Dystopian Future in Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”

Dystopian Future in Margaret Atwood's

Since time immemorial, people have tried to come up with scenarios of ideal life. Seeing how imperfect human life is, people have a long tradition of contemplating on the ways to make the world a better place. The literary works that explore how ideal societies should be structured are called utopian. However, atrocities in numerous wars and the general inclination of human nature to evil suggest that utopia is impossible. Simply put, it is idealistic to think that a perfect world can exist. It gave rise to dystopias, literary works revealing what life could become if people continued to live their lives making the choices they make now. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a dystopian novel about the life of the last man on Earth with a moniker Snowman who has to take care of artificially created hominoids called Crakers. Switching between the past and the present, Atwood describes how scientists having had good intentions to save the world and to create a safe environment, actually managed to cause a global catastrophe. Despite Crake’s initial intention to create a world without limitations, his creation turned to have numerous imperfections. Thus, even though scientists used utopian principle to make racism-free peaceful vegetarian society with perfect skin, it resulted in a world too sterile to live in.

In Oryx and Crake, Atwood used a frame story to present the situation from two angles. Thus, both Snowman, the protagonist who managed to adapt to the environment to the post-apocalyptic world, and Jimmy, a teenager Snowman used to be in the pre-apocalyptic America share their views on the world in which they live. Switching between these two realities, Atwood is able to question the way people live now, and predict the future based on the current state of affairs. Beginning the new version of the world as a seemingly utopian model Crake was not able to retain its good principles and in the result, it became dystopia and lost humanity.

Atwood’s Oryx and Crake vividly shows that a general tendency to believe that imperfections should be ironed leads to fatal consequences. Jimmy lives in the unspecified future and its new society believes that it has greatly improved in comparison to the past version. Among the improvements is spatial segregation. People live in separated areas according to their intellectual abilities. Thus, ‘numbers’ people are more intellectual and, therefore, more socially successful than ‘words’ people. Although Jimmy is a ‘words’ person with average intellectual abilities and prospects, his father is good at bioengineering and, thus, his family has a change to move to a better residential area and send Jimmy to a high-quality school. It shows that the gifted workers of the bioengineering industry are more privileged than occupants of the pleeblands. This separation restricts people from different classes to meet. All communications are strictly regulated. Atwood portrays a hierarchal society consisting of three distinct layers: the poor ‘pleebland,’ the middle-class ‘Modules,’ and the rivileged ‘Compounds.’ Although the majority hardly questions the hierarchy and does not attempt to change it, Jimmy’s mother quit the disgusting and false way of living and fled the Compounds.

In order to keep the hierarchical distinction the areas are guarded and patrolled. Atwood shows how people surrender a large part of their freedom for an alleged feeling of security. However, the price is high. Guards, who lend an oppressive feeling on Jimmy’s mother who cannot stand their constant searches, suspects that their phones and computers are bugged, and refuses to live in the highly controlled society, provide security. Since society cannot be completely unified, Atwood shows that the result of an excessive need for security will include strict stratification and oppressive surveillance.

Another aspect of today’s society that is enlarged and caricatured in Oryx and Crake is pursuit of eternal beauty. People’s desire to be young, healthy and beautiful is fulfilled due to the developments in science. However, the desire to be younger, healthier, and prettier than ever before is exaggerated and distorted into endless consumerism. The quest for youth and beauty is endless: “Cosmetic creams, workout equipment, Joltbars to build your muscle-scape into a breathtaking marvel of sculpted granite. Pills to make you fatter, thinner, hairier, balder, whiter, browner, blacker, yellower, sexier, and happier” (Atwood 248). As a result, in this society  people look very similar because they have the same ideas of ideal beauty imposed by mass media. Differences are smoothed out for the sake of unified perfection.

In general, consumerist culture can be characterized by high intolerance of differences and imperfections. People want to have it all and have it now. In addition, they want everything to be perfect. Scientific developments allow to experiment with genes and, for example, produce a new breed of pet animal. However, genetic modifications create new flaws substituting the old ones. As a result, a whole bunch of new animals is generated, which not only carry out the functions they are expected to but also create a number of new problems that need to be solved. Often scientists created new species out of curiosity to take the role of god. For example, “luminous green rabbits” were result of a funny experiment, but when they began breeding with wild rabbits, grew in size and quickly increased in number, they turned into “nuisance” (Atwood 96). To eliminate them, “bobkittens” were created but they preyed not only on green rabbits but on pet dogs and babies in cradles. Thus, the pursuit of perfection actually more destroyed the chance to build utopia instead of building towards it.  

However, experiments on animals were only an introduction to global improvements of human race in the form of Crakers. Crake tried to make a new race of perfect people who did not have any drawbacks in neither appearance, life expectancy, courting patterns, nor emotions. They did not discriminate races because they all sported different colors off skin, from very dark to caramel to cream and all shades in-between. They had aversion to violence and any types of killing, even fishing. Therefore, they were very peaceful. In addition, Crake programmed the solution to many other human problems such as religious disputes (Crakers are unable to believe into any deity), love matters (they are not hardwired to long for love), fear of death (Crake programmed Crakers to die at age of thirty and it does not give them any suffering because they cannot influence it).

However, Crake’s perfect creation turned out not to be a human but hominid. Being a perfect image of humans, Crakers looked like a pale imitation derived of all the features that made humans human. As Jimmy summarized referring to the game they played with Crake, “winning meant you inherited a wasteland” (Atwood 80). Crake created a new race and he bested Snowman by leaving him alone to tend to Crakers. However, is it possible to say that Crake has gained a significant victory?  On the contrary, the sterile, ‘perfect’ creatures resembled humans in the least because they did not have characteristics that make people human. 

Apart from emotions, faith, love, ennui, angst, and other features that all people share to some extent, the Crakers were derived of one of the most important features, which is language. Because they no longer had many characteristics common for people, their mental patterns were changed as well. The needs of society are usually articulated through words of a particular language. As the Crakers are a simplified form of humans, their language reflected their desires, but it was more impoverished in comparison to Snowman’s language. Not only they did not live in the same reality Snowman had experienced as Jimmy, they did not have mental tools such as imagination and, thus, simple concepts were unclear to them. Their aesthetic and even ethic perfection made them limited and infantile.

By revealing how transformed or even completely eliminated crucial human features change the person, Margaret Atwood showed that a result of the pursuit for perfection is a dystopia. The world created by Crake is uncomfortable and poorly suitable for humans. The insipid future is awaiting humanity if people will not develop an ability to accept and handle their imperfections. However, it does not mean that discrimination or violence should be encouraged or tolerated. Atwood reminds that at the core of human nature is freedom and conscious choice. It is a responsibility of an individual to make right choices about typical human issues such as love, death, life, emotional life, and beauty or ugliness. After all, even discrimination was not completely eliminated in Crakers because even though they did not notice differences in the color of their skin, they could observe different colors of eyes. Oryx’s brown eyes irritated them and she wore green contact lenses, refuting the argument of a victory over discrimination. In the open ending, Atwood returns people their freedom and a right for choice, thus gives them back their humanity.