I love Margaret Atwood you guys. When I was in sixth form, one of my English teachers used to have a big shelf in his office that was full of books and films that you could borrow, which now I think about it is such an awesome thing to have. This was how I read Brave New World, which I loved, and The Dying Animal, which was so helpful for my A Level English exam you guys have no idea. It's also how I read my first Atwood book! The Handmaid's Tale of course, in all its incredible dystopian glory. And I loved it. It's so powerful and affecting and the society within it seems so shocking but at the same time so terribly plausible and gah, it's just great. Flash forward two or three years and I had the opportunity to do a module on Margaret Atwood in my final year and it was just so utterly fantastic and interesting. It might have been the best part of my degree. I have so many feelings about Atwood's books and I'm planning on trying to translate those into blog posts, so here's a little ramble to get the ball rolling and start me off.
LET'S TALK ABOUT ORYX AND CRAKE Y'ALL
I don't know why I went vaguely American then. I can only apologise.
Essentially, I just have one main thing about this book that I want to ramble about today. My point is this: I kind of feel like this is like a contemporary revisioning of The Handmaid's Tale. To which your first reaction is probably "but Sophie, these stories are completely different". And you would be right. BUT (and this is a big but) (insert pause while I laugh because I have the brain of a child) although the plots are completely different etc etc I feel like the society presented in both books has been arrived at through the same means. It's as if Atwood looked at the world around her when she was writing them and identified a few key elements, then imagined a world in which these elements would be allowed to grow and evolve without being checked, then wrote down what that society would look like.
So, The Handmaid's Tale. Christian belief gone nuts. You take biblical rhetoric at face value and use it as a method to control the behaviour of people, more specifically women. You instigate methods of surveillance that are so effective that even when it's not present, the population polices itself automatically. Gilead has mastered the art of public and private punishment; utilising both in order to maintain a state of fear. Then you create a hierarchy of power within this society. Nothing is quite as dangerous as giving people a little taste of power. The aunts are scary because they enjoy exercising their limited power over the handmaids. They have become complicit with the regime and their desire to dominate others will stop them from intervening. In addition, one of the ways of ensuring the handmaids remain powerless is by stripping away all of their identity. They don't even have their own names but end up named after the man they are assigned to. A key aspect of this is by controlling the gaze. The act of looking is so incredibly powerful. It's a statement of self. In Gilead, those with power are able to look as they please. The handmaids literally have their vision restricted by the headpieces they have to wear. On top of this, even language is restricted; they have to speak in specific phrases. The way in which this society uses women to control women is so effective and incredibly scary to read about.
And now onto Oryx and Crake. Obviously people still use religion and all those other things as a method of dictating what behaviour should be allowed, but there are other factors at play now. There's the idea of genetic modification; where do you draw the line? How far is too far, and what happens if you keep going past that? Then there's the commercialisation of everything. The arts have lost their soul in this society, you don't study literature, you learn how to manipulate language in order to sell things. And in the midst of this, questions arise over the link between language and meaning. Just as creatures are genetically modified in this society, so is language. Words are invented purely because they sound good on packaging, not because they actually have inherent worth and meaning. Then there's the commodification of people and the way that this is tied up in colonialism and the sexualisation of women/children that can be seen through the figure of Oryx. The line between reality and simulation blurs throughout this society; everything becomes hyperreal. Throughout the book Jimmy seems to struggle with the idea that being able to touch things doesn't make them seem real to him. Crake doesn't have this and that is why he's so dangerous. To him, the only reality lies in his head. Everything else is a simulation.
I'm not entirely sure what the point of this ramble is if I'm honest. I'm not trying to pit them against each other and argue that one is a better book than the other. I think I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate how great Atwood's speculative fiction is. Both of these societies are terrifying because you can look at them and identify aspects of contemporary society within them. I feel like dystopias rely on us being able to recognise the shadows and shades of that society that lie within ourselves. It's what causes you to have such an emotional reaction to them.
Atwood's books always have so much stuff in them that I feel like I could write on her forever and still not run out of things to say, so I'll leave it here for today and hopefully expand upon more stuff another time. I feel a little bit like this post is just a bunch of half formed thoughts and not fully expressed ideas but writing about Atwood is a slippery slippery slope than can lead to thousands of words that no one wants to trawl through so I will shush up. Let me know if you've read either or both of these and what you thought on them!