The story takes place sometime in the future. No, it's not your typical sci-fi apocalypse yawn, er, yarn. It's more in the tradition of 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Alas, Babylon!, but with a genetic, rather than a totalitarian, technocratic or nuclear-age, slant. It helps that Atwood is not a full time sci-fi writer. She's a highly respected "real writer" that decided to explore our society's accelerating exploitation of genes.
The world of OC is divided between the Compound and the Pleeblands. The Compound is the living space for employees of such genetic R&D companies as HelthWyzer and RejoovenEsense (a total skin replacement service). The Pleeblands are a sort of global ghetto-desert around the oasis of the Compound. The Earth has become meteorologically erratic. There is, for example, a New New York, since old New York was swallowed by tsunamis. By a series of fiscal twists and genetic turns, the compound companies gain more and more control over the population, until the whole planet is in a sort of genetic Marxist revolt of the masses.
The protagonist of OC is Snowman, also known as Jimmy until the climax of the story. The plot moves, then, in reverse: we meet Snowman after the cliamx and gradually make our way along Jimmy's life until we reach the climax. Snowman is living in in a tree (safe from the mutant predators below) in the aftermath of a biological apocalypse Atwood unveils as Snowman makes his way back to where the climax took place: the Paradice Dome. Paradice is the cutting-edge research facility of Crake, Jimmy’s childhood friend, and, as the back cover puts it, “a sardonic genius.”
Years before we meet Jimmy in a tree, we learn that he was an unhappy child of the Compound. One day, apparently for now reason, Jimmy’s increasingly moody mother vanishes. However, because her husband, Jimmy's father, is a leading employee in HelthWyzer, and because the stakes are very high if the company should ever be sabotaged, Jimmy becomes a target of regular scrutiny by the CorpSeCorps, the compound security complex, for years and years after his mother's escape.
Enter Crake. Crake and Jimmy spend their adolescence dissipating themselves on advanced online games and numbingly explicit reality-based webpages For example, niteenite.com broadcasts assisted suicides. As another, HottTotts.com broadcasts the (usually pedophilial) exploits of sex tourists in an unknown Asian country. This is how Crake and Jimmy “meet” Oryx: as an eight-year-old girl in a HottTott film, she stares at the camera, igniting an ambivalent fire of conscience and desire in the two teens. Oryx eventually becomes the mother of the new, perfect race Crake desires to create. Crake, you see, has been honing his genetic experimentation skills for years by playing Extinctathon, an online game that pits extinct species against living ones. Eventually Crake becomes a Grandmaster in the Extinctathon subworld and a leading genetic researcher in the real world. His masterpiece are what Jimmy and Oryx refer to as "the Crakers": a tranquil, beautiful species made from a blend of some of the best adaptations from the entire animal kingdom. They are genetically perfect children, a race of edenic Frankensteins.
Although OC took me a little while to get into (probably to due to my intrusive schedule recently), it was virtually unputdownable before the halfway point. It’s got a good share of mind-catching genetic mutants and what-if inventions. But more than that, it’s a very smart, very honest, very haunting book. Atwood shows us so well how we as a species just keep biting, biting, biting our way up the nylon line that the consumer-science industry has us hooked on. What’s revolting and “wrong” and “unnatural” at first is all too quickly commodified and consumed (quite literally, in one grotesque case) without a peep.
As you may know, I read a lot of books. And, usually, I can close the book and move on without missing a blink. Not so with OC. It actually took me several minutes to stop thinking, with a frown, about its ending. Atwood leaves you, with Jimmy, where you don’t want to be. Such ambiguity. Such uncertainty. Such vicarious guilt. Should we be hopeful for the Crakers – or mournfully piteous of them? Should we revile Crake for his radical plan – or humbly thankful for his commitment to curing humans of their biggest problem, which is themselves?
I was – am? – left asking myself a few very painful questions: at the end of OC, is the best thing to do to root against my own species? Or is it ultimately better to root for humans, since I know, at some deeply pessimistic level, the Crakers are doomed anyway?
As a final thought, many of you probably remember the scene in The Matrix (part one) when Agent Smith defines the human race as a virus. Like many features in that film, Agent Smith’s assessment of humanity has quickly become a meme, a pop-truism for the early 21st century. As vivid and as compelling as the image is, however, I think, from a Christian perspective, it’s skewed, enough to merit a nick-of-time qualification from yours truly. Not radically or utterly skewed, just enough to mask the truth.
The Matrix, like Star Wars before it, was famous for tapping into a whole spectrum of our culture’s contemporary spiritual discourse. It had the Christ imagery (foretold Messiahhood, unjust Passion, cyber-Resurrection); it had the Buddha imagery; it had enough telekinetic savvy to inform us “there is no spoon.” In many Christian circles, the film became a handy device for talking about the Gospel “in a non-threatening way” (whatever that means).
And I’ll give credit where it’s due: The Matrix does indeed raise some good, biblical points about the world. Specifically, in the context of this discussion, it rubs our faces in the fact that we, as a whole species, past and present, do act an awful lot like a virus: single-minded, prolific, consumptive, adaptive, relentless. Given enough time, we get our dirty little virus fingers into every pie. It’s a hard truth, and for that very reason, very true.
However, like anything that’s true, this isn’t a very original idea. No offense to any die-hard Matrix fans, but all The Matrix did, in the scene I’m discussing, is dress the third chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in an expensive CGI tuxedo. As Paul says (3:13-17, my emphasis),
“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”
Humans, you see, are a virus.
Only not quite. In truth, humans are a species of small, magnificent bacteria that is infected by a virus. If you find such an image “unbecoming” creatures made in the image of God – and that invented basketball, to boot – I suggest you read Psalm 8, the last three chapters of Job, Isaiah 40 and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. As Fakespeare once said, “Forsooth, thou can never be over-humble.” Humans are bacteria made in the image of God who also happen to be infected by the virus of original sin. It feeds off our own innate energies, energies designed by God to be used for His glory. We pass the virus on to our offspring. The only solution is a complete reverse transcriptase treament catalyzed by the power of the Cross: “Deny thyself. Whoever would save his life must lose it. Whoever would follow me must take up his cross daily and follow me.”
In the beginning, we were a pure strain, in a pure culture. But then we bit the viral RNA made for the good of the whole culture, but not (at that point) suitable for our primal genome. So now, we’re infected. The Matrix, as well as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, have this rudimentary point covered. But without the Resurrection, all we have is an empty Cross. It’s just a shame Ms. Atwood leaves us with little hope of a New Jerusalem.