Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake (London, 2003)

First edition cover of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003)

First edition cover of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)

When the body becomes a commodity is it really yours anymore?

In Oryx and Crake, humans harness the power to create life in any form which is of most convenience. The natural is rejected for the innovative. The transgenic organisms named Chickie nobs are just one example of the rejection of the unnecessary. These creatures have ‘no eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those’ – simply a hole in which to pour nutrients to sustain life. When genetics are so thoroughly understood and controlled, humans become the ultimate creator. In what has been labelled by some as the ‘biotech century’ (the twenty-first century), the issue of commodification has become an ever more serious concern. Commodification can take the form of cloning, genetic engineering, eugenics, social engineering, social Darwinism, mass marketing, fascism and employment. All of these are addressed within the novel. In its most extreme form it can take the shape of slavery, where humans are bought and sold – they no longer own their own bodies. Oryx is an example of this in relation to the child sex slave industry. Jimmy and Crake watch her and her compatriots via the internet, and this becomes a regular and normal pastime for them. This is a contemporary issue which threatens the moral health of our society today. Atwood uses the novel as a frightening forecast of the dangers of allowing this kind of commodification to continue.

With the mapping of the genome completed in the same year that this book was published, was Atwood suggesting that its exploitation is inevitable? If we know what means what with regards to genes, then what’s to stop us from choosing our favourites? It’s just like pick ‘n’ mix.  Throughout history, mapping something seems to allow us to lay claim to it.  (Just as Columbus laid claim to ‘The New World’ when he discovered America – which ironically was already inhabited).  Crake lays claim to people because he has the power to alter and create them. He even goes as far as actively pursuing the extinction of mankind, through pill-disguised sterilisation (BlyssPluss), and the implementation of a super virus. By gaining ultimate control over the body, the characters of the book seem to have actually lost control. Improvement is ultimately destructive. As society seems ever more focused on achieving physical perfection, concerns are growing over the impact of this obsession. In the novel large corporate empires such as RejoovenEsense have pounced on this market, to produce BeauToxique skin treatments and beauty enhancements. Slowly these alterations are no longer a simple luxury; they become a necessity in order to maintain any sense of status within society. It becomes another way of trapping people – of taking control and their bodies. The eventual apocalypse simply illustrates this prediction of helplessness. Their bodies are no longer their own.

Sarah Rivers-Martin

2nd Year Undergraduate

Member of the ‘Twentieth Century Literature and Science: Remaking the Body’ module