Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.
Method of the world's destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist's bioengineered supervirus.
Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she's a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can't help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She's not, at least not that I've seen yet. Obviously these people just don't read science fiction.
Atwood's basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written "an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride." It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it's not true, and if that's what these people think then they weren't paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was "uproariously funny." I don't think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he's probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood's grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.
What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There's a lot of "for want of a nail" stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn't because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.
Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn't. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy's mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy's father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy's father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the "pleeblands" (which of course was actually "plebelands" at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).
You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy's personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race's survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)
Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren't quite human. They'll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells' Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman's. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.
Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It's an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.
There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet's resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?
And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha's dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don't have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There's a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman's weird plan?
And there's a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he'd had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.
I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.
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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Should we link our politics and our faith? This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community. Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicals has created, especially the recent controversy.
I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip. Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful. But even I was drawn partway into this one. I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me. It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed....
Today was just a day like any other for me. I got up and put on a pair of jeans and a blouse that flatters my figure, tied my hair back in a ponytail, and left the house. I went to the bank and withdrew a significant sum of money from my account because I needed to replace my broken, battered old car with an unbroken, slightly less battered old car. We picked up and paid for the car, a little Hyundai hatchback that’s almost as old as my son, and then I spent the two hours or so I had before work arguing about politics and then watching sexy videos with my partner.
I drove my new-to-me car to work, then handed the keys to my hubby so I wouldn’t have to pay for parking and so that he could run his errands. I have a part time job at a bookstore (which I love) and then a couple of days a week I do Tarot readings there, which means I often have space between clients to snoop around the store (where I spend an amazing amount of my paycheque, but thankfully I have an employee discount,) and work on my blogging or other writing while I wait between clients. When I got there, my co-worker showed me pictures of her brand-new granddaughter on her cell phone, and then my boss told me she’d inventoried some Patrick O’Brian books, since I’m collecting them. I went into the back room, picked up the books and compared them to my list, and paid for the ones I needed....
It is a common complaint of seasoned Pagans that there is a dearth of advanced material out there. Wicca 101 books are a dime a dozen, but books that deal with the deeper matters of Pagan faith are rare. This is one of those much-desired books. But it's also ideal for the student or the journeyman, and for different reasons.
Canadian Pagan author Brendan Myers is a doctor of philosophy who has not crawled up his academic navel. His language is clear and flowing, almost poetry even in his prose, and it engages at a heart level. He teaches you by taking you through his journey and you're not even aware, at least until the end, that you're learning something.
Clearly it was Myers' goal to bring together the written elements that comprise the common Pagan body of literature and mythology, as the synopsis tells you. So what did he include, and why did he include it?
Much of his material was gathered by surveying the Pagan community. What did they consider to be important? Though this is probably the most effective method of determining a common liturgy, this also resulted in one of the book's weaknesses, which is that much of the contemporary section (which is, don't get me wrong, both extensive and valuable) feels to me like it has a regional bias. This is inevitable because of the nature of the beast; when you make a public appeal for a response, you are likely to get responses heavily weighted in favour of the people you know. It's just a matter of course. But I don't feel that much of the Western North American Pagan literature is represented here, save through Starhawk, as a result. It's probably a less regional collection than most because Myers lived in both Eastern Canada and the U.K., and has traveled quite a lot, but there are natural limits to what any one person can do.
However, the classical literary section is probably bar none. Here Myers' long experience in the Pagan community comes together with his classical education, and he has managed to include almost every piece of source material for the common Pagan mythos that I would ever recommend to my students. He begins with an examination of the primordial Mother Goddess and Horned God (and the anthropological theories on them that spawned modern Paganism, even the parts that are currently disproven.) He then includes formative Aboriginal beliefs that influenced the Pagan movement. One might argue that with its European origins an Aboriginal influence seems unlikely, but I would disagree for two reasons: the first is that Ronald Hutton conclusively demonstrated that the woodcraft movement, which is, in essence, a British Colonial interpretation inspired by Aboriginal beliefs, is an essential part of the formative elements of modern Paganism; and secondly, the North American witchcraft movement in the 60s and 70s most certainly embraced and incorporated (limited interpretations) of Aboriginal beliefs. This is perhaps noticed more profoundly here in Canada than elsewhere, since it is often said that Canadian culture is, and always has been, defined by the juxtaposition between English, French, and Aboriginal cultures.
From there he goes into the classical written sources: The Descent of Inanna and Babylonian Hymns to Ishtar. Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece. Celtic tales of the Morrighan the Dagda, and Cuchulain. Selections from the Poetic Eddas in regards to the Norns, the World Tree, and various Gods and Goddesses.
Then he progresses into the lore of the witch: Beliefs about witches from the Malleus Malificarum. Lore of the witchcraft trials that formed the myth of the Burning Times. Selections from Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.
He includes a selection of poetry and music that is part of our common lore. I think this section is really well researched and there's only a few pieces I would have included that Myers did not. But again, this is one of the "modern literature" sections that would have been impossible to present completely, since the lore is so extensive. It consists primarily of several folk ballads, most of which originate as the English Childe Ballads, and poetry, much of it cribbed from Kipling, Keats, Yeats, Burns, and Wordsworth. I would also have included some of the work of Walt Whitman and Aleister Crowley, but perhaps that's my regional bias showing, since they likely were more influential on the North American Pagan movement than the European one.
He follows with a section on the Book of Shadows, which includes selections from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, the work of Doreen Valiente, Margot Adler, the Farrars, and Tamarra James, and some explanatory blurbs on some Wiccan traditions such as the Five Fold Kiss. This section is strictly Pagan material written strictly by Pagan writers for the formative liturgy of Paganism. I don't think he missed a single thing that I might have included, save perhaps some brief passages from the Book of the Law; but the OTO can be downright stuck up about their copyright, so perhaps he asked but was denied. It also does not include any of the work of the Clan of Tubal Cain, so perhaps that could be considered an oversight or a Gardnerian bias.
The next section is on what he calls "wisdom teachings." These are the common proverbs and lore that we Pagans share amongst one another. It's awesome! I'm so glad he thought to include this; I would not have, and that shared oral tradition is so important to what makes us a community and what builds our faith and our movement. He lists the things we say in blurbs and verses presented like a list of Proverbs or the Song of Solomon; and then he presents an explanation at the end for those who, for example, may not know what the "two passwords" are.
The following section is on Circle Songs; chants. This is the section I felt was the most regionally-focused of the lot, but the collection of chants is extensive and valuable, and it displays most of the most important elements of the Pagan liturgies that we teach each other in this way. I only wish the tunes had been included! But I suppose that's what Google's for.
Last, Myers offers his own commentary on the Pagan world view, in which he references philosophical authors whose works have influenced our movement. He discusses Schweitzer's idea of "world view," the act of Naming, the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Word of Creation and the Song of Life, simple wisdom and Utilitarian theory, Hinduism and Tantra, the often-forgotten but very important influence of Sufi mysticism, and the nature of love and the dwelling-place of Divinity. It's awesome stuff, and these elements are a wonderful examination of the sources of Paganism.
He breaks this up by discussing the often-overlooked influence of Schopenhauer, which is excellent, primarily through Crowley, as well as Crowley's own influence. This is one area in which I strongly disagree with Myers' conclusions, who was dismissive of Crowley's philosophy as self-serving and shallow (self-serving most certainly, but shallow I would argue with, and probably will in a blog column). He also derided Crowley as a bad poet; which he was, but that doesn't diminish the influence of Crowley's writing on Paganism and I think it should at least have been included.
So, this is excellent for the long-term "advanced" Pagan, because it obviously sparks thought and discussion. It's excellent for the journeyman because it would be a great way to fill in the blanks. By the time you get to that level in your study, you realize that you have some gaps in your knowledge, mostly due to the still largely oral tradition we have and the deterioration of modern classical education, and these are absolutely the things that you should know. And I'm putting on the required reading list for my students, so obviously I think it's great for the novice too. A highly recommended book that I think every Pagan should read.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Two days and one hundred years ago, women first achieved the right to vote in Canada. This was in the Manitoba provincial election; the federal government followed two years later. So it is perhaps fitting that the day before is the day I finally chose to start reading "The Handmaid's Tale."
I've been a feminist and a science fiction fan since childhood, so many people have recommended this book to me over the years. The year it was published, 1986, I was eleven. I think someone first recommended it to me in 1991, when I was protesting the Gulf War. I always meant to read it. It was "on my list," especially as a Canadian. Margaret Atwood is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian writers and "The Handmaid's Tale" is a feminist icon.
Lots of us have a hard time figuring out holiday music. We want something that evokes the sound of Yuletide music from our childhoods but we don’t want to be forced to celebrate a religious experience that we don’t share. So here’s a short list of some Pagan Yuletide music that you can share!
This Endris Night by Heather Dale...