Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Margaret Atwood

My introduction to Margaret Atwood's work was The Handmaid's Tale, an Orwellian story of totalitarianism. But the depth, detail, and emotion of Atwood's story rises above that of Orwell. She has the capacity to write a compelling story with beautiful language and well developed characters while still exploring politics, religion, gender and economics - as good science fiction ought to.

Amazed by The Handmaid's Tale, I recently picked up Oryx and Crake. The story is told in alternating chapters- some taking place in the present of the novel, others in the past. They are joined together by the protagonist, a man named Jimmy, who in the present sections of the books refers to himself as Snowman. The past sections of the book are set in a recognizable landscape. This is North America. People are divided into the educated and rich, who live in secure compounds, and the poor pleebs, who live in the equivalent of slums of today's large cities. The present sections are set in a less recognizable place, but Atwood's descriptions are simple, and woven into the text so completely, that one will not see a reason question their existence- simply how they came to be.

In this world, intelligence is valued and an ability to splice necessary. Those with the best living situations are those who possess the best knowledge of genetics. Food is genetically modified, new diseases are created (as are their cures), replacement organs grown, and new hybrid creatures produced. Jimmy, we soon learn, is not the brightest, and his future, it seems, does not lie in science and splicing. But his only friend Glenn's path is certainly that of biology and genetics- he is brilliant, seemingly unfeeling, with an awareness and knowledge that far surpasses most people around him.

Through Jimmy's eyes, and his observations of Glenn, light is shed upon the situation of the older Jimmy (now called Snowman) and the altered world he inhabits. Integral to the novel is the idea of humans playing god. While combining animals might be seen as godlike, the creations of a completely new species is arguably the action of a god. This god question is further explored in the recently released sequel, In the Year of the Flood. Here, we meet others who have survived the 'disaster' that separates Jimmy from his change to Snowman. The science and genetics of Atwood's world is underplayed here. Instead, we view the world through the eyes of those living in the pleelands. Here, religion plays an integral part of the story, and the scientific aspects are minimally involved, as they are less visible in the lives of the pleebs.

I'd rather not reveal the event around which these books revolve, part of the experience of reading them is to puzzle it together from the past and future, slowly filling in the gaps as you go. All in all, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are classic Atwood- skillfully written novels that raise interesting questions of the future of homo sapiens sapiens.

Additionally, Lucy Knisley has a comic on seeing Margaret Atwood read from The Year of the Flood.

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