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Honey and Salt | The Nation

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Honey and Salt

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ADRIAN BELLESGUARD

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

The task of a critic has to do with the nature of the knowledge we call art.

So here we are, right back where we were a few decades ago and hoped we'd never have to be again: staring down the barrel of global catastrophe. Anyone over 40 will remember the feeling. The numb resignation, the night panic, the sense of a world gone mad. The missiles, it seemed, were already overhead, hanging like a pregnant pause. And now the feeling is back, and anyone under 40 has to wonder what's in store for them before they die. Will they live to see the cities drown, the fields dry up, the food system collapse? Will they die a peaceful death, or will they be driven from their homes to wander the roads and eat grass? And if the worst does come, how will the survivors find the will to go on?

Novelists have been asking themselves the same questions, just as they did in other times of existential threat. Apocalyptic fears have played a part in the human imagination since at least the rise of the great world religions. The sky will be rolled up like a scroll, or Shiva will burn the three worlds to ash. Armageddon will arrive, or the Tribulation, or the closing of the Kali Yuga. A divine figure will descend to bring an end to human time: Messiah or the Bodhisattva of the Future, the tenth avatar of Vishnu or the Twelfth Imam. We seem to require such myths to maintain our moral and metaphysical equilibrium--a sense of justice and, in Frank Kermode's phrase, the sense of an ending. But terrors of a modern apocalypse are not therefore to be dismissed, for they differ from the traditional kind in one crucial respect. It used to be that God would end the world, because only God could. Technology has made us capable of exterminating ourselves.

H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds (1898) when the specter of industrialized conflict, soon realized, was beginning to haunt the human imagination. Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach (1957) during the worst days of the cold war, right after the American and Soviet H-bomb tests. It should come as no surprise that two of our leading novelists have, in recent years, created works that refract the dread of global warming. Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2006. Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake in 2003, the first part of a projected trilogy of which the second, The Year of the Flood, has now appeared.

Apocalyptic fiction is not the same as the dystopian variety, which remains a common mode of social criticism. (Atwood herself produced an instance, The Handmaid's Tale, more than two decades ago.) It is not, or not only, an extrapolation of current trends but something necessarily more radical: an investigation into what it means to be human. In the wake of universal disaster, amid extremes of scarcity and threat, the essential drives and qualities are laid bare. McCarthy's figures are simply "the man" and "the boy," allegorically general, stripped of social identities that no longer exist. Their actions, as they plod through a charred and wintering landscape under a continuous rain of ash, address the basic biological needs: finding food, keeping warm, staying in motion. The necessities that even dystopian fiction can take for granted--potable water, cooking fuel, shoes--become the focus of complex exertion and elaborate narrative attention. The moral situation is equally reduced:

You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know.... I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
 Yes.
 He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
 Yes. We're still the good guys.

So it is in Oryx and Crake. For Snowman, the protagonist, staying alive is a full-time job: fighting off pigoons (transgenic organ-donor pigs his father helped create at OrganInc Farms), keeping a sharp eye out for wolvogs (a deceptively vicious wolf-dog splice). And he's got it easy, what with the Crakers' weekly gift of fish. Atwood, with her customary fertility and zest for social satire, not to mention a long immersion in the life sciences that began with her childhood as the daughter of a field entomologist, populates her nightmare in dense detail. Whereas the biblically spare McCarthy simply incinerates the world without comment--no more water, the fire next time--Atwood devotes most of Oryx and Crake to describing, via Snowman's recollections, how things have gotten to where they are.

If the twentieth century was the age of physics, it's been said--the computer, the Bomb--then ours will be the century of biology, and Atwood draws her conclusions accordingly. Atmospheric degradation has already done its work in Oryx and Crake--the midday sun is deadly, abandoned towers loom offshore--but the real horrors come from genetic manipulation. Snowman, or Jimmy, before the catastrophe, grows up a privileged corporate Compound kid in a world of bobkittens and pet rakunks, eating "imitation Spam" and "20% Real Fish" fish fingers. In high school, he's befriended by Glenn, alias Crake, a scientific prodigy who thinks the species most in need of improvement is the human one. Crake goes off, after graduation, to the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, where the students in NeoAgriculturals have developed a kind of meat-plant called ChickieNobs, while Jimmy, a technological dud, studies Applied Rhetoric and Advanced Mischaracterization at the moribund Martha Graham Academy ("Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills, ran the motto underneath the original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis"). When the two meet years later, Jimmy is working a dead-end sloganeering job for AnooYoo--cosmetic creams, Joltbars--while Crake has landed a top job with RejoovenEsense.

That's when his friend drafts Jimmy for the ultimate lifestyle-enhancement project. Part one, BlyssPluss, a pill designed to recalibrate human nature along the pacific lines of the bonobo chimp. Part two, secreted inside the sealed dome of Paradice, Crake's very own corporate fiefdom, the Crakers, a new human species altogether: docile, herbivorous, innocent. Take care of them if something happens, Crake tells his friend, and when something does, and society collapses from the shock waves of a global pandemic unleashed by Crake himself, Jimmy, now Snowman (he adopts the pseudonym in self-disgust), becomes the desperate, fumbling angel to a new race of Adams and Eves.

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