Dystopia is Only Pages Away

Margaret Atwood – Canada’s own authorial golden child – has recently taken her penchant for darkly humorous dystopian fiction and channeled it into her latest offering to the literary community: Oryx and Crake. My initial attraction to this text came from the caption on the cover which read: “Towering and intrepid… Atwood does Orwell… one better.” As a staunch defender of everything Orwell and a mild fan of Atwood, I decided it was my duty to investigate further. I was curious just how far dystopian fiction had come since 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was excited to see where it might be headed.

Literature has always been, and will always be, a reflection of society. Some of the most fascinating novels of the twentieth and twenty-first century are those that link representations of ‘reality’ with contemporary culture in order to expose truths or concerns about the world in which we live. Such novels are commonly categorized as Science Fiction, or more narrowly as Dystopian Fiction – cautionary tales like Brave New World and 1984 set in the distant future where modern ideas of ‘progress’, ‘success’ and ‘order’ are invariably followed to their furthest logical conclusions. These novels, when written with a skilled pen, provide captivating and illuminating spins on humanity taking the flaws of society out of context to (hopefully) frame the piece as cautionary fictional genius rather than critical, cynical ‘garbage’.

Flipping through the first few chapters, one encounters some irregular characters; the protagonist is Snowman – a wreck of a man wrapped in a sheet, living in a tree – stranded after some as-yet unexplained global catastrophe. In addition there are The Crakers, a group of ultra-human men and women who regard Snowman as a kind of monstrous prophet. They co-habit the barren seashore, dealing hourly with extreme weather fluctuations and the challenges of survival. The narrative develops as Snowman recounts his past and tries to remember where society went wrong.

The novel’s manufactured characters and setting are both fictionally futuristic and crafted to be utterly believable, even probable – the prescribed combination for an effective dystopian piece. As I kept reading though, I began to wonder if perhaps the dysfunctions of this novel hit a little too close to home to render it a “towering and intrepid” work of fictional brilliance. That is to say, the distance an author takes from present culture in dystopian fiction – the obscure twists and turns used to disguise direct criticisms – are usually what make the piece compelling and inventive; with Atwood the material is frighteningly accessible and recognizable, both present and prescient.

In Oryx and Crake the rapid development of current biotechnology takes centre stage. The purchase of genetically altered ‘designer babies’ and the production of deformed chicken for foodstuffs like “Nubbins” are commonplace. Coincidentally I remember researching the existence of such things back in my grade eleven chemistry class.

Atwood’s world is not a twisted reflection of Westernized society; it is Western society. It is composed of Middle and Upper class people who live in Compounds that mirror the three-car garage subdivisions that permeate our North American landscape; the rich travel on bullet trains and the poor live in the Pleeblands (ghettos). Government is essentially irrelevant and international ballots have become mere placebos for those that do vote. Plastic surgery has advanced to the point of near perfection; people can alter or replace anything from their ass to their elbow to their outer epidermis – with few side effects. Medicine has accelerated so that Pigs’ organs – or rather Pigoons’ organs – are harvested for transplant surgery with great success, and perhaps least surprising of all the Internet has replaced television and the telephone as the sole hub of entertainment and communication in society.

Nothing cooked up by Atwood in this novel is radically different from trends and practices in current society. Certainly her characters bring to light an acceptance of things that our culture prefers to ignore – like the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet, and the media’s glorification of violence both in fictional entertainment shows and on the ‘News’. However, for anyone paying attention in our society it is clear that these and other things like Genetically Modified Organisms, plastic surgery, and government corruption are nothing new – quite the opposite, they are decidedly un-provocative.

What Atwood does in Oryx and Crake is provoke the detached Western mind by stoking the fires of possibility, while exposing the volatile nature of our reality. Her novel makes a bold statement by showcasing that Dystopian Fiction no longer needs to unravel as a distant nightmare fantasy – we have created our own perfect setting. We live in a world increasingly detached from ideas of community, environmental consciousness and sustainability. To be perfectly pessimistic we are already there, and as the backpack of my good friend reads: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”.