21 May 2003


The narratives of the Dark Ages, we must imagine, are all descended from the long story made famous by Edward Gibbon (with sure ancestry in Augustine's City of God) of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's tale begins with the glories of the Antonine age of the second century after Christ as praised by Aelius Aristides' speech "In Praise Of Rome," and ends with the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks thirteen centuries later. In between decline and fall are the unsavory details of decadence, of how the weaknesses of the Roman civilization contributed to its downfall.

Historians declaim the fall of Rome in the West in the fifth century CE as ushering in a Dark Age, when literacy disappeared from large stretches of Europe, when art became sterile and boring as the cultures of the Old World turned to the unalloyed worship of the thinkers and the saints of the past, when the volume of trade shrunk dramatically. The historians speculate as to why all of this happened, why (as Aldo Schiavone asked so concisely) did not ancient Rome usher in the Renaissance, why did there have to be a Dark Ages? Were the subjects of the Roman Empire taxed to death? Did religious warfare destroy independent thought and (eventually) civilization itself? Was public government used ruinously for petty private ends? Did the Goths and Huns and Vandals etc. destroy Roman civilization? Was slavery its curse? Was Antiquity too narrow-minded and cultic to grow intellectually? Was the Roman Empire just too big?

The speculation about the unsavory details of antiquity, and its failure to prevent the Dark Ages, doubtless fueled many a work of science fiction as well. Isaac Asimov admitted that his own Foundation series was inspired by a reading of Gibbon, and Foundation in turn became a model (unconscious at least) for George Lucas' Star Wars. And then there are the science-fictional portraits of the Dark Ages, of which there are many, all standing in the shadow of Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz, describing a future Utah nine centuries from now where illiterate monks poke through the ruins of American civilization to copy old shopping lists as if they were the relics of lost saints.

Onward to the present, and our own present-day American Empire which appears to its current rulers (and their acolytes) as if it will never decline and fall. The optimists, however, are rudely gainsaid by Margaret Atwood's brilliant novel Oryx and Crake, which extrapolates a future of unsavory details leading to eventual doom and destruction in a plot reminiscent of Mary Shelley's The Last Man. Its main character, "Snowman" (formerly Jimmy) picks through the wreckage of our civilization (as with The Last Man, a plague destroys everything) while recounting to himself the story of how our civilization met its doom, a story which begs as many questions as did the story of how Antiquity merged into the Dark Ages.

The adventure of all of this is in the revelation of detail as to how things got so bad. Global warming is out of control; it's so hot that all the snow has melted and Jimmy's college graduation has to be held in early February to avoid the "wet season" and the tornado season. Culture is all decadent; it's all a corporate product, with brand names made out of cute misspellings of ordinary English-language words ("HelthWyzer High School," "RejoovenEsence," "BlyssPluss," etc.), and with food basically synthetic (the "real stuff" being a privilege of the richest people). The class structure has created a sheltered upper class living in gated Compounds connected with bullet trains, and dispossessed masses living in the rusted "Pleeblands." Slavery has grown, insects are everywhere. Democracy is dead; direct corporate rule is the norm, the police force has the scary name "CorpSeCorps". Jimmy plays these decadent games "Blood and Roses," which measures the world's atrocities against its cultural achievements, and "Extinctathon," which makes a game out of global extinction. That beside the kiddie-porn and publicly-filmed executions Jimmy gets off the Web, which completes Atwood's picture of decadence. What's great fun about all of this, of course, is that (as the author herself said in an interview) everything in it is a direct extrapolation from a current trend.

Atwood's future is most extreme in its ideas of genetic engineering. "Pigoons" are a growth industry -- they're pigs that have been genetically manipulated to grow human body parts for transplant. "Rakunks" are a combination raccoon-skunk intended as a pet, but which become wild animals in the end. "Wolvogs" are combination wolf-dogs; they're dangerous.

In the pre-plague world of Jimmy's memory, the storyline concerns Jimmy's growing up in the Compounds, of a corporate scientist father and of a mother who complains incessantly about the state of the world (while chainsmoking cigarettes) and who eventually joins a cadre of environmental radicals. Thereafter, we are led through the tale of Jimmy's friendship with Crake (this is the name taken by a boy genius after a then-extinct species of Australian bird in the game "Extinctathon"), which leads us through Jimmy's attendance at a sleazy humanities institute, and on to his career as the publicity man for Crake's utopian project "Paradice." Paradice is a walled community somewhat reminiscent of the compounds inhabited by the villains of James Bond movies, and just as sinister.

"Paradice," amusingly enough, is informed by the ideology of evolutionary psychology, as has been popularized by the likes of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. We know of Crake's belief in this, the idea that genes are what determine psychological proclivities, by his self-anointment as one possessed of the "genius gene." Evolutionary psychology, nastily enough, points Crake to use "Paradice" as a horrific solution to the global disaster -- kill off all humanity with a virus that kills faster than a vaccine can be devised, and design a new, genetically-superior humanity to take its place. The new, genetically-superior humanity, is pacifistic (thus no war), is unintelligent enough not to think about metaphysics or God (thus no religious disputes), can eat grass (thus no starvation), and will die after reaching thirty years of age on average (thus no old age). Their teacher is Oryx, a young girl who grew up as a slave in Asia and who becomes Jimmy's sex partner when he's at Paradice.

Oh sure, there are plenty of other looming disasters that could have been the subject of Atwood's science fiction dystopia. (There is Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather, a cautionary tale about the greenhouse effect, and Marge Piercy's He, She, and It, a dystopia of war and corporate rule -- tho' I'm waiting for the oil-shortage dystopia to be written.) But this story of genetic engineering gone wild magnificently highlights the negative slant of today's chic ideologies, from evolutionary psychology to capitalism to the various impotent protests against today's reality. Gone is what's left of '60s optimism; instead we blather about "sustainable development" while hiding from ourselves the unsustainable nature of our development practices and our inability to stop capitalism from destroying the environment. We believe in "economic growth" not because it isn't a dangerous scam -- it is, but it's the only game we know how to play. Anyway, who can stop global warming, genetic engineering, or species extinction? It's easier to complain while doing nothing. Who's going to keep the rich from getting richer, the poor from getting poorer, or the oil from running out? Nobody. So we console ourselves with perverse ideologies. The economy supposedly needs a "stimulus," even this will solve none of its real problems. There are "too many people," say the neoMalthusians, so the poor must be punished for their procreative habits by those who feel guilty in consuming. There are "terrorists" out there, so the government must wage a series of opportunistic wars using made-up justifications. We grow up in schools which don't teach us what we need to know, we consume while the getting's good, we get sick to avoid too much contact with a pricey healthcare system, and we die, leaving behind a posterity which doesn't seem to know any better either.

Given such a present, and given such a fashionable unwillingness to change, we can expect our society to revel in visions of dystopia. Atwood's novel is one such dystopia, focused on genetic engineering, and dragging the rest of our social landscape down into a fictional toiletbowl so that we can get a peek at the fecal matter that's down there.


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