[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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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 itself.

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 Humans.

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