Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first read this book, I remember liking it, but I don’t remember why I liked it. I also remember being very confused about what the heck was going on. This second reading—now that I’ve also read The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam—made a lot more sense, but I liked it less. Maybe it was just a let-down after how awesome The Year of the Flood was, but Jimmy just wasn’t that interesting as a narrator. It’s like if I wrote down my life story. There’s some interesting stuff in there, but mostly it’s full of hang-ups and regrets and it’s all just tangential to the lives of those who are really doing stuff.

As Atwood writes about Jimmy, “He’d grown up in walled spaces, and then had become one. He had shut things out.”

Jimmy kind of reminded me of Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club before Tyler Durden came into his life, with Jimmy’s organized bathroom shelves and his general contentedness with just being mediocre. I suppose Crake could have been Jimmy’s Tyler Durden, except that rather than bringing a new level of awesome out of Jimmy, Crake just manipulated Jimmy’s innate non-awesomeness for Crake’s own purposes.

I didn’t realize it on my first reading of this book, but Jimmy/Snowman is kind of a Joseph. Here’s this huge, world-altering plan going on around him. His nearest and dearest are in on it, but it’s all a secret to him. He doesn’t bring the plan into existence, but he’s the one who’s left to take care of things.

After this reading, I feel a small urge to re-read the other two books again, but I think it would be more to look for the bits of the story that Atwood doesn’t tell than it would be to enjoy the books themselves again.

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MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m generally fairly paranoid about the internet. This is why I use a pseudonym when I’m here and why I avoid posting identifying photographs of myself, my spouse, and my children. And ever since the revelations about the NSA’s enhanced domestic spying abilities (which we can be sure they’re not using because they promise us so sincerely they aren’t), I’ve been perhaps not more paranoid but at least more aware of the vulnerability of writing things over the internet and talking on the phone.

But reading MaddAddam heightens my paranoia to the point that I hesitate when I go to write a blog post or log into my e-mail. Obviously this doesn’t stop me from online communication—I’m not ready to go full-on God’s Gardeners (yet)—I just feel more anxious about it.

While reading this book, I’ve been asking myself more often than usual, “Why do I blog anyway? Do I really want to share this much about my inner life even it’s not really all that top-secret and my name’s not attached to it?” I’ve also spent the reading of this book shadowed by a vague feeling that I’ve done something wrong. When I notice this feeling, I wonder if maybe I ought not to read dystopian novels.

The trouble with the MaddAddam trilogy is that it’s just a little step down a side road from where we are now. Atwood did this intentionally. She takes the worst fears of both the left and the right and makes them come true. Everything in the book—from lab-created meat to the commoditizing of our personal information (and even our genes) to the blanket outlawing of firearms to an entirely privatized military and domestic police force—is something that’s either already happening or could easily happen a step or two from where we are now. It makes Atwood’s world that much more realistic. And scary. And hopeless.

While I enjoyed MaddAddam, I liked it less less than I did The Year of the Flood. The Year of the Flood is in some ways simpler: it’s the story of a screwed-up world and a group of people who’ve found a way of living that bypasses the screwed-upedness. Even though I knew all along that it would not end well, there seemed to be a sense of hope. The Waterless Flood was coming, but there was a formula for surviving it. Plus, I relate to separatists.

MaddAddam is not hopeful. I suppose the ending could be perceived as hopeful, but I don’t really see it that way. It just seems kind of depressing that everything really is left up to chance and tribalism in the end anyway.

In addition to feeling a little depressed by the hopelessness, I also found the small-world coincidences in MaddAddam a little unrealistic. People meet and think they’re strangers, but it turns out they went to high school together or something. I didn’t quite buy that the only people who’d survive the flood would be people who already knew each other. These didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, though.

Maybe I just enjoy feeling depressed and paranoid.

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The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If a religious sect predicts an apocalyptic event and then separates itself to start preparing for that cataclysm, the general public pretty much shakes its collective head and writes them off as whackos. But are they still whackos if they turn out to be right?

In The Year of the Flood, Atwood takes us inside a religious sect on the fringes of the mainstream (albeit a very fragile, last-days-of-the-Roman-Empire kind of mainstream), and pretty much asks the reader just that question. Those on the outside think God’s Gardeners are crazy or dangerous or both. From our insider perspective, it’s those on the outside who seem crazy and dangerous.

Or maybe I just think that because I found myself agreeing with a surprising amount of the Gardeners’ theology. It’s a hodge-podge of Christianity, Buddhism, and a religious reverence for science, but it kind of works for me. I like the idea of learning to be self-sufficient, of using just what we need and no more, of fostering compassion and respect for all creatures. I like, too, that while the Gardeners have very strong beliefs, they’re also pragmatic. For example, they don’t believe in eating meat, but they are okay with it if it’s a matter of life and death (for them) and if they do it mindfully.

I liked the combination of science and religion in the Gardeners’ worldview and their focus on mindfulness and empathy. In particular, I liked the idea that it’s not just the creatures we think of as gentle that are God’s children. Wolves, lions, spiders: they’re every bit as much God’s children as humans are. There’s also the suggestion that even “evil” people—mass murderers, serial killers—are God’s children, and we should deal with them with compassion and empathy, a view with which I agree and for which I’ve been shouted at by people in my own otherwise compassionate and touchy-feely religion. But then, not even all of the Gardeners agree on how one should deal with a person who means us harm, which is the cause of significant disagreement within the sect.

I also really enjoyed the hope that the Gardeners maintained in the face of the cataclysm they saw coming. They didn’t know what form it would take exactly, but they knew something bad was going to happen and instead of becoming fatalistic, they prepared for it.

Basically, I really loved this book. It was well-written and I loved that it’s told from the perspective of two female characters (and Adam One’s sermons). The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because it’s left me feeling a little paranoid. The Gardeners see danger everywhere, and that helps them stay safe. In light of the fictional situations Atwood presents (which are uncomfortably close to reality), I’m looking at the things that raise flags for me in my life and wondering which ones actually pose a threat and which ones don’t. I tend to note potential dangers and then dismiss them, and I’m wondering if I’m too complacent about the negative influence these elements have on my spiritual self and their potential dangers to my material self.

What harm can it do to hook into Facebook or Twitter or Gmail (or Goodreads)? What’s the danger of owning a cell phone or putting a transponder in your car to automatically pay road and bridge tolls? Sure, it’s all huge corporations (and a highly corporate-influenced government) mining our data and monitoring our internet and calling histories, but the alternative is to drop out completely, and that’s just not practical. (Plus, it’s only the bad guys who get caught, so I have nothing to fear.) That coffee isn’t shade-grown, that chocolate’s not fairly traded, there’s corporate advertising in our public schools, and that diamond engagement ring was almost certainly mined with slave labor, but those are just side effects of a free market. What we do as individuals doesn’t make a difference, so it’s okay to just keep on drinking mochas and watching reality television. Still concerned? Here, have some BlyssPluss, and you’ll feel much better.

Now I need to go back and re-read Oryx and Crake and eagerly anticipate the publication of MaddAddam. And maybe throw out my nutritional supplements and buy the audio CD of the Gardeners’ hymns.

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