Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Creepy Vision of the (near?) Future

Another birthday gift I received this year was Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Unlike Wicked, I'd read this one before, all right -- renewed it twice from the local library and still wound up bringing it back late. It's a pretty captivating, scary, well-written book.

In the mid-nineties, my fellow women's studies minors and I had a similar reaction to another one of her books, The Handmaid's Tale. The professors must have felt the same way we did, because I had it assigned to me at least twice. For those of you who were attracted to a different discipline or went to college in a different era, this is a dystopian version of the future where right-wing Christian lunatics have taken over and taken away every freedom and privilege women now enjoy. That includes their right to choose sexual partners and raise children. That's what a "handmaid" is: she lives in the home of one of the elite married couples, and the man of the house has sex with her in order to get her pregnant (due to environmental catastrophe, a lot of women are infertile. Never the men, of course). If she succeeds, the couple keeps the baby and she goes away somewhere else to try again. If she fails, she's given a few other chances before it's the salt mines for her -- literally.

What can I say? Those were slightly different times, and the book scared the crap out of us. We talked at length in class about how a lot of that stuff could totally happen, although maybe not all of it at once. The Republican Revolution of 1995 had just happened, abortion clinic bombings were rampant, and one abortion provider. Dr. Bernard Slepian, was murdered in his own home in the next town over from where I grew up. Admittedly, I haven't re-read the book in a while, but looking back, our fears seem misplaced.

What to make, then, of Oryx and Crake? This is also a dystopian novel, but its themes are science run amok, corporate domination, and environmental ruin. It's also a little more complex in structure, as it weaves almost at random between the past and the future. It's hard to say much about it without giving things away, but I will say that this book seems as plausible to me now as The Handmaid's Tale did ten years ago. What Atwood is masterful at is personalizing her dark visions of the future. We hear what it's like to live in these times through the eyes of people that were intimately affected by them.

I wonder how I'll feel about Oryx and Crake in ten years. I wonder if some of that stuff will have happened, or if (hopefully) it will lurk on my bookshelf as a sort of souvenir of an earlier time. But thinking about the two books, one thing they both have in common is a society subdued by fear. In The Handmaid's Tale, a key concept used to control women is the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to." The powers that be argue that, yes, women may no longer have the freedom to go where they please, marry who they want, or hold jobs, but they get freedom from sexual harassment and assault -- no one would dare anymore. In Oryx and Crake,the slight resistance against the corporate domination of society is failing because the corporations have more resources than any group of individuals could ever hope for, so the dissenters are getting increasingly desperate and turning to terrorism to make their point. So those who are less inclined to dissent put up with all sorts of restrictions on their freedom, believing that they're trading safety for freedom.

Yet, it's always a bad trade. It's one we've been asked to make repeatedly since September 11th. Surely, you don't mind if the government knows what books you're checking out at the library, do you? It's not like you're reading anything bad, after all. And if someone was reading something bad, think how many lives could be saved if we knew about it, and did something while the person was still reading and not acting. And that's how you make reading a book a crime, that's how you wiretap ordinary citizens, that's how you arrest teenage girls at Barnes and Noble for trying to get a conservative senator to autograph a copy of a book opposite his philosophy. So although the finer points of Margaret Atwood's dystopian books may not hold up over time, the larger messages do: fight for your freedom, don't let fear win, don't let art die, and above all else, keep thinking.