Uh Oh, The Places We’ll Go: The Parallels Between Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale and the Warning They Serve to Modern Society
“Do you like green eggs and ham?” Sam-I-Am asks Joey in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham; “I do not like them, Sam-I-Am,“ Joey responds (Green Eggs 2). Throughout Dr. Seuss’ plethora of children’s picture books, a number of “made-up” foods are described, most notably the aforementioned “green eggs and ham” and the “truffula fruits” eaten by “Brown Bar-ba-loots frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits” in The Lorax (Lorax 6). These fantasy story components are a mere vehicle for the very true, often simple moral of the story: “you don’t know if you like it until you try it,” or, “deforestation is bad.” Unnatural components found in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake serve a much more practical purpose to the path of the story. “Chickie nobs… Happicuppa… Kanga-Lamb,” these fictional foods drive forth the narrative that resources commonly known to readers are no longer available or effective, so mass-produced, genetically modified factory foods must suffice (Oryx and Crake). Unsurprisingly, this concept already exists in today’s society. Biologists and geneticists have pioneered methods that combine genomes to produce stronger, tastier, more colorful fruits and vegetables (Ashvamegh). Atwood took such concepts and modified and expanded their application.
Crake, one of Oryx and Crake’s main characters, is a biogeneticist who designs GMOs for a company that operates as a food supplier in their region. At a climactic point of revelation, Crake points out that “demand for resources has exceeded supply for decades in marginal geopolitical areas, hence the famines and droughts; but very soon, demand is going to exceed supply for everyone” (Oryx and Crake 347). This is one instance where Atwood forces readers to look with a critical eye at the current state of our planet and to examine its causes. With little attention paid to ethics, technology continues to advance, although at the cost of depleting limited natural resources. It has improved the ease of day-to-day life but has caused a noticeable deterioration of the human values that define sentient life.
Philosophers and people of religion everywhere have much to say on the topic. Vandana Shiva is an Indian woman described by Wikipedia as a “scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, and anti-globalization author” (Wikipedia). In her co-authored novel Ecofeminism, she tackles environmental, technological and feminist issues, all incorporated under the term ecofeminism. She elaborates on this deterioration: The Age of Enlightenment, and the theory of progress to which it gave rise, was centered on the sacredness of two categories: modern scientific knowledge and economic development. Somewhere along the way, the unbridled pursuit of progress, guided by science and development, began to destroy life without any assessment of how fast and how much of the diversity of life on this planet is disappearing (Shiva xiv).
The Handmaid’s Tale, another dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, mirrors the grand-scale struggles faced in Oryx and Crake. Atwood presents both novels as a warning to the reader. Although the core details and plot of each book differ, the terrifying possibility of either future would make anyone question the morals and intent of the world today. This parallel is illustrated in one instance when Offred, who lives in a fundamentalist theocracy that overthrows the U.S. government and enslaves women to be childbearing “Handmaids,” begins to notice discrepancies in the food she eats:
The fisheries were defunct several years ago; the fish they have now are from fish farms, and taste muddy. The news says the coastal areas are being “rested.” Sole, I remember, and haddock, swordfish, scallops, tuna; lobsters, stuffed and baked, salmon, pink and flat, grilled in steaks. Could they all be extinct, like whale? (Handmaid’s Tale 164)
Despite this speculation, the novel contains few to no descriptions of characters eating the opulent variety of food that had been described previously as obtainable in the United States. Not only have citizens’ options for nourishment been limited due to environmental destruction, but freedom of choice is virtually nonexistent (Sasame). This is one of several means that the government uses to maintain power.
Oppressive government control is a major theme in both of Atwood’s novels. In Oryx and Crake, the living compounds are guarded by a ruthless government security and surveillance force called the CorpSeCorps. They appear multiple times throughout the novel, closely monitoring every aspect of citizen life. A similar force exists in The Handmaid’s Tale, known as the Eyes. It is heavily implied they mercilessly torture suspects to their deaths or blackmail them to obtain answers. Through methods such as violence and intimidation, these government forces instill fear in their respective populations. Totalitarianism plays a prominent role in this oppression of this society. Having made it illegal for women to hold jobs, the Gilead state employs a hierarchy of titles where men are known by their military rank and women by their role, such as wives, handmaids and Marthas (Handmaid’s Tale). They strip individuals of their names, eradicating individuality. Despite what readers undoubtedly perceive as an oppressive regime, Atwood portrays characters as willing to endure it when balanced with small amounts of freedom. In a moment of revelation, Offred remembers her mother saying, “humanity is so adaptable…truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations” (Handmaid’s Tale 271). This is demonstrated by Offred’s complacency once she enters a relationship with another character. She lives an incredibly restricted life, but her relationship…allows her to reclaim the tiniest fragment of her former existence” (Howells).
The society featured in Oryx and Crake is put on a totalitarian path when Crake modifies the genes of human fetuses to create a new superspecies of peaceful and easy-to-control human-like creatures known as “Crakers” (Oryx and Crake). He then creates an antibiotic-resistant highly-contagious plague disguised as a supplement with the intent to wipe off all human life on Earth, excluding himself. This is his first step towards what he considers an improvement for the planet. Crake believes that by liberating populations from the pitfalls of illness, ageing, love and sentient thought, that society will be for the better. Blinded by his vision, he fails to realize that the Crakers lack the complexities that constitute a human being (Rúa). They are merely pawns in Crake’s global game of chess, played with the intent to crown himself head of a totalitarian empire. Crake is killed before it can be brought to completion, but not before almost every population is annihilated.
Lack of a properly functioning society is the most prevalent parallel between Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, as it results in the collapse of elements required for population survival, such as the environment, safety, and privacy. Characters such as Crake contribute to ecological ruin intentionally, believing destruction to be essential for success. Along with compromising the health of the people, the environmental issues found in The Handmaid’s Tale has spurred a twentieth-century Western trend of mass consumerism that has resulted in a lifestyle of reckless decadence (Howells).
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is a mirror of the ideas initially brought up in The Handmaid’s Tale, serving as a warning of what is yet to come for our own world. By comparing these two novels by Atwood, one can see corresponding themes dealing with oppressive governmental control, the dangers of technology, and environmental collapse. Both novels are a response to situations of societal crisis as readers imagine what could happen during what Atwood has called “deﬁnitive moments” after which “things were never the same again” (Robber Bride 4). These “definitive moments” could very likely be the themes depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, all inspired by current events, reflected in reality. They raise important questions about the present political, socio-economic, and technological state of reality. Margaret Atwood’s words are not only a cautionary tale, but a dire warning of the dangerous future for which we are aligning the perfect conditions.
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