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Dystopian fatigue

  • Published at 06:41 pm July 14th, 2018
  • Last updated at 06:42 pm July 14th, 2018
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Parallels between ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘Oryx and Crake’

Everyone’s favorite new pop philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari builds on the success of Sapiens with an equally powerful sequel Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which, in a nutshell, declares that humanity, having all but conquered war, famine, and disease, will now set its sights on immortality and, in doing so, the humble Homo sapiens will make way for the godlike Homo deus. Drawing examples from history, and making projections based on current trends, the author proceeds to dismantle everything we thought we knew about our institutions. 

Whether or not you believe in his thesis (I don’t), it makes a compelling read. The problem with these arguments—and this is something Harari himself mentions in Homo Deus—is that these are probabilities, not prophecies, but that hasn’t stopped fans of his works from treating it like gospel. There’s a reason why dystopian fiction, from Blade Runner to Maze Runner, has made so much bank.

And you can’t talk about dystopian or speculative fiction without mentioning Margaret Atwood. The celebrated author of A Handmaid’s Tale, who recently attracted all the wrong kinds of attention for her own role in l’affaire du Galloway (another story for another day), has been racking up accolades for her work in the genre since the ’60s, and judging by the recent success of the TV adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale, the fuss and fandom aren’t going to go away anytime soon.

With Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the first of the MaddAddam trilogy, currently under discussion for screen adaptations, with whispers of Darren Aronofsky’s involvement in the project, it’s a good enough time to discuss the 2003 novel that got the series going.

Oryx and Crake is set in the future, after a plague has wiped out almost all of humanity, and the planet is plagued by man-made environmental disasters, and overrun by creatures born in labs where the white man once played god and tinkered with bio-engineering. The sole survivor and narrative perspective is a broken man who calls himself Snowman, who lives amongst the peaceable humanoid creatures he calls “Crakers”. Through Snowman’s fragments of clarity and fevered flashbacks, we piece together the story of his former life as Jimmy, a damaged young man who led a coddled life in a protected compound where his father worked as a genographer. Outside the compound, climate change and pollution had already been wrecking the world and, contrary to the picture painted by Harari in Homo Deus, humanity had certainly not solved hunger, disease, or war. Jimmy’s big concerns included the growing distance between his parents and his own lack of excellence or prowess in any field. Into his life comes the strange and brilliant Glenn, who befriends him. The young men spend their days getting high, playing bizarre video games and watching pornography and snuff films. During one of these NSFW viewing sessions, Jimmy secretly falls in love with an Asian child porn actor, a fact that will soon prove to be significant.

 As they grow up, their paths diverge. Glenn, who is by now known to Jimmy, and thereby to us, as “Crake,” gets enrolled into a prestigious bio-engineering program, while old Jimmy ends up in a Humanities program at an inferior institution and becomes a hack writer. And that’s really when the proverbial starts to hit the metaphorical.

Other than descriptions of technology already sounding dated, you can’t fault Atwood’s ability for credible, and even prescient world-building. Everything she writes seems a plausible progression of a reality we already inhabit, a logical next step. And that’s precisely what makes her work so chilling.

Having said that, in 2018, this story—and others like it—are starting to feel like old hat. The danger of starting at a point when the Big Bad has already happened, is that the question arises—why should we care about the survivors? This is particularly compounded by the fact that the characters in the novel are predominantly white. From the privileged few living in the research compounds to the geneticists playing god with the animal hybridsto the rebels protesting the same, anyone with a smidgen of agency is white. Any person of color that get a mention is objectified (as mere players in the porn and snuff that Jimmy and Crake watch), exoticized (Oryx) or dehumanized (the Crakers). If this was unintentional, it is lazy and tone-deaf at best and arrogant at worst; if intentional for the “shock value,” it isn’t so shocking as it is tired. 

The argument to be made against Oryx and Crake holds true for Homo Deus as well—the thinly veiled whiteness of it all. Just as the characters of the former spend all their time agonizing about the minutiae and ennui in their privileged bubbles, while the rest of the world is quite literally going to hell around them, arguing that humanity has all but solved war, hunger, and disease arrogantly minimizes and sidelines the struggles not only of other nations and cultures abroad, but even the problems of non-white segments of the population in North America. How can one say war is passé when America’s gun problem continues to rack up the body count?  

  Just as dystopian fiction in popular culture loses steam almost as soon as the world-building is done, so does this kind of radical pop psychology when looked at through a lens of a different color. You want speculative fiction that’s cathartic and heartwarming and fresh? Go watch Okja (Bong Joon-Ho). Evil corporations? Check. Non-white characters with agency? Check. Dystopian settings with real world parallels? Check. Now that’s a piece of work that’s worth talking about. 


Sabrina Fatma Ahmad is Features Editor, Dhaka Tribune.