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Science and Salvation
A Response to Magaret Atwood's
Oryx and Crake
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All rights reserved.
First published in Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, April 28, 2003.
About a third of the way through Margaret Atwood's new
science-fiction novel Oryx and Crake, Oryx a former
child prostitute from Southeast Asia says: "Why do you
want to talk about ugly things? We should think only beautiful
things, as much as we can. There is so much beautiful in the
world if you look around. You are looking only at the dirt under
your feet. It's not good for you."
That's advice Atwood herself should take. Oryx and Crake
wallows in a thoroughly unpleasant version of the near future, a
world of total environmental degradation and genetic engineering
run amuck. In Atwood's view, every problem we face now is going
to get worse, not better.
I disagree. Human ingenuity will give all of us a wonderfully
positive future. Take the environment, for instance. The
ecology movement started in the early 1960s, with a work of
nonfiction (Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, 1962) and a
work of science fiction (Frank Herbert's Dune, 1965), and
is now in full swing.
There's nothing wrong with science fiction telling cautionary
tales: if this goes on, that awful reality will
come to pass. But Atwood's this is not going on;
we've already hit the brakes on environmental decay. To publish
a novel after Canada has signed the Kyoto accords that tells us
the environment is going to hell in a handbasket is to have
missed the prophetic boat by decades.
Atwood's future is one of gated communities, of the protected few
living in fear of those roaming out in "the pleeblands." But we
already have the technology to give women back the night, to end
most crime and bullying, to let everyone go about their lives
unmolested; I discussed this at length in my essay
"Privacy: Who Needs It?" in the
October 7, 2002, issue of this magazine. Far
from being an Orwellian nightmare, effective monitoring of the
activities of both citizens and governments will be the great
liberator of the twenty-first century. Gated communities aren't
the future; they're the dismal past.
Atwood suggests that genetic engineering is an evil thing. It's
not; it's wonderful. In the next few decades, our new insights
into how life works will cure cancer, Alzheimer's disease,
diabetes, heart disease, world hunger, and probably even aging
Indeed, anyone who lives to at least the year 2050 meaning
almost every child born today in Canada will likely get to
see not only the twenty-second century, but also the
twenty-third, and will do so in vigorous health, with full
possession of his or her faculties.
The beauty of such life prolongation is that it will give people
perspective, letting us finally deserve our species' name,
Homo sapiens man of wisdom. Problems can't be left
for future generations; anything you set in motion now too
much garbage, too few forests, too many weapons will be
your problem. Instead of fear-mongering, we should
embrace the work of the visionary scientists who are striving to
prevent deformity, enhance potential, and feed us all.
By the time that Atwood portrays (she never commits to a date,
but it's obviously later this century), I believe we will be
living in a true age of miracles and wonder, the kind of utopian
society that only a thorough grasping of how the universe really
works by knowing the basic principles of life and physics
can make possible.
And yet Atwood gives physics short shrift, although she does
mention nanotechnology in passing. Nanotech the science
of the very small is the current hobbyhorse of Michael
Crichton, who decries it in his latest
if-anything-can-go-wrong-it-will tome, Prey.
Nanotech will allow us to build little machines to travel through
our arteries, clearing out plaque. It will allow us to clean up
oil spills, and scrub the poisons from our atmosphere. Indeed,
in its strongest form giving us the alchemist's touch,
allowing us to break down any matter into its constituent
protons, neutrons, and electrons, and rearrange those particles
into whatever we want it will let us not only turn lead
into gold, but dirt into steak, and garbage into trees.
Sound far-fetched? Not after a single century that gave us
widespread use of indoor lighting and plumbing and electricity;
civil rights and feminism and a nascent world government;
airplanes and television and microwave ovens; heart transplants
and antibiotics and insulin; computers and lasers and space
stations. Not after a brief hundred years in which we learned
about other galaxies and the double helix and quantum mechanics,
and became better, more compassionate people.
Atwood has a nostalgia for the way things were, for a simpler
past. But our past included slavery, 50-percent infant-mortality
rates, abject poverty, epidemics, and ignorance. Today is better
than yesterday; tomorrow will be even better still. If, as we
look into the future, we can't precisely see the wonders that are
yet to come, it's only because there's so much glare from the
bright tomorrows ahead.
Robert J. Sawyer's latest science-fiction novel is
More Good Reading
Rob's review of Oryx and Crake from The Ottawa Citizen
Other book reviews by Rob
Other nonfiction by Rob
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