17 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 102

Last meeting, we focussed so much on the past that I think it's only fair to look more closely at the future. (Or should I call it the present?) Besides Snowman, the only other human beings (if we can still call them that) who still seem to be around are the so-called Children of Crake. And unlike him, they are thriving. After all, they were designed that way . . .

. . . [The Children of Crake] are not immune from wounds--the children fall down or bash their heads on trees, the women burn their fingers tending the fires, there are cuts and scrapes--but so far the injuries have been minor, and easily cured by purring.

Crake had worked for years on the purring. Once he'd discovered that the cat family purred at the same frequency as the ultrasound used on bone fractions and skin lesions and were thus equipped with their own self-healing mechanism, he'd turned himself inside out in the attempt to install that feature. The trick was to get the hyoid apparatus modified and the voluntary nerve pathways connected and the neocortex control systems adapted without hampering the speech abilities. There'd been quite a few botched experiments, as Snowman recalled. One of the trial batch of kids had manifested a tendency to sprout long whiskers and scramble up the curtains; a couple of the others had vocal expression impediments; one of them had been limited to nouns, verbs, and roaring.

Well, who could blame Crake for pursuing this line of research? We "Two or Three" Book Club members probably wouldn't blow our savings on NooSkins cosmetic treatments, but something like Wolverine's "healing factor" is something a bit more practical. Wouldn't you like the ability to heal your own broken bones or burns? The real question is whether you'd overlook the fact that several "trial batches" of "kids" had to go before you. During the last discussion, Sheila pointed out that sometimes we just have to accept that the past is the past. But how far in the past would, say, the measles and rubella vaccines have to be before we no longer mind too much that they were developed using aborted babies? When does the present stop being the present and finally become the past?

Chapters 7 to 9
("Sveltana" to "Twister")

At the end of the last meeting, when I asked what everyone would be willing to trade in order to keep child prostitution from ever happening, I hadn't realised that Crake was already way ahead of me. Since he, too, is hindered by being outside the Blood and Roses bubble, he can't trade achievements for atrocities any more than we can . . . but he has found a different way to rewrite history, starting with its main characters. And perhaps he has, if only by his own standards, greatly improved on Adam and Eve.

No more No means yes, anyway, thinks Snowman. No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape . . . It no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child will be, since there's no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for war. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it's more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.

Maybe Crake was right, thinks Snowman. Under the old dispensation, sexual competition had been relentless and cruel: for every pair of happy lovers there was a dejected onlooker, the one excluded . . .

That had been the milder form: the single man at the window, drinking himself into oblivion to the mournful strains of the tango. But such things could escalate into violence. Extreme emotions could be lethal . . .

And maybe John Lennon was right, too, Snowman. I'm sure that your education at the Martha Graham Academy means that you understand my reference. Imagine perfect alignment of hormones and pheromones. It's easy if you try.

But after you succeed, what happens? It's one thing to sell people on new internal organs or on new skin. It's another thing to sell them on new human beings. Even the saddest of the "dejected onlookers," who these days tend to invest in blowup dolls or cats, wouldn't want to trade their reason and imagination for a life of guaranteed sex and peace of mind. No one actually wants to be a "Child of Crake."

Nor does anyone want to have one. Our idea of perfect offspring usually involves own DNA. Even people who want their children to have an optimal set of genes wouldn't look twice at Crake's ideal creations. Unlike the nauseating (but probably delicious) ChickieNobs, the children of the Children of Crake have zero marketing potential. They're really no more than another game he was playing with himself . . . but unlike everything else concurrently getting developed at the Watson-Crick Institute, his toys are the only ones that would survive an apocalypse.

So maybe Crake had the right idea, after all. We like to think of our children as better versions of ourselves--and here are his "children," thriving in circumstances which have already done away with less developed humans, including himself. And remember that long before history took our species out, we ourselves took out our own achievements, trading them in some real-life Blood and Roses game that we hadn't even known we were playing. We sold the Martha Graham Academy in order to have the Watson-Crick Institute--and Crake understood it even if Jimmy didn't.

"When any civilisation is dust and ashes," [Jimmy] said, "art is all that's left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning--human meaning, that is--is defined by them. You have to admit that."

"That's not quite all that's left over," said Crake. "The archeologists are just as interested in gnawed bones and old bricks and ossified shit these days. Sometimes more interested. They think human meaning is defined by those things too."

There's the Blood and Roses mentality right there: the winner of history is the one who has the most stuff left over at the end, for the next civilisation's archaeologists to sift through.

No, wait. That's not quite it. Let's try again. The winner of history is the one who provides the archaeologists for the sifting. As we saw in Chapter 1, the Children of Crake have that covered, too. But the art lovers tried; they really did. And at the Martha Graham Academy, they squirreled away every cultural artefact they could find, from Shakespeare and Rembrandt to Self-help books and music videos. And Jimmy himself got to play archaeologist, nose-cone mildew filter and all, among the library stacks.

Both the shiny SF Watson-Crick Institute and the dump that is the Martha Graham Academy hold up mirrors to our understanding of knowledge and valuing of culture, but because I'm the artsy-fartsy sort myself, I prefer the damning reflection that Martha Graham shows me. I'd be an A+ student there, knocking out essays covering the same topics as my blog posts. =P I'll leave the critique of Watson-Crick to the STEM types among us (O HAI BAT), and say only that it reminds me of what James Gleick said in his biography of the physicist Richard Feynman: that because MIT didn't bother distracting its students with the Arts and the Humanities and other cultural whatnot, it was both the best possible school for a scientist like Feynman . . . and the worst possible school.

Now, there were certainly hundreds of other universities in Jimmy and Glenn's world, but since the only ones we that hear about are their own, would it be okay to infer that Atwood's moral about higher learning is that it dies when it divides the heritage of civilisation into two separate fields? I'm thinking of the statue of Martha Graham as Judith, holding up Holofernes's decapitated head . . . But on the other hand, there's the spoat/gider at the Watson-Crick entrance: a splice rather than a separation.

Then again, is it even realistic to expect easy answers--one or two definitive causes for a civilisation's spectacular decline? I do love G.K. Chesterton's comment that everything that is wrong with the modern world can be summed up in three words: Darwin, Marx, and Freud. (Admit it: you LOL-ed.) But that's just because I like to think that things are really more simple than we've made them out to be. Problems may be complicated, but solutions--at least the ones that work--are something we could explain to a seven-year-old child.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 7 to 9?

1) If you could cross two animals to create a new species, which two would you pick and what would this new species do?
2) What was your teenage self's dream university? Would you still want to go there, knowing what you do of life now?
3) Do you think that every civilisation has a responsibility to create something that will endure even after the civilisation has passed away?

Image Source: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood


love the girls said...

I never look back and wish for it differently for fear of what that difference might be.

DMS said...

This book does sound fascinating.

I would maybe combine a dog and a cat- so that I had an animal that needed attention, but had loyalty and dependability. :) I have a cat and a dog and I love them both. Seeing their personalities blended would be an interesting middle ground. Still- it might be better for them to keep their own personalities. :)


love the girls said...

"1) If you could cross two animals . . ."

Women with fish. Mermaids. Why have a rakunk when water nymphs and sirens are an option?

"2) What was your teenage self's dream university?"

One of the all girl colleges because what was college for if not the babes?



3) Do you think that every civilisation has a responsibility . . .?

Not so much create, as not recede from the light. Chesterton should have said Descartes because he is the father of recession from the light.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jess -- Jimmy's pet is a rakunk--a cross between a raccoon and a skunk! =) I could imagine this future including a corporation just for engineering perfect pets.

LTG -- 1) This future might actually have some of those!

2) I guess that means you don't mind girls going to uni to get MRS degrees? ;-P

3) I'll admit I know nothing about Descartes except how to pronounce his name, and even then I'm not certain! His name brings up the memory of my frenemy's reaction to a Philosphy major who lived in our hostel and talked about Descartes for hours one night, mispronouncing his name the whole time. =P She didn't tell him how to say it properly until he was done. And I recall that her Kiwi accent made the "proper" pronunciation even funnier.

love the girls said...

Miss E.,

I once wandered into a tiny Catholic bookstore started by a retired mailman that was packed with books worth reading. I really enjoyed the contrast of listening to his self taught mispronouncing the names as he sat in his book store that put to shame the vast bookstore at Catholic University.

Sheila said...

1. I get here and someone' already said dog and cat! I would like a cat's soft cuddly body with a dog's personality. My dog means so well but he's so big and clumsy he's impossible to snuggle with .... and my cat is a jerk. We would have to include in the genetic tinkering a natural resistance to fleas.

2. The one I actually went to about fit the bill! I knew it was my dream school when I saw Chesterton quoted on the flyer. Doubly so when I got the course catalog and saw Old English in there (which, sadly, I never got the chance to take).

3. Not really. Of course if they had some hugely useful knowledge or technology, that would be handy to save. Or if they were wiped out by something preventable, it would be nice if their final act was to chisel out the story of their mistake. Otherwise, everything truly valuable can't be saved anyway.

It makes sense that liberal arts aren't much valued in Atwood's dystopia, so that Jimmy only goes because his grades are good enough for a "real" school. No money in poetry, sadly, and lots in fake chicken nuggets. But perhaps the low repute of the arts in her world aren't just the effect of its corruption -- perhaps it's the cause. After all, poetry puts one in contact with one's soul .... and no one in the book seems to have any. Jimmy, Crake, Jimmy's parents -- they seem deficient in soul, and perhaps poetry would have been the cure? But by the time Jimmy gets any exposure to art, it's too degraded -- and so is he. Art becomes only a mean to writing good ad copy.

Brandon said...

(1) Dog + cat is hard to beat -- although I think my preference would be opposite of Sheila's, for something like a dog that acted like a cat.

Atwood's rakunk is actually a really good idea for a pet; both raccoons and skunks are by all accounts really good pets with just a few flaws that can get really crazy or even dangerous if you don't know how to handle them (e.g., both can be very temperamental and raccoons are deviously thievish by nature). Getting the perks without the crazy quirks is an attractive idea.

There are also some kinds of larger pets that would be really cool, like domesticated zebras, that are not naturally possible. Zebras, which seem so nice, are in reality extremely irritable, mean, vindictive animals, and unlike horses they turn out to be impossible to domesticate -- there is no way to breed out the wildness. Their nasty temperament apparently just happens to be linked genetically with lots of other features they need to be healthy. So to get zebras that acted like horses, you'd have to jump them over the barriers all at once artificially (perhaps by giving them some horse genes).

(2) I confess that I didn't really have an ideal university -- I think I just didn't know what was out there. I did like the small liberal arts college that I ended up going to, though.

(3) I think civilizations do. I think it's exactly the same as the responsibility of one generation to try to leave the next generation better off, which I think is a real responsibility.

I think Sheila's probably right that the educational problem is a cause rather than just a symptom of the corruption. What really leaped out at me is the curricular field of Problematics -- Logic, Rhetoric, Medical Ethics, and Cultural Psychology have no other function that being preparation for marketing and advertising, and rub shoulders with a subfield called "Relativistics and Advanced Mischaracterization". Spin and Grin. For me, it's almost the single most nightmarish thing in the book. (It would be, given my background and profession!) It's a dystopia in summary form.

love the girls said...

I'M amazed. A dog/cat is preferable to a Winged horse??

True, a winged horse doesn't fit the book insofar as a winged horse doesn't have the parallel juxtaposed imagery of society as modern prometheus creating chimeras or of Crake undoing prometeus by returning man to a state of nature.

But leaving all that aside, just for the sheer joy of it, why not a winged horse?

Belfry Bat said...

I actually did go to my dream-university-of-the-time, and then after two degrees I came here... since then I've heard good things about Edinburgh, but on the other hand I don't know how I could have got there. Maybe that's silly — people do get there, after all; but there's lots of nifty here, too!

I'm afraid I can't critique the WCI for silly reasons (o hai). I don't think I'd like working there, even so. Lab work, you know? Carefully written procedures and notes and watching the thing all the time...

Who could blame Crake, why I could! (hello, Foot! Hello, Mire!) Not blame as in "I don't understand why"; as Digger's friend Ed remarked, "evil is always having reason", it's just a defective reason.

The principal trouble with a vaccine reportedly developed from humans murdered for unrelated reasons seems, to me (I may be wrong...), that it makes up a specious reason to keep on murduring humans. The catholic understanding of saints' relics, e.g., shows that due reverence to the deceased doesn't require that all parts of the deceased be buried together, for instance. Whether the vaccine technicians treat gathered remains with due reverence I can't tell (though I don't imagine it, either... sad). I can't see that a saint, for instance, would object to, say, his bone marrow being cultured for to supply a stock of anitbodies for all sorts of purposes; the intrinsic evil is really in the horrendous first step-that-is-a-fall.

Sheila said...

Many uses of relics strike me as quite disrespectful, actually! Chopping up saints in bits .... although, if they are miraculously curing people, I suppose it's very much like a vaccine.

LTG, you've convinced me. Winged horse wins. Though when I was a kid, I dreamed of having a unicorn/pegasus. It would have wings AND a shiny horn. That seemed the coolest thing ever. It would also be capable of flying to the moon and different planets, because those were places I wanted to go, and be able to talk.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- When I was a teenager, the only requirement a university had to meet in order to get "dream status" was being located in the UK. =P (My actual university approximated it only inasmuch as it was also in a different country from my own.) Knowing what I do now about the importance of putting down roots, I think that I'd hold out for a university in a country I'd actually want to be a permanent resident in--and eventually a citizen of! (Yes, I'd still want to emigrate. =P)

Now, I don't know (yet!) if civilisations have a responsibility to leave something that endures. (My wording of the question was my way of starting to work out what I do think.) But I wouldn't say that the inevitability of things being lost to time is a good enough reason not to try. Besides, sometimes we succeed: look at all the fantastic stuff we still have from Ancient Greece! It also seems to me that things that are truly good are good in every age, which is the reason that they tend to endure into the future. So I guess my own answer would be that every civilisation should strive to produce truly good things--and if these manage to endure, then that's just the bonus!

Brandon -- I think I'd want a ("disarmed") skunk that acted like a pug. LOL!

My actual university experience leaves me a bit ambivalent. I'm not crazy about the school I went to, but I learned a lot from going there--not just in the lecture theatres and classrooms, but also in my hostel and in other places around the city. (Unschooling alert!) As I told Sheila, I probably should have picked a university in another country, but the choice having already been made, I can't unmake it without unmaking what I am today. (That's related to the Blood and Roses discussion, aye? LOL!)

Your answer to the third question makes me think of my grandfather's insistence on leaving behind a proper inheritance for his children and grandchildren. I believe that we can look at the relationships of family members from different generations and apply them to society at large. On the other hand, there's that scene in another John Wayne movie, McLintock, in which Wayne's middle-aged rancher tells his young daughter that he will not be leaving her his huge ranch for her inheritance because he wants her and her husband to have the kind of love that grows only when spouses work hard to build something together. Of course, we could also argue that his decision will leave her an inheritance of values and that she will be better off than if she never had to work for anything.

LTG -- I'm ashamed to say that a winged horse never crossed my mind until you mentioned it! =P It now occurs to me that all the splices in the novel are an attempt to create something new (for the heck of it) or improved (for some practical purpose) rather than something truly ideal or beautiful.

Bat -- What about vaccines (or fill-in-the-blank) developed from bodies freely and willingly donated to science? I haven't looked up Catholic teaching on that, so I'm really asking. My own instinctive reaction is that even the bodies of the dead should be treated with dignity--and that there's nothing dignified about being a poked and prodded cadaver. On the other hand, we do have that tradition of first class relics: saints continuing to serve the Church Militant with their physical bodies until the day there is no more death and all bodies and souls are reunited. And my favourite part of the movie Serenity is when the crew debate whether or not to attach the bodies of their massacred friends onto their ship, in order to disguise it as one of the villains' ships. One of them is repelled by the idea of doing that to the bodies of dear friends. Now, I totally get that . . . but I also know that if I had been murdered and my friends had a chance to defeat my killers using my dead body, I would want them to do it.

Belfry Bat said...

I don't think there's even a dogmatic assessment of being a heart donor or such. There's perhaps an acknowledgement that if the brain and spine are dead, then the heart isn't doing its owner any good, and can perhaps help someone else, which would be good; but there's the competing acknowledgement that one still may not cause death or hasten it, even for the good of helping others to live; and it is known that this is a real and dangerous temptation for some hospital workers...

I do know there was a letter written by a bunch of medical science types to the Vatican arguing that "brain death" should be accepted as the definition of "death"; and they may be on to something, although determining "brain death" as defined by them doesn't seem less difficult than whatever other less sensible criterion might have been tried before.

In other matters, Catholics (unlike some others who like to connect themselves to Abraham...) do allow autopsy, understanding that it can help science and improve future diagnosis and treatment. It's not the poking or prodding (those are undignified enough when we're alive!) but the possible reduction of "body" to "thing" in the mind of whoever has to do the work.

But don't rely on me. If we want to know what the Church teaches, ask Her. Not that there are many physicians in your audience, but... let all I have suggested be subject to the Faith and just Teaching Authority, and if any be found wanting, anathema sit.

Enbrethiliel said...


I understand that you're not an expert, but the catch is that since you are a member of the Church, by asking you, I'm already also asking Her! If you mean that I should ask another member, I would, except I don't know which one to ask.

Oh, wait. There's one whom I always ask: LTG has an answer to everything! LOL!

Belfry Bat said...

.... it just seemed more urgent in the present conversation to reiterate.

You know, it seems to me (on the subject of winged horses) that there's a distinct lack of flying moluscs (properly understood). OK, some squid are working on it, but it's not quite like the air is part of their natural habitat.

So, something between a fruitbat and a whelk I think would fill a much-felt absence, and be surprisingly tasty.