Thursday, August 28, 2008

Metaphor at the Expense of Characterization: Autism in Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake"

Full disclosure: I love Margaret Atwood's books. I have ten or eleven of them (of which two are being loaned out to a friend in Tennessee), which may give me a slightly different perspective for this review, as Atwood is the only author I've reviewed so far with whose body of work I am extensively familiar. I'll try to stick to just Oryx and Crake, but I'm not completely ruling out comparisons from elsewhere in the Atwood canon, either.

Like Atwood's other dystopia, Oryx and Crake creates a bizarre near-future society by extrapolating certain trends in contemporary society. While The Handmaid's Tale focused on the backlash against feminism and the growing influence of Dominionist Christianity over US politics, Oryx and Crake explores the catastrophic potential of runaway biotechnology, social fragmentation and class stratification. The world in which her protagonist, Jimmy, and his friend Glenn (who later names himself "Crake") grow up is a starkly divided one in which wealthy technocrats and their families live and work in bubble-like gated communities (called Compounds) run by their employers and everyone else lives in the urban no-man's land Jimmy and Crake know only from rumor ("the pleeblands"). Government seems to have withered away entirely, with corporations running the Compounds as their own miniature fiefdoms.

Against this background, Crake emerges as a star inventor/researcher within his Compound, entrusted with projects of progressively greater importance and secrecy. Always a detached, cynical character, Crake is not shocked when he discovers that the pharmaceutical company that employs him also produces genetically-engineered diseases (to which it then markets the cure). If anything, he is impressed with the elegance of their solution to the problem of avoiding obsolescence. This marks a turning point in the Crake-Jimmy relationship, as it begins to dawn on Jimmy how little he really knows Crake, and as Crake, inspired and emboldened by his discoveries about the extent of his company's research, begins to concoct an apocalyptic plan to kill off most of humanity with an artificial plague and start over with a fast-growing humanoid species designed to his specifications.

About midway through the book, Jimmy visits Crake at the latter's elite technical university. This episode, besides being the one place in the book where Crake is identified as autistic, also serves to place Crake in context. At "Asperger's U," Crake is not unique; he's only the brightest specimen of a type.
Watson-Crick was known to the students there as Asperger's U. because of the high percentage of brilliant weirdos that strolled and hopped and lurched through its corridors. Demi-autistic, genetically speaking, single-track tunnel-vision minds, a marked degree of social ineptitude --- these were not your sharp dressers --- and luckily for everyone there, a high tolerance for mildly deviant public behavior.
"Compared to this place, HelthWyzer [the Compound where Jimmy and Crake grew up; also the name of its parent company] was a pleebland," Crake replied. "It was wall-to-wall NTs."
"Minus the genius gene."

There are several things worth pointing out about the portrayal of autism and Asperger syndrome in that passage, but first I'd like to look at a similar scenario in another book. In Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, the protagonist is part of a small group of autistic coders employed in a supportive environment by an IT company in exchange for their unique gift for pattern recognition. With the advances in gene therapy that have taken place in Moon's not-too-distant future, these autistic adults represent the last of their kind. Before their autism could simply be cured, they had been assimilated into society by means of a mixture of workplace accommodations and intensive skills training. In Moon's world, these autistic coders are somewhat embattled within their company: their role is not widely understood, and managers looking to cut costs eye their supportive work environment with suspicion.

By contrast, in Atwood's near-future technocracy, autism is almost a status symbol. The leading university is named for the variant of autism its students all possess, and those students' obsessive singlemindedness and lack of the normal human need for social interaction or R&R makes them immensely valuable to the biotech corporations queuing up to hire them fresh out of college. Just typing that really brings home to me how profoundly unrealistic a scenario it is, not only in terms of the kind of worker employers tend to value, but also in its crude understanding of autism itself. Atwood seems to conceive of us as emotionless automata, uninterested in anything except solving puzzles and designing widgets.

I believe Atwood concocted this version of "autism" to stand as a personification of everything she is trying to criticize about biotechnology, agribusiness and consumer culture. The "tunnel vision" she locates in the unusual wiring of her elite bioengineering students' brains is endemic to our profit-driven society. I also see in her writing here a devoted fan of the liberal arts railing against the ascendancy of the job-training model of university education, with Crake obviously representing the kind of person such an education is meant to produce. (He's one of what C.S. Lewis called the "men without chests" in his The Abolition of Man --- people whose intellects have been educated far beyond their moral development. There is a long literary tradition of bemoaning this type of pedagogical asymmetry).

I think, for those reasons, that Crake is better read as an allegorical figure than a flesh-and-blood character. His portrayal in the story lends itself to that interpretation, too: though we meet Crake as a child, he does not change or mature at all over the course of the story, and his parents seem to have been written into the narrative as an afterthought, and then promptly dispensed with. Crake's role in his relationship with Jimmy is also decidedly one-dimensional: Crake is the critic, always making fun of Jimmy's stupidity and exhorting him to "use [his] neurons," and dismissing or belittling any effort of Jimmy's to argue with him on anything but purely practical terms. Crake's death is also fitting for a character who is little more than a dramatic device: once Crake has loosed his apocalyptic plague upon the world, he promptly commits suicide. He's fulfilled his purpose in the story, now he can go away and stop bothering Margaret Atwood and her editor.

Indeed, as a purely allegorical creation, Crake would not require any flimsy psychiatric diagnosis to explain his inhuman nature. He would already be inhuman, no slandering of large groups of people required.

A postscript: this is a fairly dramatic reassessment of Crake. The first time I read the book, I liked him and identified with him, seeing both myself and my boyfriend in him. (Crake demonstrated my rationality and intellectualism, my boyfriend's misanthropy and our shared tendency to ask a lot of "why" questions about human misery and try to come up with inventive, radical solutions).


Catana said...

I started tearing through Oryx and Crake yesterday -- almost half way through, so Crake is coming back to me pretty clearly.

I agree that Atwood's use of Crake and his intellectual siblings is better seen as allegory than reality. But it also foreshadows (it's SF, after all) the current, increasingly popular, tendency to equate geek with autistic, and to find autism in every obsessed genius of the past. It's a tendency that Temple Grandin may be partially responsible for, with her essay "Genius May be an Abnormality." Like all "pride" movements, this one is moving quickly toward the extreme: from disability to, not just ability, but superiority.

Lindsay said...

...the current, increasingly popular, tendency to ... find autism in every obsessed genius of the past.

This is hardly limited to autism; you can find lists of brilliant historical personalities who've been retroactively diagnosed with just about everything you can think of. The obvious ones I can think of are depression and bipolar disorder, especially among the creative types.

I think there are two common human impulses that feed into this drive to diagnose: the need, once you've been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder (or really, any sickness), to identify people who've overcome their problems and managed to achieve something, and the (often simultaneous) need to make one's heroes relatable, to anchor their greatness in some more recognizable context. (See the ongoing quest by some in academia to discover the "true" identity of Shakespeare. He can't just be Shakespeare, because we don't know anything about Shakespeare. If he were Marlowe, or the Earl of Whatever, he wouldn't be such an anomaly).

Kim Altobello said...

In Oryx and CrakeJimmy shot Crake - he didn't kill himself

Lindsay said...

Oh, does he? I had forgotten that.

Thank you for the correction; I will edit the post to reflect that, and if I still have the book on hand I will reread that passage, to see if it changes my opinion of either character.

(Hello and welcome to the blog, Kim!)