Found this image on deviantart, but I like it better than the actual cover. (here)
What to say? This book is fantastic. Margaret Atwood imagines a chilling, contemporary postapocalyptica. It is funny and disgusting and plausible. I call it a "dystopia" rather than a "sci-fi world" because it centers on biotech run amok. The state has broken down and been replaced by compounds, run by the CorpSeCorps and inhabited by the employees of biotech corporations (similar to yet infinitely more sinister than Neal Stephenson's franchises in Snowcrash) and pleeblands, lawless slums for everyone less educated and wealthy. The book takes place after a plague has wiped out . . . apparently every human but the central character, Jimmy or Snowman. The events leading up to the plague are told through his recollections.
What makes the book are the thoughtful and richly imagined descriptions of the pre-plague world, such as this taxonomy of a demented near-future internet:
(The passage is long, but so good that I was tempted to copy the whole thing out. Here are selections)
"When they weren't playing games they'd surf the Net -- drop in on old favourites, see what was new. They'd watch open heart surgery in live time, or else the Noodie News, which was good for a few minutes because the people on it tried to pretend there was nothing unusual going on and studiously avoided looking at one another jujubes.
Or they'd watch animal snuff sites, Felicia's Frog Squash and the like, though these quickly grew repetitious: one stomped frog, one cat being torn apart by hand, was much like another. Or they'd watch dirtysockpuppets.com, a current-affairs show about world political leaders ...
Or they might watch hedsoff.com, which played live coverage of executions in Asia. There they could see enemies of the people being toppled with swords someplace that looked like China, while thousands of spectators cheered. Or they could watch aliboohoo.com, with various supposed thieves having their hands cut off and adulterers and lipstick-wearers being stoned to death by howling crowds, in dusty enclaves that purported to be in fundamentalist countries in the Middle East. ... Crake said these bloodfests were probably taking place on a back lot somewhere in California, with a bunch of extras rounded up off the streets. ...
Shortcircuit.com, brainfrizz.com, and deathrowlive.com were the best; they showed electrocutions and lethal injections. Once they'd made real time coverage legal, the guys being executed started hamming it up for the cameras. ...
There was an assisted-suicide site too -- nitee-nite.com, it was called -- which hass a this-was-your-life component: family albums, interviews with relatives, brave parties of friends standing by while the deed was taking place to background organ music. After the sad-eyed doctor has declared that life was extinct, there were taped testimonials from the participants themselves, stating why they'd chosen to depart. The assisted-suicide statistics shot way up after this show got going. ...
Or they would watch At Home With Anna K. Anna K. was a self-styled installation artist with big boobs who'd wired up her apartment so that every moment of her life was sent out to millions of voyeurs. "This is Anna K.. thinking always about my happiness and my unhappiness," was what you'd get as you joined her. Then you might watch her tweezing her eyeborws, waxing her bikini line, washing her underwear. Sometimes she'd read scenes from old plays out loud, taking all the parts, while sitting on the can with her retro-look bell-bottom jeans around her ankles. This was how Jimmy first encountered Shakespeare. ...
Or they would watch the Quack Geek Show, which had contests featuring the eating of live animals and birds, timed by stopwatches, with prizes of hard-to-come-by foods. It was amazing what people would do for a couple of lamb chops or a chunk of genuine brie."
Notably absent is social media. Atwood has decribed an internet consisting entirely of youtube channels. What about file sharing networks, VR, or terrifying biotech peripherals? What she envisions couldn't be more different than for example, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. Both share the themes of failed corporate tech to prevent aging, and lament the loss of the written word, but SSTLS imagines the horrific machine as a social media device worn as a necklace that is constantly calculating and displaying the relative prestige (klout?) of every person in the room. For Atwood, it's a pig that grows bits of human brain tissue for transplant.
The descriptions of video games are as lavish as those of the internet, but make it (comically) obvious that Margaret Atwood does not play video games. Extinctathon, which becomes a prominent plot point, is described as "an interactive biofreak masterlore game" . . . but gameplay sounds more like an irc channel on which people play 20 questions and the thing-to-be-guessed is always an extinct animal. Which is all well and good, I suppose, if an unlikely choice for an illicit game played by teenage future biohackers, and one that seems laughable to anyone who's played GTA 5.
The point, of course, is not to try to criticize the book on the axis that the technology it features is implausible - that comes with the genre. Science fiction is about fictional technology. But more to point out that the way we imagine the future is nuanced and informed by exposure - and it can be read like a text itself. Atwood's axis of interest is biotech, and in her world gene splicing is the engine of the economy. The book does not really suffer for this.
Major criticism of the book describes it as a "morality play" - or a transparent set of plot devices aimed at delivering a moral lesson (ie. Don't destroy the planet and let all the animals go extinct). I think this criticism is unwarranted, but as someone who agrees deeply with the moral lesson in question, am also perhaps unqualified for comment. I find the world is fascinating, and Atwood's writing does service to her imagination. It is infrequent that I can read science fiction with such readable, yet poetic, prose.
. . .
This post took me a month to write. I'm almost done the trilogy by now, IRL.
Probably the other two books, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam, will not get their own posts. Suffice to say I am enjoying them almost but not quite as much as I enjoyed Oryx and Crake.