"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 100
We're in the triple digits!!! =D Was anyone else around during our very first meeting? But regardless of when you "joined"--and even if you have since "left"--I'm grateful to have had your company at any point along the way. If you're also feeling nostalgic and have any "Two or Three" Book Club memories that you'd like to share, please let me know in the combox. =) But now that my copy of Oryx and Crake has finally arrived, I shouldn't keep you waiting any longer . . .
"Snowman, oh Snowman," [the children are] saying . . . To them his name is just two syllables. They don't know what a snowman is, they've never seen snow.
It was one of Crake's rules that no name should be chosen for which a physical equivalent--even stuffed, even skeletal--could not be demonstrated. No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks. But those rules no longer apply, and it's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adapt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman--existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints. Mountain tribes were said to have chased it down and killed it when they had the chance. They were said to have boiled it, roasted it, held special feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering on cannibalism.
Oh, look! An unlikely and unexpected connection to the ending of State of Fear. LOL! (Sorry, Amy. But you know I couldn't resist. =P Let's just hope it's not foreshadowing!)
("Mango" to "Downpour")
While waiting to start this novel, I kept up my steady stream of "What's wrong with the world?" reading. A couple of those books traced the present-day institutions and practices that they were most critical of back to some damning historical roots. Their mining of the past for clues to the present is what they have in common with our latest novel. For there's something wrong with Margaret Atwood's future world, and the key is clearly in the main character Snowman's memories. But it will be a while before we get to see the whole picture.
All we know at this early point is that Snowman is homeless, nearly starving, and barely able to take care of himself . . . and that his skin cannot bear the ultraviolet rays that don't seem to bother the naked children from a community he is estranged from . . . but we don't know how he got that way, and he himself probably couldn't tell us. His memory is fried and he doesn't seem in full control of his mental faculties.
We are given more details, however, about his childhood, when his world bore a closer resemblance to our own . . .
Compound people didn't go to the cities unless they had to, and then never alone. They called the cities the pleeblands. Despite the fingerprint identity cards now carried by everyone, public security in the pleeblands was leaky: there were people cruising around in those places who could forge anything and be anybody, not to mention the loose change--the addicts, the muggers, the paupers, the crazies. So it was best for everyone at OrganInc Farms to live all in one place, with fullproof procedures.
Outside the OrganInc walls and gates and searchlights, things were unpredictable. Inside, they were the way it used to be when Jimmy's father was a kid, before things got so serious, or that's what Jimmy's father said. Jimmy's mother said it was all artificial, it was a theme park and you could never bring the old ways back, but Jimmy's father said, why knock it? You could walk around without fear, couldn't you? Go for a bike ride, sit at a sidewalk cafe, buy an ice cream cone? . . .
Now, the description of the cities kind of excited me. They evoked memories of Bladerunner and other futuristic visions from the 1980s, and they made me wish that Jimmy/Snowman had grown up in one of them instead. But they don't sound any better than our own cities, which are mostly horrible places to raise children. Not that the Compounds are any better . . . The OrganInc Farm Compound, in which everything belongs to the corporation, which agrees to take care of you as long as you work for it, is no more the real world than a hothouse is. And although plants do seem to thrive in hothouse conditions (Let me know the deal, Stilwell!), people don't do half as well in climate-controlled bubbles.
Nevertheless, it's easy to see why people would want to live in them. Don't we all want to be able to walk our streets in safety, even at night . . . to give our children the freedom to go exploring on their bikes . . . to have an ice cream truck near the park? (I'll swear that Atwood threw in the ice cream cone to manipulate our sense of nostalgia.) But I've been thinking about this very issue a lot lately, and I always come back to the question of how dependent such ideal conditions are on bubbles. That is, how many of them require tradeoffs that are the equivalent of being guaranteed three full meals a day but never knowing just what is in your food or how it got to your table?
As you can see, the uncomfortable fact is that so many of us already live in bubbles. Here's a quick to test to determine how dependent on artificial controls your own society is . . . First, list the top seven or eight skills necessary for living comfortably in them. Let's start with those in the OrganInc Farm Compound, which make up the curriculum of Jimmy's junior high Life Skills class:
Double-entry on-screen bookkeeping, banking by fingertip, using a microwave without nuking your egg, filling out housing applications for this or that Module and job applications for this or that Compound, family heredity research, negotiating your own marriage-and-divorce contracts, wise genetic match-mating, the proper use of condoms to avoid sexually transmitted bioforms . . .
Having prepared your list, go through it and scratch out anything that you couldn't use if society collapsed. If the number of stricken items is greater than the number of unstricken items, then you probably live in a hothouse.
But just when I thought that I knew what I thought, Atwood threw in a metaphor that sang to my soul: Jimmy and his father compare their Compound to a castle. The sort of castle which is also a fortress, with a moat and ramparts. And she kind of had me there.
So what do you think of castles? My thoughts are along the same lines as a certain Twitter user I follow, whose feed is peppered with photographs of castles and other medieval buildings . . . and comments which express his belief that communities are best when they are as homogenous as possible. While I don't quite go to his extreme, I do think there are fundamental differences between cultures which only end up clashing when people who adhere to those differences try to live together. And because, as Michael Pollan has written, "Culture . . . is of course a fancy word for your mom," we need look no further than the latest "mommy war." The last time I lurked on a forum for mothers, nearly everyone seemed to have a story about ending a long-term friendship with someone else who had her son circumcised, a practice which those other mothers considered a barbaric form of abuse . . . and the last time I participated in one of the discussions, it was to defend a Catholic grandmother who had secretly baptised her grandchildren in the bathroom, after the infants' parents had declared that they didn't want to pass on the Catholic faith. No, sometimes we can't just play nice.
In that case, what are we to do as we form our own communities? What is the right level of cultural conformity--for there will have to be some? When does dissent become something to discourage, because it is also something damaging? How far can we go as individuals before we start to hurt the community that nurtures us and protects our freedom to push the limits? How far can communities go before the people in them are actually no better than OrganInc Farms' pigoons?
What are your thoughts on Chapters 1 to 3?
1. What new name would you like to go by in a dystopian world? (You may either follow Crake's directions or defy them!)
2. If your only two choices for a home were the Compounds and the cities, where would you prefer to live?
3. What is the most useless thing you had to learn in school and how did your teachers justify it to you?
4. Dare you tackle any question in my last paragraph?
* * * * *
Now that we're discussing a dystopian world, I want to bring Locus Focus back! But since I've already featured settings from the most obvious choices (two in my "Worlds of Tomorrow" Challenge, and one for a more informal "desert settings" project), I decided to pick a different, but still relevant theme. And it is . . .
Having become convinced that modern schools are the most dystopian thing about our world--especially in countries where attendance is compulsory--I want to feature some settings in which education (that is, the educatio or the drawing out of young people's talents and powers) takes place despite the lack of anything we moderns would associate with schooling. If you can think of one or two of your own, I hope I can encourage you to write a post and to link it up. =)