Need a break from the election? Let Margaret Atwood take you to an apocalyptic near-future where biotech companies have taken over all civic functions and disaffected young nerdlingtons plan to destroy all of Earth’s stupid, stupid people.
Oryx and Crake, the Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam: the Maddaddam trilogy, Atwood’s foray into a surprisingly joyful eco-dystopianism.
In my recent reread of this trilogy, I fixated on the character of Crake. Born Glenn, scion of the biotech engineering class, eating real meat and neglected by his parents behind HealthWyzer Corp gates, Crake develops a crush on technological insurgency that he, like so many smart boys I’ve known, mistakes for moral superiority. Crake plays chess with grownups. Crake watches kiddie porn filmed in Southeast Asian countries and doesn’t jack off. Crake joins secret online networks whose entrypoints are embedded in gorefest games.
Crake is the endpoint of nerd culture–the white boys who shoot up schools, the white boys who build worlds of fantasy, the white boys who long to remake the world in their own image. Crake, though, actually accomplishes a remaking. He wipes out humans and creates a new humanoid species that doesn’t possess any of the human traits that Crake doesn’t like. Dating. Eating meat. Generating and believing ideologies. Warring.
Fair play. I don’t like those either, but I wouldn’t want to kill all people to make room for people who don’t know how to kill. Like another white dude megalomaniac we know whose cultural power appalls the even nominally ethical, Crake’s theory of change lacks nuance.
Still, Crake has a point. The world he destroys may have needed destroying. The books’ depiction of the corporate surveillance state is a familiar mix of malevolence, bureaucracy, and exploitation of an extremely stratified society. Characters’ convoluted attempts to hide from CorpSeCorps, the corporate/state security apparatus, dramatize the threats posed by the tech-cultural infrastructure we are building right now as we voluntarily load up private companies with all our most intimate data. Our meals, our kids’ faces, our leisure enjoyments, our fingerprints.
But CorpSeCorps is just the security arm of a corporate state whose totalizing reach is also only a silkyshinysmooth hairflip away from our own. Healthwyzer develops technology and infrastructure to control the whole healthcare supply chain–a chain that has extended past traditional channels on both ends of a product’s life. They embed fatal diseases in vitamins, market vitamins through retail outlets, futilely treat those diseases in doctor offices and hospitals, then hunt down heirs to recoup burial debts. Now that’s capitalism!
The illness that wipes out most humans is embedded in a pill that provides sexual bliss as well as contraception and STI protection.
For perhaps the first time in mainstream SF/literary fiction, Atwood’s dystopia is grounded in the health and wellness industry. This conceit works. Medical and neurological models are the dominant mode for understanding contemporary subjectivity. The wellness industry reaches the most deeply into our hopes and fears–not only about illness and infirmity, but about the willpower, moral superiority, and financial capacity required to build and maintain “health.” And Atwood rightly locates these coalesced drives in Protestant religions, which she lovingly spoofs here via the God’s Gardeners, an eco-cult whose dull clothes hide upstarts with access to increasingly sophisticated insurgent networks. Atwood’s series takes our culture’s fixation on the moral and capitalist underpinnings of health and wellness to its logical, if absurd endpoint: the healthcare industry will bring about apocalypse.
Nonetheless, by the end of the trilogy, Crake’s humanity-destroying megalomania starts to seem like a decent idea. The evildoers and exploiters are dead. Rape and torture seem to have stopped happening. “Crakers” and a cluster of humans, mostly Gardeners and gene splicers, survive. Species cooperate peacefully–humans with Crakers with human/pig splices known as “pigoons.” And in a turn typical of feminist SF, hybridity rules. Humans and Crakers mate, ensuring biological destruction of the human species and the elimination of any fantasy of purity. The pastoral harmony at the end of Maddaddam suggests that humans must be fully destroyed to save what is best about us: peace, love, ingenuity and art.
Read the news. Atwood may be right.