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One of the big downsides to spending several years doing dissertation work with a primary focus on sixteenth and seventeenth-century literature is that you wind up being seriously “behind” on contemporary reading. I’ve managed to work my way through a few recently published works here and there; I did read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last year, and I may comment on it in a later post.

In any case, I recently dove into Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Many of my friends and colleagues have already read it, and I’ve been sitting on the fringes of their conversations about the book over the past few years, always feeling as if I didn’t have the time to dig in. When Year of the Flood was published, I felt even more behind. So, not long after completing my defense last year, I picked up a Kindle copy of the book, and finally dove in recently. There’s a lot that I like about the book, both as a stand-alone work as well as a component of Atwood’s oeuvre. However, I’ll save the general conversation for (maybe) another time. What’s fascinated me about the book most recently is the way Atwood depicts the “divide” between the sciences and art.

[Spoiler Alert!]

When Snowman (aka “Jimmy) reflects on Crake’s (the allusion to pioneering geneticist Francis Crick is certainly no coincidence) tempering with human genetic code with respect to mating practices and sexual drives, he reflects the layman’s opinion when confronted with the bold-faced logic of scientific rationality. Crake introduces genetic modifications that result in human females ovulating (and thus mating) only once every three years, which is signaled by her buttocks and abdomen taking on an azure hue, in “a trick of variable pigmentation filched from the baboons, with a contribution from the expendable chromosphores of the octopus.” In return, males have been modified to experience arousal only when pheromones associated with the female’s change in coloration are released, meaning that “there’ no more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and the act.”

As I read these passages, one part of my inner critic, the one attracted to science and logic, thought “well, this makes sense. Things would all be so much simpler if human reproduction actually functioned this way. And adolescence! That @#$% vale of misery and tears known as “the teenage years” would be so much more positive and productive!” This is, in effect, the same way that Snowman reacts: “Maybe Crake was right…sexual competition had been relentless and cruel: for every pair of happy lovers there was a dejected onlooker, the one excluded…the single man at the window, drinking himself into oblivion to the mournful strains of the tango.” In the face of Crake’s logic, Jimmy / Snowman has to admit that human courtship and reproduction is a decidedly absurd and inefficient process. When he objects that Crake’s plan would simply turn humans into “hormone robots…[lacking] free choice,” Crake points out that his plan still accounts for courtship rituals, behavior, and mate selection. The difference is that courtship would “always succeed.” What’s more, he notes, “we’re hormone robots anyway, only we’re faulty ones.”

At this point, I set the book (I mean, tablet…somehow, that makes me sound somewhat like an ancient Sumerian scribe…there’s got to be a paper in that!) aside and thought about this scenario. Throttling the reproductive curve of the human species makes good sense; in fact, it would solve virtually all of the major problems facing humanity today. Overpopulation, starvation, the spread of disease, poverty… if the world population were reduced by a factor of 10, humanity in general could actually thrive, rather than merely survive. And then I asked myself — what would sustain us?

Part II to follow soon!