to my third-favourite Atwood SF novel, and the subject of the present essay: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood (see part two of this essay tomorrow) – two novels that, for my purposes, I intend to take as a single text (the third book in this trilogy, Maddaddam is due out later this year). ‘Only third-favourite?’ I hear you ask, or I would, if the medication hadn’t eradicated all those booming voices-in-my-head. ‘Surely it deserves a higher ranking than that!’ And do you know what? It does. Indeed, before I go further I need to be clear: Atwood strikes me as a writer in the global front rank, a novelist of often breathtaking skill and reach. I’m of course aware of the tendency in some of the shires of SFland – my own home country – to sneer at her because she hasn’t pronounced the Fan Shibboleths with enough fervour. But this strikes me as not only the least interesting way of relating to Atwood; it seems to me to demean SF Fandom more generally. So she doesn’t want to write about talking squid in space. So sue her. As her career develops it is clear that she is as artistically committed to SF as to any other mode; and it would be small-minded to deny that she has written some of the most enduring SF-novels of the last four decades. Since what remains of this essay will revert, several times, to what seems to me wrong with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, it is worth keeping this larger point in mind. Everything I say should be understood against the background of Atwood’s very many brilliances.
I know people who consider Oryx and Crake her greatest novel, tout court. And I can see why. It is a novel of genuine power. The two halves of Snowman’s story are told consummately, brilliantly: both his post-apocalypse, Robinson Crusoe existence as the last man alive (or so he thinks) and his pre-apocalypse backstory, the anomie of an affluent, troubled only child; his difficult mother; his adolescence; his unsatisfying adult life. All this rings true, and is written in an involving and often moving way. The other touch of particular genius in the novel, I think, is Oryx: her backstory – sold into sex-slavery as a child, trafficked around the world – is genuinely horrible, but Atwood characterises her as just sphinx-like enough to frustrate Jimmy’s, and our, desire for scenes of juicy post-traumatic sturm und drang. Jimmy, obsessed with her, probes and probes to uncover more excruciating yet titillating details of her former sexual degradation. She always, lightly, firmly, deflects his questions.
He couldn’t leave her alone about her earlier life, he was driven to find out. No detail was too small for him in those days, no painful splinter of her past too tiny. Perhaps he was digging for her anger, but he never found it. Either it was buried too deeply, or it wasn’t there at all.(p314-15)
Jimmy is in thrall to what Žižek, in one of his better books, calls the ‘plague of fantasies’. Atwood understands this masculine urge very well indeed: that painful pleasure of agonising about a lover’s previous partners, the peculiar intensification of erotic desire predicated upon a kind of repulsed fascination, polluted in this case by the knowledge not only that Oryx’s past is one of rape and abuse, but that he, Jimmy, was indirectly one of the abusers – he watched the porn films made of Oryx’s predicament avidly enough. Now he wants to keep using her to gratify his sexual desires. It is a good call by Atwood to leave us, as readers, in Jimmy’s position: unsure whether her anger at the way she was treated is buried too deeply to be retrieved or just isn’t there at all. Our desire as readers is less venal than Jimmy’s, but by the same token it is more invasive. Of course, ‘we’ don’t want to have sex with Oryx, but ‘we’ do nevertheless feel entitled to a good rummage around in her most intimate being. Of course she’s only a fictional character; she’s not ‘real’ (actually I’m tempted to go with Snowman on this one: ‘“Mmm”, said Jimmy. He didn’t want to get into the what is real thing with Crake’, (p200)). But that’s not the point. The point is bigger: namely, that representation, howsoever mimetic it may seem, always subordinates ‘reality’ to utility. Men getting off on internet pornography don’t actually think of the women they watch as ‘real—if they did, they’d be a damn sight more conscience stricken about watching the stuff. No, men judge them by criteria of ‘sexiness’, sexiness here being a strictly utilitarian category. The women are assessed only in terms of how useful they are in helping the male voyeur to crack one out. As a critique of porn this isn’t to say anything very original; but one of the more unsettling features of Atwood’s novel is its implication that all art works this way; that the literary novel is equally in hock to a kind of emotional-utilitarian voyeurism. The extent to which Atwood resists this reader-driven urge is one of the markers of what is excellent about her book.
I’d stick my neck out far enough to suggest that this is one of the things this book is ‘about’, too. Ursula Le Guin dislikes Atwood’s characterisation in this novel (saying the characters’ ‘personality and feelings’ were ‘of little interest; these were figures in the service of a morality play’). I think she was dead wrong; that Atwood’s characterisation is constructed not to underplay reader interest but specifically, and pointedly, to rebut it. We pick up a novel expecting all the ins-and-outs of the characters’ motivations and feelings, their sufferings and joys (but especially their sufferings) to be laid out for us. With the character of Oryx, and to some extent with the character of Crake too, Atwood simply refuses to indulge us. And with the third of her trio, Jimmy, we get a aversion-inducing splurge of too much intimate knowledge: every seamy twist and turn of his early sex-life, Snowman wanking in a treehouse at the end of the world, Snowman slaveringly eyed-up as ‘fresh meat’ by those clever little chauvinist swine, the pigoons. And so on. One of the things the end of the world does, it seems, is turn the consumer of porn into, in a manner of speaking, the product. The subject is objectivised. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
:2: Oryx and Crake
The first thing to say about Oryx and Crake is that it has a great title. That choriambic rocking rhythm is, as the phrase goes, full of win: ‘Jekyll and Hyde’; ‘Morecombe and Wise’; ‘Watson and Crick’ – indeed, now that I come to think of it, that latter pairing may have been behind Atwood’s particular choice of title here.[*footnote 1] The two kinds of animal that name, or pseudoname, the leads fit their characters well: the gracile, exotic antelope (but with the fearlessness and the big, head-butting horns) for the woman, and the undistinguished, mostly ground-based bird, creature of omens and mysteriousness, for the main male. Then there’s ‘Snowman’, of course, who choses his name because he thinks his defining feature is his abominableness – such terrible things he has done! – when in fact his defining feature is his white, blobby sensitivity to heat and the fact that he will, unlike the Crakers, inevitably melt away.
The narrative starts with Snowman after the world’s end. He is the last human alive, or so he thinks; and Atwood is vivid and believable not only on his day-to-day shuffle to survive, but in his unlikely position as Moses to a tribe of (deliberately) bland, benign, genetically engineered post-humans called ‘Crakers’. In fifteen sections, each made up of between one and seven smaller chapters, Atwood tells us the story of Snowman’s life and adventures.[*footnote 2] This is weighted, roughly, one third Snowman trekking to find supplies, and then returning to the Crakers; and two thirds Snowman recalling his life before the apocalypse, when he was called ‘Jimmy’. Jimmy grew up in a gated community, whilst the world outside (designated by Atwood ‘the pleeblands’, which sounded less to me like land of the plebs and more like the people who plea, blandly – not to get distracted, though) goes to hell in a handbasket. Jimmy has a strained relationship with his mother, and doesn’t respect his father. Jimmy’s mother runs off to join an eco-terrorist group; later she is executed by the state. Jimmy befriends Crake, a rather austere though intellectually brilliant teen. They hang out together; they watch porn and executions online and play a series of computer games that sounded to me far too dull ever to attract the attention of actual teenagers – ‘Extinctathon’, which tests your knowledge of the names of extinct animal and plant species! ‘Barbarian Stomp’ in which players pay-off great cultural achievements like Beethoven’s 9th against atrocities like Buchenwald! Never mind. With details like this Atwood isn’t accurately observing real teens. She is telegraphing her large fictive themes – is the death of Art (something of which the Craker posthumans are, by design, incapable) a price worth paying for saving the planet from Extinction? I’ll come back to that too, in a moment.
This question of the rightness or otherwise of Atwood’s satirical extrapolation is important, actually. Some of the details here read as strangely prescient. This bit, for instance, anticipating the hideous TV I’m A Celebrity—Get Me Out Of Here phenomenon:
They [Crake and Jimmy] would watch the Queek Geek Show, which had contests featuring the eating of live animals and birds, timed by stopwatches, with prizes of hard-to-come-by foods. It was amazing what people would do for a couple of lamb chops or a chunk of genuine brie. (p85)
‘Or,’ this page goes on, ‘they would watch porn shows. There were a lot of these.’ This is, obviously, accurately observed as per the taste of teenage boys—although, by the same token, it’s a pretty fish-in-a-barrel fictional notation. Teenage boys are interested in porn? You don’t say! Other elements seemed to me situated on the continuum between ‘off’ and ‘wildly off’. Teens today are less interested in watching live executions than Atwood thinks, and they are more interested in watching grisly torture-porn of the Saw/Hostel variety (because, I’d guess, death seems abstract and remote to teenagers, where their own changing bodies fascinate and repulse them prodigiously). And in some respects Atwood gets it wrong in a way that would be understandable for a novel from the early 90s but which seems distracting for a novel from 2003 – for example, in the future-world of these novels, paper books have almost all been replaced by CD-ROMS, which seems to me an, um, unlikely development.
Anyhoo, wading as they do through oceans of porn, Jimmy and Crake chance upon an Asian child who strikes them both. Later, improbably, this girl not only makes her way to America, learns English and gets educated, she also becomes Crake’s right-hand-woman and lover. Quoth The Reader: pull the other one, unless The Reader gives Atwood the benefit of the doubt and saieth to him/herself ‘let’s take this as one of those Hardyesque coincidences, or Romance conventions, with which the Novel is so well supplied.
By this time Crake has graduated from his top-drawer university and taken a top job as what Paul McAuley (who does this kind of thing better, to be honest) would call ‘a Gene Wizard’. Jimmy’s thing is words; he gets a crummy literature degree from a low-ranking school and ends up writing advertising copy. He also tries his best to sleep with every woman in – as I believe the American expression goes – the Tri-State Area, although as he gets older his hook-ups, um, dry-up. Indeed, I found myself wondering how Jimmy’s sexual promiscuity related to the larger themes of the novel. Conceivably it may go something like this: Capitalism (Atwood is saying) is promiscuously productive of things; but the stuff it produces is sterile, or worse actively poisonous, because the idiom of Capitalism, whether it is dealing with living organisms of inert commodities, is reification. Jimmy’s vie sexuelle is a barren business, and becomes increasingly so as he gets older, in order to reflect this larger, deadening cultural and social promiscuity. It is as if Atwood subscribes to a Lawrentian view that inauthentic sex is somehow worse than no sex at all because its currency is death rather than life (I, on the other hand, lean rather towards the position encapsulated by this exchange from Woody Allen’s Love and Death – Sonya: ‘sex without love is an empty experience.’ Boris: ‘Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best’. I don’t think this is a line that has much purchase with Atwood’s fictional vision.)
The shorthand for the critical point I’m making here is: to what extent is Atwood engaging in an exercise of 21st-century neo-Lawrentianism? And I’m not sure the answer is very clear to me. On the one hand we have Jimmy’s drearily repetitive and unsatisfying sex-life. On the other we are shown the guaranteed joyful, life-affirming programmed-in copulation cycle of the Crakers, who signal their sexual availability by having their knobs and/or bellies turn bright blue. Is this a parody of Lawrentian authentic fucking? Or is it offered, howsoever marginally, as a genuinely preferable alternative? Crakers, after all, are incapable of rape, the sexual exploitation of minors or anything of those sorts of horrors that have so disfigured actual human history.
The problem with this, when we bring it back to the human characters, is that it tends to glob the novel’s otherwise subtle, sophisticated grasp of human desire and human disconnection back into the schematic agit prop of ‘21st-century life has leached all the joy from sex’. To be more specific, it encourages reader to engage in a kind of saloon-bar psychoanalysis. Viz., ‘Jimmy didn’t get enough love from his mum, that’s why he sleeps with so many women.’ Or: ‘Crake’s mum collaborated in the murder of his father and then married his uncle, so that Crake brews up a planet-killing superbug to take revenge upon the whole world exactly as Hamlet did before him.’ Putting it like this, though, rather points up the limitations of this sort of analysis.
Oryx and Crake is to do with parenting. I like the critical idiom ‘to do with’ for its saving vagueness, and in this case that’s the best way to approach the subject, I think – with, as it were, tongs. Jimmy’s relationship with his shallow Father, and his too-deep, damaged Mother, seemed to me well-drawn; although there’s no shortage of examples of that kind of thing in contemporary fiction, I suppose. His relationship with his stepmother is handled in a sketchier manner, in part because by then Jimmy has moved from being a child into debatable adolescent land between childhood and adulthood. His coup de foudre for the child Oryx neatly balances the immature selfishness of male sexual desire with a compromised but still, I think, genuine parental urge to protect. That this urge is all tangled up with guilty sexual desire is another uncomfortable truth that Atwood recognises.
In a rather hard to swallow plot development, Crake summons Jimmy out of his squalor, supposedly to write ad-copy for his revolutionary Gene Wizard work but in fact just to have him there to hang-out with. He inoculates Jimmy (and apparently no-one else – or did I miss something?) against the end-of-the-world plague that he has been secretly cooking up. Jimmy begins an affair with Oryx, anxious that he is thereby betraying his friend. The apocalypse happens quickly, and mostly offstage. Jimmy seals himself inside the Institute’s hermetic dome with the Crakers, and follows the end of the world on TV. There is a rather sore-thumb-ish grand guignol denouement, where Crake arrives at the dome with Oryx, let’s himself in, cuts Oryx’s throat in front of Jimmy and is then shot dead by him. The novel ends with a sort of coda, where Snowman treks back to the Crakers and discovers that other humans survived the end of the world after all. Atwood ends the whole rather cleverly without spelling out the implications of this statement.
The thing about DH Lawrence, it seems to me, is that despite being a priest of the new sexual liberation, and terribly earnest about overturning Victorian sexual repression, he was an intensely puritanical figure. I say ‘despite’; perhaps I mean ‘because’. The test of Oryx and Crake, it seems to me, is the extent to which it is able to ironize its own outrage. The Crakers, standing in a semi-circle and pissing to mark their territory, are noble savage, but of a rather absurd and manikin sort. Does their ridiculousness save them from the inertness of propaganda, or only make their status as the new man impossible to believe? To what extent is Atwood able to indulge in a fantasy of a world picked clean of all the horrible, raping men and vain women without simply channelling Pol Pot? The reader begins to wonder if she wasn’t being encouraged all along to condemn Crake rather as a New England Puritan might, because what he is about is Not Natural and Against God.
‘Those walls and bars are there for a reason,’ said Crake. ‘Not to keep us out, but to keep them in. Mankind needs barriers in both cases.’
‘Nature and God.’
‘I thought you didn’t believe in God,’ said Jimmy.
‘I don’t believe in Nature either,’ said Crake. ‘Or not with a capital N.’ (p206)
My experience of reading this novel was that Atwood treads a line somewhere between ‘commercial science got us into this mess, the answer is not more commercial science’ on the one hand, and ‘woe to those who blaspheme against the Natural Order!’ on the latter. Crake, for example (the textual creation of a female artist) has a theory that art is nothing more than male courtship display behaviour, like the feathers sprouting from a peacock’s arse. Jimmy asks: ah, but what about female artists? ‘Female artists are biologically confused,’ (p168) is Crake’s reply. The irony here is neat, and several-fold. ‘Confusing’ biology, we recall, is in a strict sense Crake’s whole professional ethos – all those pigoons and ratsnakes and gider/spoats. And a Babel-like ‘confusion of biology’ is what follows the wrath of the biological god of the novel’s end. Of course, another way of reading this is to see it as less ironic. After all, the story develops an idea as old as Mary Shelley that the male scientist who bypasses women to give birth breeds monstrosity and death. That has the smack of essentialism about it.
But none of this detracts from one of the novel’s great insights into Nature – that same Nature in which Crake disbelieves. The novel is about a lot, but it is centrally about the Green Man. The green man, nowadays, means the environmentally careful man – the man, in other words, who arranges nature around himself in as considerate a manner as possible. This, thought, is a one-eighty-degree swingabout from the older model, where the green man was Nature itself, hostile to humanity, mostly, and most of all inextinguishable. It’s sobering to think how condescending our view of Nature has become – how fragile we consider it to be. This is a mistake; not because humanity cannot damage Nature (of course we can) but because this susceptibility to damage does not mean that Nature is feeble. On the contrary. It is far stronger than we. The most we can do is make Nature ill (and we’re doing a pretty good job of that). But Nature can kill us. For Environmentalism to prevail amongst human cultures we will need to shuck off these sorts of blear-eyed muddle. Nature is not fragile; we’re the ones who are fragile.
The second half of this essay, on The Year of the Flood, will be posted tomorrow.
This essay originally appeared on Sibilant Fricative.
 The more I think about this, the more likely it seems to me. Think of the scene at the end of the novel when Snowman comes back to the Crakers, and, for a heart-sinking moment, hears them saying ‘Amen’: ‘Ohhhh, croon the women. Mun, the men intone.’ (p260). Of course, they’re actually saying ‘Snowman’. ‘Oryx and Crake’ sounds like a Craker chant of ‘Watson and Crick’. The name of the university at which Crake develops his end-of-the-world skills, of course, is Watson-Crick.
 Why fifteen? Maybe no reason, except that The Year of the Flood is also divided into fifteen sections, which makes me wonder. Given the OT intertextuality with which Atwood is playing on these novels, I wonder if it has something to do with the Jews? In Hebrew the number 15 is not written according to the logic of other larger numbers—not, that is, as “10 and 5” (י-ה, yodh and heh), because those spell out one of the names of God and we can’t have that. So 15 in Hebrew is “9 and 6”. Passover starts on the 15th day of Nisan. Sukkot begins on the 15th day of Tishrei. Tu Bishvat falls in the 15th day of Shevat. Purim is on the 15th day of Adar. I could go on. I won’t, though.