Thursday, November 20, 2014

Weird & Wonderful: "Oryx & Crake" (and "The Sparrow", actually)

Small meeting last night, but we had a good discussion--discussions plural, really. Paul & I had both missed last month's meetings on Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow" (1996), and wanted to talk about it--Conrad wanted to chew on it some more, also. So that was good! Then we turned our attention to Margaret Atwood's "Oryx & Crake" (2003) as well. Spoilers below!
I'm really glad I heard of "The Sparrow"; it had never shown up on my radar but a few different people at book groups had brought it up. Someone at CNSC billed it as "Catholics in space; God hates you!" Okay, so, the latter bit is up for debate, but it definitely captures the feel.

Plotwise, "The Sparrow" would feel at home with a lot of classic SF--humans go to another planet, think they understand how things work, setting up the Twilight Zone twist at the end. I admit an urge to shout "it's a cookbook!" when we realize how the alien society works.

What makes this so effective, though, is the characterization coupled with the narrative tension of knowing the mission ends badly--from the very first page, we know things were pretty horrific; Russell braids the storylines to good effect, bouncing back and forth between Sandoz-back-on-Earth, recovering from trauma, and the long story of the mission's inception, launching, and eventual failure. This would be a neat but merely effective structure were Russell not so brilliant at constructing deep human characters and relations; because she is, the effect is instead devastating. Russell stands out among all the SF writers I can readily bring to mind for her ability to make a large cast of characters that I really care about--and 300 pages before anything bad happens, she lets you know that they are all going to die. Horribly. Maybe pointlessly.

Whew. Read it, it's good. The science is a little shaky (*cough* spaceflight *cough*), and a point I brought up is that you really have to make a conscious decision to go with one hard-to-swallow bit--that this particular crew would really be selected to be the first ones there (a few major plot points really only work because the people in question aren't trained enough for what they're doing)--but Russell does address that issue; indeed it's arguably a "miracle" of a kind, which makes the absence of any miracles later on all the more crushing.

We all agreed that it's engagement with faith--that it leaves it open, that there is no proof of anything, that its priests constantly question their faith and themselves--is one of the novels strongest points. Personally I was doing some atheist face-palming, but the very things bugging me are also the things that Russell, through Sandoz, is engaging very intelligently. We also applauded her non-stereotypical and non-homogenous use of priests and the priesthood, something that is all too rare in SF/F.

(By the way I should mention that when reading it I couldn't help but think pretty frequently of James Blish's "A Case of Conscience" (1958). Russell was apparently not consciously influenced by it, but the comparisons are interesting. See John Owen for the parallels, and James Morrow on the tradition of theological questioning in SF. I'd be interested in doing a panel or paper or perhaps a Positron club on "apologetic SF" someday; C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" was a major influence on me and, I think, unjustly overlooked.)

Then we finally got around to talking about "Oryx & Crake". I think this was my first time re-reading it since it first came out. I like the book quite a lot, but I have more...critical...feelings about it this time around.

A conclusion I'm flirting with is that it's a deeply nihilistic work--but it depends on how one reads it as a satire.

There's a binary set up in the book between Crake & Jimmy/Snowman-- Crake representing the sciences, Jimmy standing for the arts & humanities. And Jimmy stands up--pardon the pun--like a snowman in hell. While the effects of science (almost entirely genetic/biological, as far as the novel is concerned) have tons of tangible effects, Jimmy doesn't seem to have any truly transformative interactions with literature, art, anything, excepting only his fondness for obsolete words--which reads more as a trick to make him special than any innate love of language.

The reason this bugs me so much is that Atwood has cast Crake (and Jimmy, to a lesser extent) as essentially a judge over humanity. Crake looks at the destruction of the environment, overpopulation, human nature as base and vile (particularly as revealed in the conflation of snuff & porn, yeesh), and comes to the conclusion that it needs to be wiped out, replaced with something simpler. One waits for the counterarguments, for Jimmy to point out all the good things--any good thing!--that human culture has done as a redeeming quality. And waits, and waits.

There's this literal game they play--a computer game of some kind--called Blood & Roses, wherein the Roses player is on the side of all the great human achievements, and Blood all the great human tragedies. Blood always wins. And at least from Crake's perspective--the novel's? Atwood's?--thats how it is-- all the suffering humanity inflicts on itself and the world more than cancels out anything good we've done.

Blech. One gets the feeling that Atwood is a bit of a Luddite (her description of the internet and things like CD-ROM replacing books were face-palmingly out-dated even as the novel was published) , and possibly one of those "fall from grace" types. Her occasional ignorance of/antagonism towards SF was in my mind through a lot of this re-read.

But then, but then. I should point out that this book is incredibly well-written. Reading a LOT of SF/F, one can forget how atrociously unskilled a lot of writers are. Atwood is not of their ilk; excusing some tech and futuristic issues, this is masterfully done.

And even aside from the skill level, there's the question of what level of satire this is, exactly. Satirical reading of a balkanizing capitalist culture that uses the tools of science to extract profit from an undifferentiated underclass, regardless of ethical concerns? Most certainly. The question I have is if the larger narrative--of human endeavor as basically worthless, of humanity as an ecological mistake rapidly dooming itself--is itself satirical. There are some clues that direction, but I'm just not sure.

Picked out a lot of other odd little notes this time through--like the fact that Jimmy is an addict, an alcoholic and a sex addict, and the extent to which that defines him as a character. Also the little note of Crake-as-Hamlet (always in black, mother & uncle killed father, NIHILISM LOL), and the rather bigger note of connecting sex and violence, sex and death. I know this has been done a lot (Tiptree's "Screwfly Solution" and Le Guin's lack of war in "Left Hand of Darkness" in my mind), but when coupled with basically, well, Reddit, Atwood's take on it is pretty affecting. But I don't quite know what to make of it.

Still. Good re-read, and I think this will finally push me to go out and read "The Year of the Flood" and "MaddAdam" now that they're all out.

Good meeting! The next Weird & Wonderful won't be until January--date not set yet--and I believe we settled on Max Barry's "Lexicon" (2013) as our next read. Until then!

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