26 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 103

When I saw how long this set of three chapters was, how short the last bunch, and how little time we have left in September, I thought about just writing one last big post. I changed my mind when I saw the rest of Oryx and Crake covers I hadn't used yet: surely I had room for two more. Today's cover isn't a triumph of design, but it's perfect for these chapters with the pigoons.

. . . seven pigoons have materialised from nowhere. They're staring at him, ears forward. Are they the same as yesterday's? As he watches, they begin to amble in his direction.

They have something in mind, all right. He turns, heads back towards the gatehouse, quickens his pace. They're far enough away so he can run if he has to. He looks over his shoulder: they're trotting now. He speeds up . . . Then he spots another group through the gateway up ahead, eight or nine of them, coming towards him across No Man's Land. They're almost at the main gate, cutting him off in that direction. It's as if they've had it planned, between two groups . . .

He reaches the gatehouse, goes through the doorway, pulls the door shut. It doesn't latch. The electronic lock is nonfunctional . . . They'll be able to lever it open, pry with their trotters or snouts. They were always escape artists, the pigoons: if they'd had fingers they'd have ruled the world . . .

Could they be any more menacing? Nowhere else in Oryx and Crake does Dystopia overlap with Horror so effectively. We may have a smoother transition into October/November than I had thought!

Chapters 10 to 12
("Vulturising" to "Airlock")

So how did Jimmy get from the Martha Graham Academy to a No Man's Land where people are hunted for their meat by pigoons? It's the cliched "long story"--but one worth recounting because his journey seems to parallel society's own trajectory toward that end. Or perhaps I'm just scrambling around for easy answers again. But can we say that when Liberal Arts schools justify their existence with mottoes like "Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills", we can be certain that it's the beginning of the end? If not, then what is the cultural red flag that marks the point of no return?

Maybe there are a whole bunch of related red flags which all go up at the same time. But if I had to pick one, I'd say it is the idea behind the game we all played a few meetings ago: if you accept the Blood and Roses premise that a price can be put on both human achievements and human atrocities, then pretty much anything is for sale, aye? Or rather, even if it can't be sold, people will still be willing to pay for it . . . as Jimmy finds that out during the interview for his first job.

"What people want is perfection," said the man. "In themselves."

"But they need the steps to it to be pointed out," said the woman.

"In a simple order," said the man.

"With encouragement," said the woman. "And a positive attitude."

"They like to hear about the before and the after," said the man. "It's the art of the possible. But with no guarantees, of course."

"You showed great insight into the process," said the woman. "In your dissertation . . ."

"If you know one century, you know them all," said the man.

"But the adjectives change," said Jimmy. "Nothing's worse than last year's adjectives."

"Exactly!" said the man, as if Jimmy had just solved the riddle of the universe in one blinding flashbulb of light . . .

Did I ever tell you about one commission that I was offered several years ago, when most of my money still came from freelance writing? It was from an entrepreneur who was marketing s3x toys and who needed a writer for the copy on his Web site. And honestly, while he was describing the project to me, a whole constellation of fantastic, creative ideas came twinkling together in my mind. If I took the job, I knew, I'd do it really, really well--and probably go beyond his expectations, because my best stuff is always surprising. And the shocking ending to this story is . . . I didn't take it. =P

But I have written promotional copy. A friend hired me to write the brochure for an EFL academy that she was starting. Since I believed that she would offer the highest quality service, I didn't compromise my integrity by selling her school. Yet I did use a lot of "that year's adjectives"--and I did hint at possible perfection . . . steps in a simple order . . . encouragement and a positive attitude . . . but no guarantees. No one would have enrolled otherwise--and they might have thrown their money away on one the substandard, fly-by-night EFL outfits instead. But it does seem wrong that the legitimate businessmen and the snake oil salesmen rely on the same bag of tricks to close a sale. (Ooooh, CLOSE! . . . But that's last year's verb. LOL!)

I can understand why Jimmy finds his AnooYoo job stultifying. He has to peddle "improvement items" that come with no objective way to measure the "improvement." At least OrganInc Farms could produce internal organs for successful transplants and NooSkins could deliver (if only temporarily) on its promise of youthful beauty. That is, at least Jimmy's father sold his ideals for something he could still defend as good. Not that Jimmy can strain at the same rationalisation: he has never even seemed to have ideals. Still, it would have been interesting to see whether promoting ReejovenEsense's products would have been easier on his psyche.

Within Paradice, said Crake . . . there were two major initiatives going forward. The first--the BlyssPluss pill--was prophylactic in nature, and the logic behind it was simple: eliminate the external causes of death and you were halfway there.

"External causes?" said Jimmy.

"War, which is to say misplaced sexual energy, which we consider to be a larger factor than the economic, racial, and religious causes often cited. Contagious diseases, especially sexually transmitted ones. Overpopulation, leading--as we've seen in spades--to environmental degredation and poor nutrition."

Basically, the first initiative is a kind of magic pill for society--but one that needs to be taken by individuals. An "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ." pill, which comes with special benefits for you as well. A spoonful of sex to make the medicine go down. And Jimmy gets to do the ad campaign. Thinking back on this, I should have smelled something fishy at this point: why do you need an ad campaign, which presupposes a mass market, when your product is clearly targeting the people who sit above the masses? Why does Crake want Jimmy there?

Then there's the Paradice Project, which would give paying customers "totally chosen babies," including very beautiful, very smart children who eat only grass, and whom vegan "parents" would pay through the nose for.

Compared to the Paradice Project, even the BlyssPluss pill was a crude tool, although it would be a lucrative interim solution. In the long run, however, the benefits for the future human race of the two in combination would be stupendous. They would be inextricably linked--the Pill and the Project. The Pill would put a stop to haphazard reproduction, the Project would replace it with a superior method. They were two stages of a simple plan, you might say.

Do you hear that? . . . Shhhh! Listen! . . . There! Did you hear it? . . . It was the sound of Pope Paul VI burying his face in his hands. As far as I know, Margaret Atwood is not Catholic, but that didn't stop her from getting to the truth of nature through the truth of art. Paradice, indeed!

And do you know what this reminds me of? LTG's thoughts on the adoption industry (Read at your own risk! Bwahahahaha!) and how we've been seduced by all its adjectives. I do think that adoption became fashionable in Christian circles primarily because of the political pro-life movement, which means it is, at root, a way to brag about your politics. What better endorsement of yourself than the incongruous brown children in your family photos? It's certainly a more visible testimony to your charity than spending all the money you used for the adoption to support the child's real mother. In any case, it's "cred" that your own offspring, who aren't designed to eat grass or to do anything else exotic, could never give you.

Five years ago, when I started this blog, I ranted a lot about single mothers and was very pro-adoption. Anything to keep a baby from growing up without a father, you know? But now I see that I need to take most of it back--because it hardly does good to a fatherless child for him to be made motherless as well.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 10 to 12?

1. Is advertising a necessary evil or something that we can easily do without?
2. What is the hottest new "improvement item" in your part of the world?
3. Finish this sentence: "If only children could _____, they would be perfect!"  

Image Source: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood


Brandon said...

I think one can certainly have a society without advertising, although I don't think it's something we can easily do without. Until relatively recently it was almost impossible to have advertisements in Vietnamese -- the language itself had very little room for it. Vietnamese pronouns, or what they use for pronouns, are person-specific -- you have to know, roughly, the age and sex of the person you are talking to. The language is set up so that you effectively treat everyone as family: every woman as old as your grandmother is 'grandmother', and every man about your age is 'brother', and so on. If you use the wrong pronouns, however, you sound either very rude or very ridiculous. Advertisements are the opposite of person-specific, and it's death to an advertisement if it comes across as rude or ridiculous. Slow creep of the Western world has changed this -- you get addressed in Vietnamese advertisements as 'friend' -- but having advertisements at all required a shift in the language. So that's at least one precondition for advertisements: you have to be able not to care who you're trying to persuade.

The passage that struck me most in these chapters is also interesting in a Paul VI way:

It would be the must-have pill, in every country, in every society in the world. Of course the crank religions wouldn't like it, in view of the fact that their raison d'etre was based on misery, indefinitely deferred gratification, and sexual frustration, but they wouldn't be able to hold out long. The tide of human desire, the desire for more and better, would overwhelm them. It would take control and drive events, as it had in every large change throughout history.

It's also interesting in terms of Plato's Republic and our previous discussion about it. The Greeks had a word for 'the desire for more and better', pleonexia, and it's what Plato explicitly names as the main corrosive factor corrupting every society (except the kallipolis or city of virtue, which collapses by the accumulation of honest mistakes).

Enbrethiliel said...


I was struck by that passage, too. I had been wondering where all the "crank" religious people were--especially the Catholics!

That's a fascinating fact about Vietnamese! I became newly fascinated by the tricks of advertising when I read marketing guru (What a title!) Martin Lindstrom's observation that most back-to-school ads feature children in groups, to appeal to parents' worry that their children will be outcasts . . . and then remembered that someone I follow on Twitter loves posting images of solitary people in nature with quotations from his favourite writers. Obviously, he's trying a different sort of "ad campaign"!

Sheila said...

1. Oh, absolutely. After all, if a product is really that good, people will advertise it to each other! (Even this gets annoying after awhile, hearing people rave about this or that product that has CHANGED their LIVES and you simply MUST try it ....)

2. Probably smartphones. I had one for awhile and got rid of it because it cost too much. Going places without one, you feel a little left out .... everyone is playing with their phones at all times! No more striking up conversations in line, no more asking for directions (everybody's got GPS!). And it really seems to erode people's ability to wait without being bored. My husband has one and every time he's caught without it, you see him glancing around desperately for something, anything, to do so that he doesn't have to just sit and do nothing while he waits. But I find do-nothing time very relaxing and a good time to think about life ..... do smartphones make you less reflective, less willing to take two minutes, several times a day, to think about whether you are living the life you want?


Adoption can be great, especially for real orphans of course. It has two problems though -- first, the bond between mother and child is incredibly strong. It's hard to even describe, even from the moment of birth, how intensely you want to be with your baby and suffer if you can't. But if you ever watch Call the Midwife, you'll see it. The adoption episodes are the worst; I always wind up crying my eyes out. The 1950's were a different time, and the mothers didn't always have a choice not to adopt.

And the second problem of course is the commodification of children. Why do adoptions cost so much? I guess because there are so few babies available. If you want to foster-to-adopt troubled kids, or if you are willing to adopt a disabled child, it's not hard. But if you want a healthy white infant, you are out of luck .... as well you should be, if you have this "desire to love someone and give them a good home" and yet care what the baby looks like or what extra issues it has.

I'd take issue with LTG's post in one respect, though -- I can't see how *lying* can ever be the answer to anything. We have to do better than that. In fact, I'd say we have: losing the stigma against single mothers may destroy the "shame" motivation for chastity (not the best motive anyway), but it has saved a lot of babies and helped many more stay with their own mothers.

Sheila said...

A friend of mine was asking why the Church bans birth control. It makes no sense, she said, and she can't find a biblical or rational explanation for it. I said I couldn't either, but I could argue from consequences. I mean, look where dividing sex and babies has gotten us. Nowhere good.

And that gets me thinking of the series I've been reading lately -- the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's science fiction, and a big part of the plot relies on the widespread availability of artificial wombs to incubate babies. When the technology first appears in the books, it's a boon -- injured or sick pregnant women can have their babies removed and placed in one so they can undergo the treatment they need; rape victims can end an undesired pregnancy without killing the baby, and so forth. Next you see ambiguous situations, like the planet of all men that clones its babies and grows them in these incubators. The planet is more-or-less functional and happy, if missing out on a lot. But then you get into the weird stuff .... people cloning and genetically modifying children for all sorts of reasons -- and at all price levels. If you've got the money, you can get pretty much any custom-made human you want. If you can find someone unethical enough (and there always is), you can have yourself cloned and use the clone for spare body parts.

The author comes down very heavily on the side of human rights for ALL humans, even cloned and genetically-altered ones, but she doesn't seem to notice that it's the artificial wombs that set this whole thing going. Without those, every child would have to have a MOTHER ..... meaning first, that you'd have to talk an actual woman into gestating any baby you wanted to have created, and that would cut down a lot on what you'd be able to do. And next, every child born would have a mother to stand up for its rights, which every child deserves.

My number one ethical law is that the rights of every human being must be defended. But it seems a necessarily corollary to this is, don't mess with human reproduction. It seems so easy to wind up with absolutely hideous consequences when you do.

Enbrethiliel said...


1. That's what I was thinking! There are so many ways to learn about the merits of a product (if you're a consumer) or to communicate them (if you're a producer); creative ad campaigns are only the most efficient choice in a huge mass market where people don't really know each other and kind of have to be manipulated into buying something.

Now that you mention the ravers you've run into . . . I'm surprised that Jimmy doesn't mention using people's testimonials to greater effect. (Or does he and I just missed it?) It seems that these would be much more convincing than the high-concept ads that he designs.

2. Oh, dear. I very recently capitulated, and after six years of being handy free, I now have my very first smartphone. =P And the easy transition makes me wonder whether smartphones became popular because people no longer wanted to strike up conversations, etc. What if they're a symptom rather than a cause? I do see that they make the other symptoms worse, but I also think that technology alone isn't powerful enough to alter society in the way that smartphones have. It had an "inside man" to help.

3. The commodification of children bothers me as well. I think I started questioning the adoption industry when I noticed a lot of Western women adopting children from Third World countries, although there were many adoptable American children. Granted, there must be a lot of red tape involved in local adoptions for them to go the international route . . . but I also think that a baby from an "exotic" country can double as a status symbol. And the ease of getting one straight from the cradle, without the "baggage" an older child would have, is apparently a convenience worth paying for! =P

I've heard other stories of people who grew up thinking their mothers were their older sisters. Well, okay, just one other story: the actor Jack Nicholson's! My reaction is pure surprise that nobody let the truth slip earlier. Maternity seems like too huge a secret to keep when mother and child live in the same house! On the other hand, the giveaway book that you were most interested in this year, Butterfly People, has a real-life example of a teenage girl who let her mother take over the care of the former's baby . . . and who seemed to slip back into her "old" life (or what her life would have been had she not become pregnant) very easily. There was no lying involved in that case, but the real mother did end up living as if she were a sister to her own child.

* * * * *

As for human reproduction: we do seem to muck things up worse than usual when we try to control it. But it's not an obvious effect of those actions. I'm constantly impressed that Pope Paul VI hit the nail on the head so precisely--though I suppose that any thinker who takes teleology seriously would eventually be able to reach the same conclusions about the unitive and procreative functions of sex. How long would it take, though? And how obvious or intuitive is the idea that ends exist in nature? It's great to be sure that people who take a certain path will end up at the logical destination, but how sure can we be that they'd even give that path a try?

Sheila said...

There actually aren't many adoptable American *babies.* I know people who would like to adopt one, but the waiting lists were so long they decided to see what there was in Eastern Europe. At least those places *do* have orphanages and many kids who really are in need of a family ... though some of them ban adoptions out of country because of American baby-hunters, so apparently those governments see a problem I'm not aware of.

I had a classmate whose adoptive mother was her biological aunt, and vice-versa, but she grew up knowing the whole story. She considered her adoptive mother her "real" mother, because she had been the one to raise her, but she had a close relationship with her biological mother as well. Certainly sounded ideal if one could swing it.

But I read a novel in which a girl *intentionally* gets pregnant in order to supply a baby for her infertile sister, and it ends up breaking her heart. So there really is no "perfect solution" -- and you can't really expect there to be. The perfect solution to babies is marriage.

As with most Catholic teaching, I generally think that even when *in theory* one might be able to reason to our position, human reason is so flawed and prone to bias that it would never actually happen. I don't think Paul VI could have gotten there without divine assistance either. (I don't mean visions or anything, just guidance and protection from error.) Yet even before Paul VI, Chesterton wrote some pretty decent natural-law arguments against birth control.

Atwood wasn't opposed to birth control so far as I know, but in all her work I see the general understanding that when you mess around with the really basic stuff, love and families and babies, things go very sideways.

Belfry Bat said...

Onan didn't do so well, one may recall; his particular motive seems to have been a mix of pride and envy, but the act itself was to frustrate the natural end.


Having brought up that word, "frustrate", ... I wouldn't be surprised if the modern thing modishly called "free" or "liberation" is actually in itself more frustrating than good old-fashioned self-denial.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- I agree that the best solution for babies is for their biological parents to marry and to stay married. (I almost wrote "for them to have married biological parents," but then I remembered that one of my closest friends is engaged to a man who has a child out of wedlock with an ex-girlfriend, who is now married to another man. The exes and the woman's husband still get along very well--and it looks as if they will be civil with my friend, too. The boy is happy and close to his half-siblings; there's every reason to think that he will welcome more half-siblings on his father's side. I'm happy that they were able to make it work for their son's sake, but I'm also sad to think of what the boy's family might have been.)

Before people can start arguing from natural law, they'd have to believe in it first . . . and I have personally had to defend natural law's existence against both an atheist and a devout Protestant. But was it always like this? I'd imagine that people who take for granted that they would live with the natural consequences of natural actions (such as our ancestors) would be more likely to see natural law as a given--but humanity have constantly been developing technology that can divide actions from their natural consequences, and that's not wrong in itself.

Also, the truly awful effects of separating the unitive and procreative aspects of sex are simply not obvious or logical. I'm sure that if we told the biggest opponents of Humane Vitae in the 1960s that acceptance of contraception would lead to bakeries being sued for refusing to sell wedding cakes to homosexual couples, they'd think that we were off our rockers! LOL! And yet we can trace this progression.

I wonder whether my thoughts on smartphones could apply to artificial birth control. Just because a certain product is widely available, people don't have to use (or to abuse!) it. What happens hinges less on the availability of the product than on people's choices. To use a different sort of example, the author Ray Bradbury pointed out that you don't actually need to burn books if you can get people to stop reading them. And after Fahrenheit 451 was published, I recall that he envisioned an extra scene in which Montag discovers that Captain Beatty has a huge library at home and just doesn't read the books.

Bat -- Are you comparing Onan to the girl in Sheila's novel?

Belfry Bat said...

No, I wasn't comparing him to anyone specific; he's just the earliest biblical instance of disjoining the unitive from the procreative.

Brandon said...

I think we have a naive cultural tendency to think that sex is a relatively simple thing, in ethical terms, when in fact it is an extraordinarily complicated thing, with almost endless ramifications. I find it almost absurd that people on both sides sometimes talk as if entire matters can be settled with little five- or six-line arguments. And, of course, it doesn't help that it's an area in which we are especially likely to run into biases. And one of the difficulties with a lot of what get called natural law arguments is that they were originally formulated in a time in which it would have generally been considered obviously that sex should occur within marriage and that marriage, at least in general, was for children -- they could presume a lot of the work already done. But today they have to start from scratch.

One thing I find interesting is that the Church itself, while laying down universal principles that would apply well beyond, has only ever specifically addressed the matter when people propose it in a way that would change the intrinsic symbolism of the sacrament of marriage.

I haven't had a chance to read the Vorkosigan novels in order, so I've missed the unfolding progression -- I'll have to look for that when I read them in order. I have noticed, though, that in the more extreme cases, while the problems are recognized, nothing is ever actually proposed that would seriously solve them or even rein them in -- they're just going to continue indefinitely, apparently. It raises an interesting question, though. Once the barrier is broken, it's broken. From that point it can always be crossed. So what can one possibly do in the face of "the tide of human desire, the desire for more and better"? People always read the first third of Humanae Vitae, but the part of the encyclical everyone ignores is important, too; and its explicit point is that nothing short of changing the entire way we approach the question of marriage will suffice.

Itinérante said...

Enbrethiliel, I was wondering if I can answer the three questions even if I did not read the chapter? Thanks =)

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- I have read the entire Humanae Vitae--but my memories are fuzzy. =P What I do recall Pope Paul VI describing in the last third are some of the effects that artificial birth control would have on the culture; and yes, they all had to do with threats to the definition of marriage or to the dignity and well-being of children.

On the other hand, I haven't read the Vorkosigan novels at all! But I can totally get behind the moral that once a barrier is broken, it's broken. This reminds me a little of the twist in Edith Nesbit's Magic City: all wishes are granted, but once you receive something, you must keep it forever. Or to use our own idioms, we can never "unknow" or "unsee" anything; the consequences are always with us.

A woman I know at work says that she sometimes fantasises about a global cataclysm that leaves only a small group of survivors (including her? =P). She thinks that would be the only way to stop the avalanche of human desire from crashing through every last barrier there is. And perhaps it is . . . =/

Would Plato have been more optimistic, saying that it is possible for a tyranny to turn into a kallipolis, however slowly?

Itinerante -- Of course! =)

Brandon said...

Plato thinks it's in principle possible to reverse the deterioration, although harder than going in the other direction. All that's required for a society to become a kallipolis is for enough people to start acting like citizens of a kallipolis. But in the meantime you might die for trying. I guess that's a kind of optimism! I think his real view is that it doesn't much matter: you (and everyone else) are still better off making your life the life of a citizen of the kallipolis regardless of whether anyone else is or not.

Sheila said...

It seems like what we'd all like is not have to have to work uphill for morality. But that's not a reasonable goal -- there's always going to be a downward slide, if you don't work against it!

I remember a part in the Vorkosigan books where they rescue a whole batch of clones, which are fated to be killed to grant immortality to the people who had them cloned. But after the mission is over, the characters admit they haven't done much -- the people will just make more clones and kill those clones. As long as people still fear death, and some people are willing to kill to cheat death, it's going to be done. So one of the characters decides to spend all his money investing in a group of scientists researching life-extending techniques that *don't* involve killing someone ... on the theory that if there are other, cheaper, safer options available, that will do more good than commando raids on the cloning facility.

Is that a "cure"? No, because if people don't respect human life, they're going to do other evil things. But that is no reason to stop fighting.

In the same way, a lot of people in America think, "If we could just ban abortion, everything would be better." And in some ways it would. But then we'd have the specter of back-alley abortions to fight. Slavery has been banned, but there's still human trafficking going on in America today. And there's no quick one-sentence answer to this stuff. Evil is going to happen in a million forms, but there's a world of difference between trying to fight it, even in tiny seemingly useless ways, and just throwing up our hands and saying "I can't get rid of all evil forever, so why bother?"

Crake, I'm afraid, isn't willing to accept any solution but "end all evil forever." And that, we can see, is the wrong answer.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that communities becoming so big and ungainly has contributed to people's desire not to fight. It's hard to feel camaraderie with people who practically live in another culture, and whom your grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren (not to mention you yourself!) may never personally meet. (I remember reading somewhere that after around 200 or 250 people, we stop thinking of people individuals and start seeing them as parts of groups that we can generalise about, but I can't recall my source. The joke's on me if it turns out to be in Oryx and Crake. LOL!)

One trend I've been seeing a lot of lately--though it may be older than I think--is people forming those intentional communities I mentioned in another combox: they've given up on saving the entire culture, but they would fight to the death for the people in their own special "tribe." And I find that I can't really blame them. If someone stands for something that is completely opposed to what you are trying to preserve, you're not going to let that person in unless you can be sure he'll be an ally.