In Which Postapocalyptic Novel Would You Prefer to Live? – Classics of Science Fiction


In Which Postapocalyptic Novel Would You Prefer to Live? – Classics of Science Fiction

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is a postapocalyptic novel about humanity being assassinated by a mad genetic engineer. Although well-written and thought-provoking it wasn’t a pleasant read. I doubt any science fiction fan would vicariously put themselves into Atwood’s imagined future. Its narrator, a human survivor nicknamed Snowman, is a rather repulsive individual. This novel might be intellectually stimulating, especially for its thoughts on the evilness of humanity, but it’s not a novel that promises hope for rebuilding the future.

As a young reader of science fiction back in the 1960s, I used to fantasize about what I’d do if I lived in the books I read. Even 1950s post-apocalyptic novels about WWIII left room for me to see positive paths to take. Oryx and Crake was as bleak to me as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I admired that novel, but I would never daydream myself into it.

The blurb on the cover above praises Atwood for outdoing Orwell, but not by me. Nineteen Eighty-Four was bleak and depressing, but it was infinitely instructional about avoiding possible futures. Oryx and Crake feels like an oracle of doom. But then I haven’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four in a couple of decades, and at 72 I might find it just as nihilistic as Oryx and Crake.

I’m a connoisseur of after the collapse settings in science fiction. My all-time favorite is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. In that story, almost everyone dies from an illness and the world reverts to a time when humans are few, becoming hunters and gatherers again.

I’m not saying I’d like to live a tribal existence. No, the postapocalyptic world I’d like to live in, is just after the collapse, where the infrastructure of humanity is still intact. I’d want enough leftover supplies to keep me going for the rest of my life, which might not be more than a decade. When I was younger, the idea of rebuilding civilization appealed to me, but I’m too old for that anymore. But if I were in my twenties, would I fantasize about surviving Atwood’s future?

No, old me would want to live in a nicer post-apocalypse to contemplate the end of our species. In Atwood’s book, she has Snowman contemplating his own fucked up life, while he caretakes a genetically engineered new form of humanity. Atwood imagines our replacements as genetically engineered non-violent humanoid beings called Crakers. These post-humans have a reproductive cycle that removes gender conflict and are peaceful herbivores. I can’t imagine these wimpy creatures surviving the highly aggressive genetically modified animals created in the years before humanity was snuffed out.

In Oryx and Crake Homo sapiens are defined by our worse traits. We deserve our fate in Atwood’s story. And I wouldn’t argue with Atwood. But Atwood’s philosophy makes for a bleak depressing read. The novel has two sequels: The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAdam (2013). Even though I was bummed out reading Oryx and Crake, I’m tempted to read the rest of the trilogy just to see if Atwood ever offers her readers hope. I have read that the second volume is about religious people, and that was a frequent theme in 1950s postapocalyptic novels. That tempts me.

Oryx and Crake has got me thinking about the appeal of reading postapocalyptic novels. Why are postapocalyptic settings with zombies so popular with readers today? I’ve never been one to enjoy horror themes. And zombies are so damn yucky. Why would anyone find pleasure putting themselves into such a setting? I must wonder if fans of these stories secretly want to live in a world where they could kill, kill, kill to their heart’s content.

I’m more of a Henry Bemis type myself. I want a nice cozy catastrophe postapocalyptic setting. A peaceful place to meditate on the passing of human existence. When I was younger, I fantasized about playing Tarzan and Jane after the fall of civilization, but now that I’m older, having a faithful dog and robot would be the only companions I’d want. I’d desire a Clifford Simak flavored setting if I were the last man on Earth.

I’m trying not to say end of the world. I dislike that phrase. Humans are so arrogant. They believe when our time is up it’s the end of the world. I think Earth will bop along simply fine without us. Animals and plants would flourish again. The Earth would again team with life. I can only assume self-aware intelligence was an experiment that failed. Let the robots have the next turn. They might be more compassionate to the animals.

I often write about the difference between old science fiction and new science fiction. In old science fiction we do ourselves in because we’re the stupid violent bastards we are, but there’s not a lot of self-recrimination. In the new science fiction, writers dwell on our evilness. In Atwood’s book, we see two boys, Jimmy (Snowman) and Glenn (Crake), grow up and snuff out humanity. Their formative years were spent watching porn, snuff films, child pornography, playing sick violent video games — just being a couple of gifted brainiacs. They are super intelligent, yet soulless and unlikeable. Jimmy and Glenn use their genius to create and sell ugly products to a world all too anxious to consume them. Sure, that reflects our real world, but does experiencing such in fiction do us any good? Will readers in the future cite Oryx and Crake warnings about genetic engineering? It lacks the symbolism or political resonance of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is about another ugly future, but its ugliness offers us inspiration on how to avoid that future? I assume she intended Oryx and Crake to be positive in the same way, but it isn’t. The Handmaid’s Tale inspires us to fix society. Oryx and Crake only make me want to pull the plug on our species.

In most old science fiction novels about after-the-collapse of civilization, we’re shown ideas for starting over. Sure, some of those novels tell us we’re only going to make the same mistakes again, but there is a will to try again. Some of those stories even suggested it might be possible to take different paths. Reading Oryx and Crake left me feeling it’s time to just let go. Let some other species become the crown of creation.

Maybe Atwood put hope in the sequels, so we’d buy them.

Is my pessimism due to my age? Do younger readers find hope in this novel?

James Wallace Harris, 2/16/24

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