Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake by way of wilderness and post-apocalyptic genre traditions
"Snowman wakes before dawn"

“Snowman wakes before dawn” – Oryx and Crake fan art by Jason Courtney
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I gave a guest lecture yesterday on Oryx and Crake for a colleague’s 200-level Environmental Literature course.  My presentation was organized around the ways that the book participates in genres, challenges some of  their conventions, and updates the “classic” dystopia (WeBNW, 1984, et cetera) by moving the locus of power from the centralized state to a more nebulous net of corporations and their mercenaries.

Because nearly any lower-level survey of environmental literature will necessarily include readings drawn from the mostly-American, white male-dominated, wilderness tradition, my prep also involved looking for ways to connect what is going on in Oryx and Crake with those texts that students had recent familiarity with.  I’m not sure how well the lecture worked in setting this up, but the result was something that, in retrospect, seems quite obvious.  However, I hadn’t previously fleshed it out, which was kind of weird (I guess wilderness writing hasn’t been on my mind much recently).  My main take away point is this:  Post-apocalyptic protagonists share a number of traits with protagonists or narrators of the wilderness genre.  This has interesting implications for connecting a reading of Snowman in Oryx and Crake to both genres.

It is  bit of a generalization, but the wilderness tradition, from Thoreau to Muir to Abbey and on, centers on the exceptional man who, eschewing the material, civilized world, sets off alone to discover himself and the natural world through immersion in it.  Obviously a lot of what is left out of these narratives undercuts the totality of this immersion and the tenability of a dualistic division into wild/civilized worlds (Thoreau’s dinners at the homes of family and friends during his time at Walden Pond, for example).  But the impulse of the genre is to say, “look what you can discover if only you have the fortitude to try living in the wild.”  Doing this, however, requires means, knowledge, and skill, which is invariably underplayed.  The texts stick pretty closely to their own goals and agenda rather than spending much time contemplating class, race, gender, or the like.  This is something that has been duly noted and criticized by environmental critics for quite some time, and I’m fine with both criticizing and enjoying works in the genre for the things they do offer.

So the narrators or protagonists of these works are, for the most part (and Christopher McCandless is a notable deviation), exceptional in their knowledge and skills. They will gain understanding of higher truth through their immersion in the wilderness and return to civilization relatively unscathed to share their new-found insight.  In a way, this genre of nature-appreciation is also the story of a single man conquering, or at least showing mastery over, the wild.

Protagonists of post-apocalyptic narratives are similar.  While there isn’t any sort of civilization to return to, they carry the best remnants of civilization with them and are situated as heroic, good guys, even if, like Mad Max, they are reluctant to take on this role.  In contrast to their identification with civilization, the bleak wasteland or unrestrained nature reclaiming the world of humans in these stories is the wilderness to test them, akin to that “original” wilderness in Thoreau or Abbey, but darker, more ominous.  A return to pre-Romantic visions of wilderness, perhaps.  But it is also a wilderness filled with other people, people who are often characterized as animalistic, barbaric, and evil.  Here rises the specter of Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes”: the state of humans without civilization/government as a war of all against all, which was the topic of my first post here and something I think is overplayed and incorrect.  But few examples I can think of deviate from this acceptance of the Hobbesian view of human nature.  It certainly makes for a better hero story, and these post-apocalyptic heroes conquer wilderness by way of defeating its feral, human agents.

Miraculously discovering a Coca-Cola in The Road

Most importantly, these post-apocalyptic heroes are, like the men-in-the-wilderness, exceptional.  They possess a greater skill set than those who co-inhabit their world, which allows them to out-smart and out-fight the masses of bad guys in typical heroic fashion.  It is usually unspoken, but these skills mostly come from being in a certain position of privilege in the time before the apocalyptic event, and their elevation as representative, civilized men versus uncivilized, feral humans is certainly worth inspection in terms of class.

The unnamed man from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an excellent example of this: he comes across as a very experienced outdoorsman (mushroom identification, fire building, marksmanship), has technical skills for mechanical repairs to needed goods and for creating makeshift ones (the cart, jimmy-rigged lanterns, contemplating reshaping pistol shells for different caliber casings), is well-educated in health and physiology matters (mistaken by a roadagent for a doctor and capable of sterilizing and stitching up his own wound), is excellent at strategy and food-finding, and is generally about as adept and capable as anyone in such a setting can be. The argument that some would raise against my point is, of course, that he dies; however, no one is long for the world of The Road; it is too absolute of a wasteland.  His survival isn’t what is important, the boy’s is. This, with the associated validation of civilization and “good guys,” is the man’s successful triumph over the post-apocalyptic wilderness.

My justification for McCarthy’s man having all these skills–and do I like the novel–is that without them we wouldn’t have a story because they’d be dead already.  Only a few exceptional (or exceptionally lucky) people would still be alive without banding up with less-civil and, therefore, unheroic compatriots we probably wouldn’t want to read about anyway (maybe . . .).  So the exceptional talents make sense in the novel’s context and aren’t just there to allow for plot developments or clever adornment.  Other works, and S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse books come to mind, go too far in having exceptional protagonists, making them too far removed from realism and believability.  They work in a realm closer to fantasy than science fiction (not entirely a bad thing, but a different one).

The Book of Eli is a good example of the post-apocalyptic protagonist, but it shifts and updates the type in two major ways.

So both the typical wilderness narrative and the dominant post-apocalyptic story position their protagonists as exceptionally gifted or skilled humans men with a mostly undeveloped or unspoken background of privilege.  This privilege is almost a prerequisite of such stories being believable, but it should also be considered and critiqued how and whether differently-backgrounded characters could act in such roles. Additionally, these protagonists carry civilization with them into the wild, triumph over the challenges of the wilderness, and are changed by it.  However, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake deviates greatly from this typical post-apocalyptic narrator in the development of Snowman/Jimmy’s character.

Snowman’s namesake

Atwood’s Snowman (as in abominable), self-named in defiance of his friend Crake’s requirement for “real” animal code names, is not exceptional in any way other than he survived the plague that wiped out the bulk of the human species (as we know it).  Early on in the post-apocalyptic present of the novel, we learn that he is starving and unable to procure much food for himself.  He has no real knowledge of hunting or fishing (much less butchering) and laments never bothering to learn about edible plants.  What makes this serious lack more pronounced is the fact that wildlife populations are booming.  The wilderness of the novel is the rest of the flora and fauna on earth, including those genetically engineered by biotech firms, taking over spaces formerly occupied by humans and civilization.

Snowman is not a survivor because of his exceptional skills.  He is a beneficiary of circumstance only.  He exists solely because he was chosen to survive, and he does a pretty poor job of barely keeping himself that way.  His encounter with the wilderness, then, is one of a displaced suburbanite–an unexceptional young man named Jimmy who spent his teenage days smoking pot, playing video games, and watching porn and violence online. And his young adult years chasing girls and behaving like an ass toward them.  Separated from wilderness and nature by civilization and its technological mediation since childhood, he is more an outsider in this new world than your usual, adaptable post-apocalyptic hero.

So Atwood takes the typically hyper-capable male protagonist of post-apocalyptic fiction, a type which shares similarities with the man-in-wilderness narrator/protagonist, and replaces him with a mediocre guy more recognizable from our everyday world.  The commentary this makes on our current distancing from wild nature–especially the everyday person’s lack of survival skills and practical knowledge–brings it back around to where I started in the first place: the wilderness narrative.  It is partially a validation of one of the lessons implicit in the wilderness tradition–learning to live in nature has practical survival value.  It is also a recognition that the heroism and breadth of protagonists’ skills present in much of the post-apocalyptic genre (and the wilderness tradition) isn’t a realistic reflection of what would happen to most in such situations, even if they grew up well-off as Jimmy/Snowman did.  As critical views of the wilderness narrative point out, those living with the affluence and comforts of western civilization don’t stand much of a chance for long-term survival in the wilderness, especially alone.  This is true whether the wilderness is one 100 miles away or the one after the end of civilization, even if we often like to think in terms of idealized cozy catastrophes or see ourselves as heroic survivors.  Snowman/Jimmy is a reflection of this truth, and Atwood’s departure from the genre norm can be seen as a welcome critique of it.

  1. jblacklaw says:

    Nice work, well thought-out. I may just go out and buy her book – she’s so damned good in any case.

    • nightwork says:

      Thanks. I’ve read most of her novels and O&C is my favorite for various reasons. Partially due to its engagement with genre (I’m a SF and dystopia fan), and also that the overt satire of contemporary society is a perfect balance of horrific and funny.