Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake, is set at the end of the Anthropocene, shaped by exploitation and experimentation, looking at what it means to be human. The novel is centred around the protagonist Jimmy, (now known as Snowman), switching between flashbacks of his past, being brought up in a sheltered immoral world, and the post-human present in which he has the responsibility to look after the Children of Crake.
The dystopian features of the text are shown to arise from instances in which humans try to play ‘God’, or change what is seen as natural. Atwood exaggerates our current positioning of animals as a product of consumption, twisting the way in which we view animals as a resource. She portrays this through the various mutations and experiments of animals, in particular the ‘ChickieNob’. Sounding almost like chicken nuggets, this new creation is an animal designed for the sole reason of growing chicken breasts. When Jimmy comments on the fact that the animal doesn’t have a head, one of the scientists replies saying, “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.” (Atwood, 2013:238) This is highly ironic because a chicken obviously needs eyes and a beak to function independently as a ‘natural’ animal; it is the human who has no need for a chicken to have anything other than meat. By portraying the commoditisation of animals in this extreme sense, it highlights the extent to which an anthropocentric way of thinking can result in treating other species as lesser, having no moral, ethical or humane obligations to anything else.
Extending on the experimentation and creation of new animals, the novel looks into the ideals of synthetic creation and the prolonging of life. Passing into Post-Humanism, the events that lead to the almost extinction of humans progress into the creation of the Crakes, a post-human subspecies. By moving beyond the human, Crake, who doesn’t believe in nature ‘with a capital N’, (Atwood, 2013:242) selects his desired features of humans, such as green eyes and a lack of desire, emotion or religion, in order to make a ‘peak’ version of a human. When removing the ‘human’ elements out of the Crakes to create perfect functioning bodies, a division is made between biology and emotion, which Atwood hints to be a dangerous beginning of unbalance in society.
Ursula Heise also comments on the imbalance between natural and synthetic creation in society, suggesting that ‘nature in the sense of a domain apart from human intention and agency no longer exists’. She believes that ‘we have deprived nature of its independence’, (Heise, 2017:7) in consequence of our actions, changing the atmosphere, the weather, and therefore every place on earth can be seen as man-made. In this sense she is not talking about Nature with a capital N, but everything that exists on earth without our aid, and harmoniously if we would allow it.
Alongside these unnatural creations, come different scales of morality and responsibility. For the most part of the novel Jimmy is ignorant to the monstrosities around him, and benefits from these systems without realising he’s contributing to them. However, this is partly because he has only been raised in this anthropocentric state of world, having no other references to other forms of consumption, making him a product of society. Although Jimmy tries to separate himself from things that he deems as immoral, the concept of unconscious responsibility lends itself to his life when he becomes directly linked to ‘immoral things’. Jimmy experiences feelings of culpability, in which he believes to be responsible for the well-being of the Crakes, yet also resents this responsibility at the same time. This also leads to questions of duty and care of the Crakes, are they animals or humans? Do they need to be looked after? Or should they be free to learn, adapt and survive without any conditioning from Jimmy?
Ultimately, in the light of a Post- Humanism, Atwood suggests that the end of the Anthropocene is not the end of the world, but the end of the world as we know it. Early in the novel Crake states that ‘Homo sapiens doesn’t seem able to cut himself off at the supply end. He’s one of the few species that doesn’t limit reproduction in the face of dwindling resources.’ (Atwood, 2013:139) Not only does this hint at Crake’s desire to create a new human subspecies, but it also comments on the state of our current society, in which supplies are hitting ‘peak’ levels, yet nothing seems to be slowing down. The development of new technology shield’s us from fearing ‘dwindling resources’, as there is no immediate impact on us, even if the Earth is screaming for help.
Animal Cruelty Solution: As we are nearing Christmas time (also the time of new pets), try to adopt a dog/cat from a rescue shelter, rather than buying one. They are often cheaper and include the prices of vaccinations, micro chipping and neutering. Don’t support unauthorised breeders or puppy mills and save a life instead.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (London: Virago Press , 2013)
Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago Scholarship Online, 2017)