Two Great Novels or A Review of ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood and PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia E. Butler

When I finished Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, I knew I wanted to say a great deal about it.  I also knew I was incapable of expressing myself properly about it.  Now, over three years later, I’m still not sure I’m ready.  However, almost a year ago I read Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  While Butler’s novel is as overpowering as Atwood’s, reading it after Oryx and Crake enabled me to finally form some cohesive thoughts about both books.  While I’m far from certain I’m ready to write this review, I’ve decided it’s time to give it a try.  The reason is my initial jolt from reading Parable of the Sower has worn off enough for me to start making sense of the connection I first viscerally discerned between to two.  The rest of this piece will really just be attempts to elaborate one key point: Oryx and Crake and Parable of the Sower are both telling the same story.

Even though Butler’s book was published earlier, and I had been aware of it for many years, I read Atwood’s first and will discuss it first.  (There is, incidentally, some logic to that inherent in the focus of both books that may become apparent later on.)  Oryx and Crake is a remarkably easy book to read, considering two facts: first, it is a genuinely philosophical novel, asking questions one could spend a lifetime pondering and delving into them with clinical sharpness.  Second, its theme, the end of the human race, is as dark and grim as they come.  And yet Atwood’s narrative unfolds with a zesty joy, peppered with plenty of humor, one would associate more readily with an expertly crafted potboiler than an example of literary fiction.  Throughout the book, Atwood seamlessly integrates numerous bravura narrative flourishes that might look melodramatic (in the worst sense of the word) in the hands of a lesser writer.  Instead, they lead to the book becoming compulsively readable, almost narcotic in its effect.  To top all of this off, it is clear by the end of the novel that the pleasure Atwood gives by superimposing a colorful technique on top of a bleak and penetrating theme is actually a part of her overall plan.  In effect, it is a (devastatingly satirical) commentary on what Atwood herself is doing and the readers’ reactions to it.  (One warning: the ease with which all of this is accomplished and maintained is apt to cause feelings of despair in anyone who ever attempts to write.  Certainly the knowledge that I will NEVER be able to write anything like Atwood was probably the only downside of reading Oryx and Crake.)

Now that I’ve talked the book up enough what, more specifically than humanity’s fall, is it about?  Oryx and Crake begins some time after an apocalyptic event seems to have wiped out all but a few human beings.  The protagonist is the bedraggled Jimmy, one of the few survivors of the catastrophe.  Jimmy, who now calls himself “Snowman” when communicating with the new race poised to inherit the earth, is not just any sci-fi ‘last man.’  He has intimate knowledge of how the apocalypse came about.  However, he is not at all sure why it happened.  The novel chronicles his journey, both to find his way in the post-apocalyptic present and through his memories of the past to find a meaning for the horrific events he witnessed.

As Jimmy’s life story unfolds, we find out the society he lived in was already fairly grotesque before it was obliterated.  Government and civil society had become little more than jokes.  A clutch of powerful organizations (the word is too vague, but they are more than mere ‘corporations’) were sovereign in all but name, openly maintaining their own communities, schools, security forces and even systems of justice.  These organizations engaged in increasingly reckless scientific research, creating new species and toying with the very essence of life, without any supervision or regulation.  Their employees had become a new form of hereditary aristocracy (one Jimmy was born into), living in heavily guarded compounds and maintaining themselves as a higher order of being from those relegated to life in the filthy “pleeblands.”  Jimmy recalls his relationship with his parents, his growing friendship with Crake, a brilliant schoolmate who grows up to be a powerful geneticist, and his love for the enigmatic Oryx, a former prostitute who may or may not be two different people.

In Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, the revolutionary protagonist speculates that when the ruling classes attained total control, their treatment of others would be reprehensible but their artistic achievements would be staggering.  To be sure, the character does not consider this any kind of excuse for cruelty, but simply a natural development for a culture freed from lower and middle class mores.  When I first read the London book as a teenager, that assertion seemed to make sense.  I’m not sure why I (or London, a staunch leftist) had such aesthetic faith in the rich and powerful.  Atwood’s depiction of the society Jimmy grows up in is a jolting rebuke to London’s notion, and it is ruthlessly convincing.  Art is presented as having largely ceased, replaced by crass indulgence of instincts.  Jimmy, who shows skill with language, is not drawn to literature, history, philosophy, etc. because such things are no longer really done in his world.  He discovers Shakespeare through an internet video of a woman reading from Macbeth on the toilet.  That is about as refined as the media available to him gets.  Most of the entertainment Jimmy and Crake partake of is ugly and decidedly un-erotic pornography, a good portion of it involving children.  There is also plenty of violence, much of it against animals.  Jimmy, Crake, and their class numbly gobble up such filth with the occasional burst of conscience quickly dying of neglect.

As an English teacher, one of the most painful sections of Oryx and Crake for me to read involved Jimmy’s time in college.  As a “word person,” there is no place for him at the most elite institutions.  He therefore ends up at the Martha Graham Academy.  Named for the forgotten (in the world of the novel) great dancer and choreographer, the school is depicted as a crumbling and neglected institution, pathetically attempting to justify its economic role by teaching advertising and propaganda.  Obviously, Oryx and Crake is a futuristic work.  However, anyone working in academia today who cares about art and language or believes in the importance of thought, will probably remember that sometimes the future is no further away than tomorrow.

The dystopian world Jimmy remembers is not one he has any illusions about, but growing up in such a ‘society,’ it is perhaps understandable that Jimmy lacks any meaningful perspective on his world.  Crake, on the other hand, is surprisingly clear-eyed.  I have sometimes read commentators describe Crake as a kind of mad scientist.  It’s perfectly acceptable as a quick description, but I don’t think it really holds up.  Crake is very far from mad.  His assessment of his world is honest and hard to dispute.  Despite being at the top of his society’s pyramid, he considers it an indefensible garbage dump.  His belief that such a world is not worth saving is arguable, but hardly incomprehensible or evidence of a disturbed mind.  Atwood piles on the horrors so skillfully that confronted with Crake’s ruthless judgement, the reader will probably have trouble coming up with even a muddled defense of human society.  It is right around this point that Atwood pulls the rug out from under us.  The scene goes by swiftly, but it’s an effective shock nonetheless.  Jimmy remembers when Crake took him on a trip into the pleeblands, the only time in the memory narrative that the characters venture outside the corporate compounds.  What Jimmy sees surprises him.  The passage deserves to be quoted in full:

“The pleebland inhabitants didn’t look like the mental deficients the Compounders were fond of depicting, or most of them didn’t.  After a while Jimmy began to relax, enjoy the experience.  There was so much to see – so much being hawked, so much being offered.  Neon slogans, billboards, ads everywhere.  And there were real tramps, real beggar women, just as in the old DVD musicals: Jimmy kept expecting them to kick up their battered bootsoles, break into song.  Real musicians on the street corners, real bands of street urchins.  Asymmetrics, deformities: the faces here were a far cry from the regularity of the Compounds.  There were even bad teeth.  He was gawking.”

While I was struck the first time I read this, it took me a while to realize the enormity of what Atwood was up to.  She is effectively invalidating her story.  The colorful, dramatic and satirically funny depiction of humanity’s pathetic decline, Jimmy’s baffled hand-wringing over it, Crake’s cold judgement of it, and our acceptance of at least some of those perceptions was built on a falsehood.  The whole time we were perceiving humanity through the lens of a tiny elite that considers its own members the only true humans.  The irony is they’ve so lost touch with any recognizable human feeling, it is they who ultimately became subhuman.  Life in the pleeblands is most certainly harsh and degrading, but it is still human life, in all its messy glory.  The people in the pleeblands never stopped living, working, or loving in the way human beings have since the very beginning.  The Compounders simply closed a curtain on this life and declared it contemptible, when it was they themselves who deserved contempt.  To bring this revelation to the reader by not portraying people, to establish the vitality of something through its absence, and to pull the whole thing off as a kind supreme practical joke is something I think only the greatest artists are capable of.

While the effect of Atwood’s daring narrative decision is magnificent, I did feel a pang of regret that Oryx and Crake never really took us into the pleeblands.  Luckily, another great writer already had.  While I know Atwood has written two sequels to Oryx and Crake, it is remarkable, and rather eerie, that most of her themes in this novel had been anticipated, but described from a radically different angle, by Octavia E. Butler in Parable of the Sower…published in 1993, exactly ten years before Atwood’s book.

Almost as soon as I started reading Butler’s novel, I was struck by the uncanny feeling that I had returned to the world of Oryx and Crake.  There was the environmental devastation, the dangerous experiments, the retreat of the “elite” into guarded and autonomous communities, and the crumbling of civil society.  The two novels could easily be seen as existing within the same fictional universe.

Despite this, Parable of the Sower could not be more different from Oryx and Crake.  Gone is the ornate, dazzling prose.  Butler’s use of words is literary austerity.  Her sentences are sharply wrought, precise, cold, and chiseled with the care of an ice sculpture.  However, while it may be less immediately beguiling than Atwood’s, Butler’s prose is no less beautiful and moving.  It is also completely appropriate to her fictional milieu.  While Oryx and Crake shows us the lives of those at the top of a disintegrating society, Parable of the Sower takes us out of the compounds and into the pleeblands to follow the lives of those surviving at the bottom.  As such, reading it after Atwood’s novel can have a surprisingly refreshing effect.  While Atwood’s avoidance of the lower levels of her fictional world was part of a brilliant satirical strategy, there is no denying that it makes that world unpleasantly cloistered, like a hothouse full of decaying flesh.  Stepping into the world of Parable of the Sower, with its familiarly human characters, feels like stepping into the open air and taking a deep breath.  Still, this strategy has its own downside since that fresh air is a blast of bone-chilling wind.

Only a few fictional works are likely to start with the level of darkness and despair present at the beginning of Parable of the Sower.  Lauren Olamina is a teenager, living in what would have once been a middle-class community.  Due to slow but steady societal breakdown, Lauren, her family and her neighbors spend every day fighting for survival.  The government has largely disappeared from view; police and emergency personnel charge for their services, and sometimes won’t even act when paid.  The only authorities still functioning normally are those set up to tax people and evict them from their homes if they fall behind on mortgage payments.  Everyone lives in fear of roving gangs of criminals and the murderous pyromaniacs addicted to new forms of narcotics.

Lauren’s father, a minister, has become the unofficial leader of his community.  He fights to get the neighbors to help each other, band together and plan for the future but frequently suffers setbacks due to selfishness among the locals.  Some who possess valued skills have decided to leave, putting their faith in the now independently-operating corporations, despite Reverend Olamina’s warnings about trusting such organizations.  Meanwhile, despite loving and admiring her father, Lauren has begun to lose faith in the Christian religion.  She also struggles with, and tries to hide, a biological mutation causing her to physically experience whatever is happening to anyone in her proximity.

Eventually, Lauren loses her family and most of her neighbors.  She and a few survivors begin a desperate quest for some safer ground.  As they travel, they are joined by others, creating a multi-ethnic community (Lauren is African American) in defiance of the rampant bigotry and tribalism that surrounds them.  Gradually, Lauren assumes a position of primacy within the group.  She also starts to refine and share Earthseed, the new belief system she has been writing about in journals.  It is centered around one simple premise: “God is Change.”

Reading the back cover of Parable of the Sower, one would probably get the impression (as I did) that is about the building of a new society, painful but ultimately triumphant.  That’s an understandable way to blurb the book but it fails to capture the maturity of Butler’s story.  There is no sense of a guarantee that Lauren’s new faith will succeed.  The possibility that the new community she leads will collapse or be destroyed is presented as somewhat more than likely.  None of this, however, stops Butler’s novel from being powerfully affirming.  Its affirmation is not the false kind of a Hollywood ending, but rather the tougher variety of genuine faith in people.  Whether or not Lauren wins, Butler shows us how the very fact that she, and others like her, can still dream of hope and rebirth is a kind of victory.  (It should be noted that Butler wrote a sequel to Parable of the Sower, and was planning another before her untimely death in 2006.)

In keeping with the lean world Parable of the Sower takes place in, Butler does not have her characters indulge in elaborate philosophical discourses.  They would hardly have time.  Still, like all human beings, they do wonder about the meaning of their existence.  Their discussions of these matters are marked by the urgency of survival and often feel far more relevant to a discussion of life’s ultimate meaning than the more esoteric arguments of the comfortable.  This is most apparent in the tremendous voice of Lauren, both in her theological development of Earthseed and in her more general musings about what she sees happening around her.  One particular passage, after her brother is brutally murdered, has haunted me ever since I first read it:

“If hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all.”

There is a reasonable objection that a “biological conscience” would really just be a form of coercion.  Nevertheless, Lauren’s (Butler’s) proposition is not one that can be lightly dismissed.  The novel’s willingness to ask questions like this instead of falling into philosophical cliches is part of its greatness, but its first glory is Butler’s characterization of her protagonist.  Lauren, steady but aware of her own weaknesses, primarily concerned with staying alive but conscious of her exceptional intellect, open to the fact that she is deathly afraid but still determined to be courageous and daring, is one of the most fascinating and appealing characters I have ever encountered in a novel.  Leaving her behind when finishing the book was a painful process for me.  Without becoming too grand, Butler is able to suggest to readers that they are being granted a privileged glimpse of a figure like the Buddha, Christ, or Muhammad long before she is encrusted by mythology and worship.

Beyond the striking similarities in fictional world-building, what really unites Parable of the Sower and Oryx and Crake is their humanism.  Both books convincingly argue (Atwood’s through deceptive satire, Butler’s through painstaking demonstration) that there is always a way back for human beings…as long as enough human beings survive to start the race’s journey home.  None of this is to gloss over the agony people cause each other but simply an assertion that the human race will never give up the struggle for something transcendent, will never give up on life, as long as it continues to exist.

That’s the catch, of course.  Even though people, led by figures like Lauren Olamina, will always seek to plant and grow anew, what’s to stop an above-it-all genius like Crake from deciding that “zero hour” has arrived?  While a single destructive figure like that is unlikely (although hardly impossible) it remains a potent symbol for our ability to lose touch with what makes us all so special.  And it doesn’t take much imagination to envision humanity being destroyed by nuclear war or ecological meltdown.  Knowing I belong to a species that produced these two great novels gives me a lot of hope, however.  May it never be “time to go” and may there always be another “acorn”!

 

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