I first heard of Oryx and Crake when people started showing up on ifMUD thinking that it was a chat room devoted to the life and works of Margaret Atwood. It turns out that Alex the parrot plays a small role in the book, and the web site for the book featured a link to Alex. Except the link wasn't to the actual parrot Alex, but rather to the page Dan Shiovitz created for an ifMUD database agent he had named after the bird. I think it was Liza Daly who brought Alex to the MUD's attention — if memory serves me right, Irene Pepperberg, the animal intelligence researcher who bought Alex in a Chicago pet store in 1977 and built a career on him, was working at the MIT Media Lab, and Liza was dating a Media Lab guy at the time. (This was 1998, I think.) Next thing you know Mike Berlyn was saying, "I'd love to know more about this parrot. Can you point me to any reference materials?" and ifMUD Alex-mania was on. We liked the cork nuts especially. Search for "cork nut" and the first few screens of results will be dominated by ifMUD. And then five years later there was suddenly this novel by a well-known author in which "cork nut" was a running joke! (Two characters use it as a curse in place of "asshole.") So I put Oryx and Crake on my to-read list, but didn't actually get around to it until I was given the book as a gift.

Oryx and Crake takes place in the future, except that the characters still watch DVDs, which were an obsolete technology even when the book came out — I guess Atwood and her editors didn't get the word about Bittorrent before the novel went to press. It is a future in which tiny elites live in corporate-owned bubbles near the poles while the rest of the world has turned into Bangladesh: tropical, overpopulated, desperately poor. It is a future in which species are going extinct at an astonishing rate while corporations turn out all sorts of chimeras: "pigoons" stuffed full of human organs, devil dogs, cutie-pie "rakunks." Probably the most dystopian aspect of the future is the bad spelling. At one point the protagonist changes jobs, moving from a company called AnooYoo to one called RejoovenEsense. So it's easy to see why the extinction of humanity — not a spoiler, as the story is told in flashback and we know at the start that there has been some sort of cataclysm — produces mixed feelings.

It is hard to know what to write about this book. I do these writeups to assure that I think about what I read, but the themes of this book are ones that I have been working on myself for some time now. Take the idea of wiping out humanity to make the universe a better place — not only does it come up in passing in the book I'm (supposedly) working on, but it is a major theme of Evil Creatures, which I actually finished in 2004. Or take the replacement of humanity by a new species — in Oryx and Crake, the humans may be gone but there are still the "Crakers," a genetically engineered offshoot of humanity with genes spliced in from cats, baboons, rabbits, squid, you name it. I have sitting on my hard drive an unfinished IF project whose characters are roughly the same sort of creatures as the Crakers; I discussed it with Lucian Smith on the MUD at one point, though he may not remember as this was back when many currently extinct species still roamed the earth. One thing I can tell you about the Crakers is that Molly would approve.

Actually, heck with it — by the time the relevant chapters of Evil Creatures come out, you will have forgotten this article anyway, and I'm only talking about themes, not plot points. I remember back in college talking with someone who was convinced that the world would be better off without humanity and that if the humans were removed that there would be peace in the valleys with the little woodland creatures playing ring-around-the-rosie amongst the trees and whatnot. But humanity isn't really the problem. The Holocaust and the Inquisition and the nuclear arms race and all the atrocities in Oryx and Crake's "Blood and Roses" game are the products of natural selection, and natural selection isn't unique to Earth: it's just an expression of math. And unfortunately, the laws of math have some ironic corollaries. Say you have a species that has already stressed the planet's resources to the point that relatively few of them have a decent standard of living. At some point, reason dictates that people stop reproducing so much. Let's say you have a generation of two billion people — one billion breeding pairs — and they realize, holy crow, we have to get the population stabilized... henceforth, there will be two children per couple, no more. And let's say that as much as 99% of the population goes along with this. The remaining 1% (perhaps after one too many readings of Ender's Game) say hell with that and have on average four children per couple. Within six generations, the descendants of the 1% outnumber the descendants of the 99%: selfishness wins. Let's pick an even more unlikely scenario and say that ninety-nine point nine percent of the original population signs onto the plan. That adds only three extra generations until their descendants are outnumbered by the "go forth and multiply" contingent. And of course the crossing point comes even sooner if the "tragedy of the commons" people have only one child per couple, or if the refuseniks have more than four, or if we add evangelism to the revenge of the cradle. It only takes one Joseph Smith to assure that overpopulation continues until the inevitable explosive collapse. And that's true whether we're talking about Earth or a planet on the other side of the galaxy.

The forces that make nature red in tooth and claw, from shark attacks to torture chambers, exist everywhere in the universe. It is a tautology to say that worlds fill up with creatures that survive and are quickly emptied of creatures that don't survive, and sadly, murderousness tends to be a pretty good survival strategy — more so than being murdered, at any rate. There is no reason to think that our predicament as a species — possessed of a temperament to rape and torture and kill, smart enough to have developed the technology to do so on a planetary scale, and yet somehow trying to avoid wiping each other out in a nuclear war or dropping dead of a genetically engineered hemorrhagic virus — is at all rare at the dawn of technical civilizations. Frank Drake speculated in 1961 that the average lifetime of a civilization with sufficiently advanced technology to be capable of interstellar communication was ten years. We have since surpassed his projections, but there is still nothing to guarantee that there will be humans ten years from now.

So is Crake's Adrian Veidt moment the answer? It's an interesting thought: replace humans with a species that is not a product of natural selection and has been deliberately engineered to remove the drives that cause evil: no xenophobia, no hierarchy, no territoriality, no rage, no frustrated sexuality. One thing the book glosses over, though, is that, yes, the Crakers' attributes do not carry the baggage of natural selection — but that's true for every new mutation. Mutations are random. It is the moment after they appear that natural selection starts its work. So, yes, the Crakers may well be the best possible starting point for an intelligent species that would be both intelligent and good, but natural selection could easily end up turning them back into, well, us. All it takes is one anti-altruistic mutation, one cancerous idea, and math will do the rest.

The other thing — and this actually is mentioned in the book — is that the Crakers don't seem to do anything. They lounge around eating leaves and grass. The kids patter around and sometimes swim. At hardwired times, the adults mate, and then the women bear and nurse the infants. As in Eden — and the Eden analogies are pretty blatant, from the Bosch painting on the cover onward — they don't have to work to get their food, don't need housing, don't wear clothing, don't want to acquire anything, aren't permanently in heat so they don't have love lives. They do sing, they do dream, and towards the end they make a Look·See·Show. But all in all, it's like the old question about the traditional heaven with clouds and haloes and harps — if that's supposed to be my reward, why does it sound so boring?

It's an interesting question — where does contented lounging around stop and boredom begin? When I lived in Massachusetts I shared a house with two cats who spent most of their time lying around. They rarely seemed bored. But I can only imagine that in this small apartment with no other rooms to explore or mazes of shelves to climb or stairs to saunter up and down, they would be bored out of their minds. As another data point, there's good ol' Alex the parrot. Irene Pepperberg has said, "What I've tried to explain to parrot owners is that what they have in a cage in their living room is a creature with the sentience of a 4- to 6-year-old child. I try to convince them that you can't just lock it in a cage for 8 hours a day without any kind of interaction. I don't mean just interpersonal interaction, or having other birds around; parrots have to be intellectually challenged. In the wild they are constantly challenged — challenged to find food, challenged to avoid predators, and challenged by the intra-flock interactions. In contrast, what does a pet do? The bird sits alone in a cage all day, with ample food and water in nice accessible cups, and vegetates. Some birds in such situations pluck their feathers; they scream, they bite — they act in ways similar to those of a 4-year-old having a temper tantrum because it had been left alone in a playpen for 8 hours with maybe one toy and some snacks."

But this is looking through the eyes of humans and cats and parrots. Cows might have a different perspective. For that matter, so might people, given the right hormone mix. This American Life had a program a while back about testosterone. Testosterone is a hormone found in both men and women which causes desire. Not just sexual desire — desire, period. Part of the program is an interview with a man whose testosterone level dropped to zero, and the effect was that he would sit and stare at a wall for hours with neither interest nor boredom. He did eat, but he would just go to the store and buy a loaf of Wonder Bread and come home and eat that. And on his walk to the store he would look at things and of everything he saw he flatly declared, "That's beautiful." Now recovered, he tells the interviewer that it was quite pleasant not to want anything or want to do anything. Perhaps he was the first Craker.

And speaking of testosterone — Margaret Atwood is an elderly woman of letters known for her insight into female identity. Oryx and Crake is about a couple of young male geeks from the early/mid-21st century. But though the book has its faults — as a Max Headroom-type satire it is basically unsuccessful — the males do feel authentically male. Or, at least, there were scenes in this book that I, a male, have lived through and then lived through in reruns and then lived through in remakes with an all-new cast, and I do not think that they are very common with the sexes reversed. Yes, I know all about what it is like to talk with a woman you love who has damage in her past and find yourself the subject of the following narration: "He couldn't leave her alone about her earlier life, he was driven to find out. No painful detail was too small for him in those days, no painful splinter of her past too tiny." I have heard all of Oryx's lines with my own ears: "Why do you want to know about this?" "It was a long time ago." "I don't remember anymore." "He wasn't so bad. He changed later!" "Leave it alone." "Why do you keep asking about things that will only make you upset?" "It could have been a lot worse. Jimmy, you worry too much." That last one is the worst, because my name's not Jimmy. Ha ha ha sob

There are a few more ideas I would like to incorporate here, but I have already spent the entire day on this and would like to get it behind me, so let me just throw a couple of apposite links at you:

  • David Pearce, about whom I know nothing, posted a manifesto in the early days of the Web that I happened across and have thought about often in the decade since. It projects a utopian vision of what life might be like if humanity can just manage to make it across the Post-Darwinian Transition. In Oryx and Crake this doesn't quite happen — if the transition Pearce describes is like breaking the tape at the end of a marathon, the events of Atwood's novel are more like getting tangled up in the tape, falling down and getting disqualified.

  • Mike D'Angelo recently reported that his brain had been changed when he learned about the technological singularity — the theory that since change happens exponentially quickly, we can conclude from current trends that technology will reach the point that it fundamentally alters the human species in the next twenty or thirty years. One interesting upshot of this theory is that people who are under 40 as of 2005 will not necessarily die.

However, I'm going away now.

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