Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Civilization has fallen and nature—GMO and natural—is once more taking over. Among the trees and the storms and the wolvogs and rakunks, there are the Children of Crake, green-eyed and naked and innocent. Snowman, formerly Jimmy, has survived the cataclysm that stripped him of the things he is addicted to and now spends his time watching over the Children of Crake and being watched over by them.

The first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is at its heart an origin story—for the Children of Crake and for the state of the world that Snowman is now living in. This story unfolds through a contemporary storyline and Snowman’s flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood when his name was Jimmy. In the present, Jimmy is a prophet for the Children because he actually knew Crake, a mythic and godlike figure to them. In the past, Jimmy and Crake were friends, one an artist in a world that does not value it and the other an arrogant, brilliant scientist determined to solve the world’s problems by playing god if need be. Oryx is their shared obsession, an oriental girl sold into slavery and exploited in pornographic films who flits in and out of their awareness since they first put eyes on her at the age of 14.

I found Oryx and Crake simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. Atwood imagines into being a frightfully realistic world where there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live gated compounds, lauded for their intelligence and given the advantages of technology and genetic modifications that give them the world. The have nots live in pleeblands, dirty, diseased, and judged inferior without the opportunity to prove otherwise. Competition between compounds is fierce, with corporate espionage and sabotage the norm as scientists develop new genetically modified animals, sources of meat, or treatments to “improve” the lives of humans. This dystopic vision is not particularly novel, but it is effective for its completeness. What is new, I think, is the Children of Crake, who, both in the novel and inside the story, are a return to prelapsarian society. (Appropriately, the second book in the series is The Year of the Flood).

Why, then, do I call the book disappointing? Part of the problem for me was Jimmy. Snowman/Jimmy had a rough childhood and never really fit in among the geniuses at the compounds, but what mostly stands out about him are his negative qualities: his relationships with women and his obsessions that cause him to float along, caught up by the things going on around him. Not liking him here is not the problem—very few of the characters in the books are genuinely “likable”—the problem is that I didn’t find him compelling. Other characters viewed through Jimmy’s characters were consistently more interesting, while the main thing that makes Jimmy interesting is the fact that he survived.

My second issue with Oryx and Crake is its pace. The book features a lot of lead-up to an abrupt resolution. This pace makes a certain amount of sense within the narrative, but it also means extended periods with Jimmy in isolation of other characters, going on an adventure that showcases more about the world and leads toward that conclusion, but not really being interesting in its own right.

I should be clear here: my disappointment largely stems from my high expectations for Atwood’s novel. Oryx and Crake has its moments and the world is compelling enough that I expect to read the remainder of the series, but fell short of her best.

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I am now reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

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Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Ilium – Dan Simmons

Earth has changed dramatically since the Lost Age. The few remaining “old style” humans live in communities or estates that are connected by faxnodes and protected from the roaming dinosaurs by the omnipresent, but ultimately mysterious voynix. Surrounding earth are the fabled cities of the Post-Humans, who exist not unlike gods to the old styles who remains. Aside from distractions like parties and fornication (learning to read is a preoccupation of a single person), old styles lose themselves in the spectacle of the “turin-shroud”—a visual device with exactly one show: the Greeks and Trojans slaughtering one another on the plains of Ilium.

At the foot of Mons Olympus on Mars the Trojan War is nearing a climax. Events so far have unfolded basically as described in the Iliad. Achilles has raged at the injustices heaped upon him by Agamemnon and the gods have continued to scheme against each other while using Trojans and Greeks as their playthings. Amidst the carnage and camaraderie flits Thomas Hockenberry, one among many scholics—revivified Homeric scholars who have been equipped with technology that allows them to possess the bodies of Trojans and Greeks as they study the events. The gods wield enormous power, but they are not omniscient; in contrast, the scholics know the future, at least in theory. Then Hockenberry gets entangled in one of the many divine schemes.

Meanwhile, Orphus and Mahnmut, two moravecs (self-replicating, intelligent robots from the region outside the asteroid belt) have joined a mission to Mars, where spiking levels of quantum activity are threatening the stability of the solar system. Lovers of Shakespeare and Proust, neither is prepared to be attacked by what appear to be Greek gods on chariots. The deities destroy their ship, kill the other members of the expedition, and leave them to complete the mission alone.

Ilium uses three plot lines to resolve two loosely-connected narrative threads, one on Earth, one on Mars.

On Mars, Hockenberry is tasked by Aphrodite to kill Athena, but takes the tools she gives to go on the lam, afraid of the consequences of his action. A scholar rather than a fighter, he nonetheless finds himself embroiled in further schemes with both the Trojans and the Greeks as he tries, desperately, to survive. This quest therefore aligns him with the moravecs, as all three of them are doing their best to topple the gods on Olympus.

On Earth, a small group of old-style humans are likewise on a quest, in equal parts to steal knowledge from the gods and to learn what it even means to be human anymore. Although they had begun to rediscover long lost skills such as casting bronze, the humans are aided in their quest by Savi, an ancient Jew who missed “the final fax” and exceeded her allotted century many times over, and by a primitive warrior calling himself Odysseus and looking like the character of the same name in the Turin drama. The old-styles seek to enter a city of the Post Humans that orbits earth, but are unprepared for either the demons or the truths that they will find there.

Much like Simmons’ other novels, particularly Hyperion, Ilium is an incomplete story—this time, at least, he is a working from a template. The book answers, or begins to answer, many of the key questions is raises, exploring questions about the intersection of the past and the future, relationship to the divine, and humans and technology, but never reaches a final conclusion. It works well here, offering a deeply immersive setting where unknowable questions are part of the experience.

As for the Trojan War, I largely like the approach taken. Simmons literally embodies Hockenberry and the other scholics around the critical scenes, and even makes at several points the meta-observation that this would be a dream come true for many Classics scholars. After all, who would not want to have sex with Helen? The person whose body is occupied disappears, so the main characters from the Iliad largely appear in their own skin and many men are killed after becoming disoriented when the scholic leaves. In this way and others Simmons weaves together the incongruities and accidents of the Iliad, the prestige of some of the classic translations, and a human perspective. Some of the leaps he makes such that, for instance, cafe scenes in Troy may as well be a cafe scene set in 1920s Paris, struck me as a little bit hokey, but taking this section of the larger picture and fitting it into a story of evolution, technology, and civilization that emphasizes the way in which all of the above are dependent on constructed mythologies served as a nice counterpoint to the other narratives.

I have a long history with Ilium in that I picked it up probably in 2005, not long after it was originally published. It has remained in my collection every since, surviving several purges despite just one spectacularly failed attempt at reading it. I am glad that I decided to keep it around.

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I have one more in the overly-delayed backlog of posts on things I read, for Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, with my post being an unholy mess of a draft. My first book of the new year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.