Margaret Atwood’s Crakers and the Posthuman Future of Humanity

Around 375 BC, a Greek thinker, frustrated by the deteriorating state of his beloved city and disgruntled at the loss of his most valued philosopher and teacher as a result of political decay, decided to forgo politics and turn to fiction. He envisioned a republic that divorced itself from everything that had led to the decay of his city, a Utopia that saw justice as the supreme end one should aspire to; and a sense of unwavering truth as a means to achieve this end. Variations of any absolute knowledge or different angles of it were not accepted. The only accepted form of science becomes the unchanging one, unaffected by shifts in society, time, location and perspective. This led to a view of an ideal reality as the highest form of reality, ideal in the sense of it residing as an idea, rather than a manifested existence in the actual, physical world. Manifestations of this idea/ideal, referred to in this discourse as copies or shadows, are evidentially flawed. Such shadows of the supreme truth, and all other shadows that derive from them, are, then, to be banished from this Utopia.

              It is no wonder that Plato put poetry to the test and all but banned it from his Republic. Mimesis, this art of imitation which is what poetry and all other artistic productions are, is dangerous both because it does not provide the absolute truth and because it has the power of seduction, luring common people into its charm through the use of passion, as opposed to reasonable thinking most valued by Plato. Plato’s belief in an absolute truth relies on seeing the world through a system of mutually exclusive binary opposites (presence/absence, good/evil, reason/passion) whereby the first term is valued above the second. So the contrast seen between passion and reason, in Plato’s attack on poetry, is regarded as one example of a contrast between stable entities that both defines them (in their opposition to each other) and leaves them stagnant in their meaning, and which essentially also renders one binary as always more valued than the other. Reason becomes more valued than passion, science more valued than art, and so on, under Plato’s system of thinking. Within this ideology, Plato set a tradition of fictional writing that looks at the possibilities of an ideal state that clearly defines these oppositional terms and functions around them. His Republic gave rise to a line of other Utopian literature where, in the 20th century, scientific and technological advancements become paramount in the creation of these future worlds: such are, for example, the works of Herbert Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

              Plato’s critique of poetry and his belief in an ideal truth resulted in ongoing rebuttals by philosophers, the most significant of which are Nietzsche and Derrida. Nietzsche questioned the Platonic belief in an immutable and eternal world, an ideal that exists separately from our physical and changeable existence, insisting that the world we are living in is all there is, and that it is a world that is constantly being shaped, rather than one that is settled in its identity. Derrida similarly refuted this belief in the mutually exclusive nature of the binary oppositions, and insisted that there is an element of play between these concepts that negates their stable and unchanging identity, most obvious in Plato’s own use of mimesis or poetry in order to discredit mimeses and poetry. When female writers take up the task of writing up Utopia, their work relies on such refutations and becomes a clear indictment to Plato’s dualism that relegates women to the role of the other and lesser sex. Their writing depicts futuristic worlds with no men (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Janet’s world in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man), no clear gender binary (Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness); universes that are inhabited by androgynes (Luciente in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time) and evolve into matriarchies (Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country).

              Gradually, utopias give way to dystopias, even in the burgeoning genre of youth literature. Thus, The Giver, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, to name a few, address futures where scientific and technological advancements have led to a dark place. In these works, Utopian ideas become highly suspect, even those relying on Plato’s vision in their reliance on unquestionable truths and clear boundaries between male and female, reason and passion, nature and culture, and human and animal. Far from celebrating the modern age with its triumph of reason and scientific advancements, contemporary fiction, and science fiction in particular, is wary of its achievements. The future world is a locus of anxieties, and the machine, an ever-important actor in this world, is the main suspect. Fiction shifts its attention from the human to the posthuman protagonist; the cyborg becomes paramount, wavering between a construct that saves humanity, to one that destroys it, in the ongoing play that is celebrated in modern-day science fiction.

This chapter attempts to analyze one such fictional republic where the machine rules. In Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013), scientific advancements lead to the creation of Crakers, a new type of creature, cyborgian and posthuman. These creatures epitomize a paradigm where our truths are put to the test, and where our humanity finds itself in need of new definitions. Just like Nietzsche and Derrida critiqued Plato’s dualism from within his own philosophy, forcing us to revise what we mean by truth, the Crakers offer a view of science from within, by which we can critique scientific advancements and revise what it means to be human.

Donna Haraway sees in the cyborg “a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self … [that] feminists must code,” arguing that “cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves” and presents us with a dream of a “powerful infidel heteroglossia…[that] means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, spaces, stories” (Reader 23, Simians 181). Analysing the male/female binary, Judith Butler similarly argues that:

In order to avoid the emancipation of the oppressor in the name of the oppressed, it is necessary to take into account the full complexity and subtlety of the law and to cure ourselves of the illusion of a true body beyond the law. If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself (Butler 126-7, italics added).

Though not totally unexpected, the Crakers are the spawns of laws of science that are heavily reliant on dualisms, but end up in a subversion of these dualisms when the human/machine dualism is reversed, giving agency and reverence to the machine. Moreover, the reader is invited to reconsider the implications of a future where human is replaced by the posthuman as the better option in this binary.

In the trilogy, Atwood creates a world where a mad scientist genetically builds creatures demarcated with clear physical attributes that determine their actions. These creations are indeed a “subversion” enabled by the law that ”turns against itself.” Atwood creates the Crakers, leaving the reader to wonder, along with her human characters, about whether these are permutations of our human nature, or cyborgian creations. This is a decision, as one human character declares, easily made: “If they can crossbreed with us, then case made. Same species. If not, then not” (MaddAddam 206). This seems to reiterate Butler’s argument that gender is performative, by adding a level that makes humanity itself performative. At the same time, this also opens the space for Haraway’s investigations of the cyborg as a “disassembled” self that allows us an escape from the “maze of dualities”that constrain us.

In her Crakers, Atwood constructs the posthuman cyborg that Haraway discusses, in a way that allows for the performative nature of our existence. Humanity therefore becomes questionable, both in terms of the gendered nuances that define it, and in terms of its actual separation from all that is not human: machine and animal. The posthuman in Atwood’s trilogy, as one critic puts it, becomes the “new way of inhabiting our humanity rather than a new-and-improved version of the human” (Ciobanu 160). This study attempts to investigate the position Atwood takes with regard to the posthuman as envisioned and celebrated by Haraway, considering Butler's gender-specific nuances that affect such posthuman, a position Atwood is known to pursue and present in all her writings, especially the most recent ones.[1] Thus, what this study asks is whether this celebration of the posthuman and of the performative, and hence elusive, nature of our bodies, is actually a dream of a “powerful infidel heteroglossia” that we should aspire to; and whether this posthuman offers a place to investigate questions of survival of the human or of continuity of life on earth.

                  When advancements in science and technology reach their heights, and all existing diseases have been cured, pharmaceutical companies will have no option but to start creating new diseases and viruses in order for the economic structure to survive. So goes the hypothesis outlined in Atwood's trilogy. The second part of the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, focusses on God's Gardeners, a group of people who attempt to envision another life in preparation for the inevitable doom they see themselves heading into. This book, however, does not concern us here, as it considers how humans learn to adapt to the changing resources by restructuring their use of such resources. On the contrary, the first and the third books, Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam, ponder on rebuilding the human to fit the world, not vice versa, and are thus essential for understanding Atwood’s view of the posthuman.

In Oryx and Crake, Helthwyzer, a major conglomerate, is the main actor in the unfolding of the dystopic story. This is how Crake, the mad scientist, describes what they do at Helthwyzer:

They've been doing it for years. There's a whole secret unit working on nothing else [on creating new diseases]. Then there's the distribution end. Listen, this is brilliant. They put the hostile bioforms into their vitamin pills … They have a really elegant delivery system … once you've got a hostile bioform started in the pleeb population, the way people slosh around out there it more or less runs itself. Naturally they develop the antidotes at the same time as they're customizing the bugs, but they hold those in reserve, they practice the economics of scarcity, so they're guaranteed high profits. (Oryx 211)

Alongside new diseases and their antidotes being developed at Helthwyzer, the novel also speaks of dentists going out of work after the invention of a spray that cures all oral hygiene problems. The implication is that scientific advancements, if they continue, will result in economic problems beyond the control of the government. It is therefore imperative that new diseases are created in order for the government, functioning under free-market capitalism at that stage, to remain in power. By controlling the direction of scientific advancements towards the continuous treatment of diseases, the government must create more diseases. Otherwise, the economy will suffer, and by extension, the government itself.

                  Simultaneously, Crake realizes that humans are doomed to extinction because they fail to be aware of their limited resources. To him, this justifies unleashing a virus that nearly wipes out humanity. This is how he explains, to his friend Jimmy, the BlyssPluss Pill, a pill designed to sterilize the world but advertised as an aid for the sexual drive:

As a species we're in deep trouble, worse that anyone's saying … Demand for resources has exceeded supply for decades in marginal geographical areas, hence the famines and droughts; but very soon, demand is going to exceed supply for everyone. With the BlyssPluss Pill the human race will have a better chance of swimming [as opposed to sinking]. (Oryx 295)

Crake the scientist is later juxtaposed with Jimmy/Snowman, the humanist who studied art and who is a source Crake needs in order to advertise his pill and assist with his other major project: Paradice[2]. Paradice is the dome in which Crake houses his creations, the Crakers, in an attempt to build an alternative life form on earth. In a study of Atwood's vision of a posthuman future, J. Brooks Bousen argues that she “intervenes parodically in the contemporary public debate about genetic engineering and provides a scathing indictment of our current ‘gene rush’ in describing the catastrophic end of humanity in the near future” (140). Although Crake's actions are not a direct result of his interest in genetic engineering specifically – we read that his purpose is to save humanity – his creation of genetically engineered Crakers goes hand in hand with speeding up a catastrophic end of humanity. As he is able to create a species he believes to be more suited for life on earth than humans, Crake's final act of unleashing the deadly virus is a gamble enhanced by his belief in the possibility of genetic engineering to save humans, even if it means giving them a new form. The name of the project, Paradice, suggests a sense of a gamble or a game.

              Yet Crake is aware of the gamble he takes in pursuing this. Atwood argues that “The cracking of the genetic code was the biggest opening of a toy box in our history and it gives us an unprecedented amount of power” (Q on CBC). By “opening” this “toy box”, Crake weighs the validity of human life against sustainability in general. In relating Atwood's trilogy to the discourse on sustainability, Hannes Bergthaller reminds us that this discourse often asks “why (and under what conditions) the survival of the human species should be regarded as an ethical good to begin with” (742). In creating his posthuman, Crake sees that survival of the human species as it stands is not the driving factor behind science. This is clear in the following transaction between Crake and Jimmy:

“Imagination,” said Crake. “Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere thought of impeding death acts like an aphrodisiac. … human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever.”

“As a species we’re doomed by hope then?”

“You could call it hope. That, or desperation.”

“But we’re doomed without hope, as well,” said Jimmy.

“Only as individuals,” said Crake cheerfully. (Oryx 120)

What Crake is saying here, and what takes Jimmy long to understand, is that he is willing to sacrifice the individual human life in order to sustain life on earth. Crake plays his last card that may, if it succeeds, ensure sustainability on earth. His cheerful reply to Jimmy is in itself an indication of Crake’s own lack of concern for the lives of individuals, but also of the fun he is having with his game. The trilogy continues this debate as it asks the reader to consider the lines that need to be drawn in order for the surviving humans to adjust to living with the Crakers/posthumans. “If you're going to do gene-splicing,” Atwood writes, “you’re going down a very strange path indeed. If you’re going to do it on humans, what you have to ask yourself is, do you want the human race to remain human?” (quoted in Bouson 140). Crake's game is almost oblivious to the question of what human is, as he himself has an askance view of humanity. Survival, however, is what seems to matter to him, and his Crakers seem to be the ticket to such survival, the hope that he sees.

In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Haraway introduces the cyborg as a figure of hope, releasing it from Western dualisms so crucial in the logic of domination and subjugation. “From the perspective of cyborgs,” she writes, “freed of the need to ground politics in 'our' privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other dominations, the innocence of the merely violated, the ground of those closer to nature, we can see powerful possibilities” (176). According to Haraway, the ambiguous identity of the cyborg, part-human, part-machine, opens the space towards reconfigurations of our existence outside of boundaries already trapping us in this logic of domination. Subverting the duality upon which such identities exist, the cyborg frees us. In much the same way, in Gender Trouble, Butler positions subversive body acts, including drag, as a “de-formity” that, in its “parodic repetition”, manages to expose “the phantasmatic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction” (192). Butler argues that the repeated performance of drag, in its awareness of parodying a construction rather than a reality, highlights and pokes fun at the concept of identity as fixed in the either/or of masculinity and femininity. Both Haraway and Butler explore possibilities enabled when definitive lines separating human from animal or machine, or male from female, are questioned. In Haraway's cyborg and Butler's drag we are presented with paradigms that defy and mock the laws that bound us, and enable an engagement with other possibilities, poking fun at any reality or truth in its Platonic sense, and opening the space for the Derridean deconstruction of meaning.

For Haraway and Butler, the construction of the cyborg/drag, albeit fictional, provides a place for the deconstruction of an identity that is based on dualities and certainties. By existing outside the norms of humanity and culture, cyborg and drag escape such norms through specific reiteration of acts that enforce their own difference or ”abnormality”. Yet these manifestations, of a cyborg configuration and performative identities, already exist in our world, as results, respectively, of scientific advancements and of social theory. Atwood's texts allow us to investigate identity and its performative nature within characters that do not easily fit the human category, but exhibit human traits that make them impossible to separate from the human completely. By opening up the space of performativity to encompass the non-human, Atwood adds literary perspective to Haraway and Butler, while creating a link between their theories of identity. The posthuman allows a new level of analysing identity as a performative and changing concept.

Haraway's exploration of the cyborg's ability to break free from the limitations of a gendered body is very pertinent here. As with all works by Atwood, gender plays an essential role, and the gender imbalance is a main factor in the evils that humans commit. In her analysis of the trilogy, Calina Ciobanu suggests that “any possibility of imagining a posthuman future will depend not just on situating humankind as one species among many, but on unsettling mankind’s primacy in relation to womankind as well” (154). By presenting Crakers or cyborgs as two sexes who perform their roles under strict guidelines designed for them by Crake, Atwood's text appears to investigate the possibilities of drag, as per Judith Butler, in exaggerating the performance of femininity and masculinity, and by that, dismantling the structures that perpetuate the gender imbalance.

The trilogy is ripe with examples of clear gender role divisions, with exaggerated performances, at times used to replace former gender roles that will become irrelevant in Crake’s future. Thus, he “allotted the special piss to men only; he said they’d need something important to do, something that didn’t involve childbearing, so they wouldn’t feel left out. Woodworking, hunting, high finance, war, and golf would no longer be options” (Oryx 155). Men secure the food, killing the fish “with rocks and sticks,” while women serve it, “carrying his weekly fish, grilled the way he’s taught them … They bring the fish forward, put it on the ground in front of him” (Oryx 101 – 100). It is also the men who offer to go with Jimmy to protect him when he sets off to find food (Oryx 161).

The Crakers exhibit acts of femininity and masculinity that might seem normal, but in a manner that renders them almost grotesque. The orchestrated way in which men court women is an example here:

Courtship begins at the first whiff, the first faint blush of azure, with the males presenting flowers to the females – just as male penguins present round stones, said Crake, or as the male silverfish presents a sperm packet. At the same time they indulge in musical outbursts, like songbirds. Their penises turn bright blue to match the blue abdomens of the females, and they do a sort of blue-dick dance number, erect members waving to and fro in unison, in time to the food movements and the singing: a feature suggested to Crake by the sexual semaphoring of crabs. From amongst the floral tributes the female chooses four flowers, and the sexual ardour of the unsuccessful candidates dissipates immediately, with no hard feelings left. Then, when the blue of her abdomen has reached its deepest shade, the female and her quartet find a secluded spot and go at it until the woman becomes pregnant and her blue colouring fades. And that is that. (Oryx 165)

Atwood’s awareness of the performative nature of gender, and her depiction of it among her posthuman characters, satirizes our inability to free ourselves from these constructed gender roles. By creating a fictional future of Crakers who are fabricated to act like men and women, Atwood highlights the constructed nature of these acts in our own world.

As the world that Atwood portrays is close to extinction, her vision of the Crakers becomes less of a warning than, say, her vision in The Handmaid's Tale which was a clear indictment of the future world depicted in that novel. In the trilogy, the posthuman species, to whom people appear as subhuman in their deficiencies, becomes the inevitable, and almost only future of the human race, thus it becomes some sort of a possible salvation rather than a warning. Unlike Haraway, Atwood's world does not clearly mark a distinction between the human, extinct, and the posthuman, the future, but is made of a community of humans and Crakers who have to live and work alongside each other and are thus not seen in opposition to each other, or as distinct entities, the way Haraway almost sees them.

Social science shows us that oppression relies heavily on individuals who are socialized to oppress each other. As such, the mad scientist’s creation of sexed bodies that must follow a certain set of actions is problematic as it runs the risk of reinforcing these oppressive cycles. Through the use of technology and biosciences, the oppression is reinforced and reinscribed in them as their behaviour patterns are more fixed than those allowed to humans, and therefore less liable to be broken. The characters are assigned specific gender roles that are deeply embedded within their bodies. Yet at the same time, they are able to redefine territories of masculinity and femininity. In creating these Crakers, the mad scientist is faced with his own desire to create order in a world of chaos. The Egg that the Crakers call home is the laboratory, the scientific and paternal, as opposed to the natural and maternal womb that is safe and provides shelter from the outside world: “And all around the Egg was the chaos, with many, many people who were not like you [Crakers]” (MaddAddam 3). Power is, at first, in the hands of the male scientist. Bouson reminds us that “[u]nlike those who insist that science is nothing more than a social construction, Atwood emphasizes the growing, and potentially lethal, power of scientists to manipulate and alter human biology – and reality” (151). Yet as the trilogy continues, power is dispersed and is non-systemic, moving from Crake to Jimmy/Snowman and finally to Toby, the woman who cares for the Crakers when Jimmy/Snowman becomes incapable of doing so. It operates in a discursive manner, claiming to instil order on one level, while fighting oppression on another.

The first book of the trilogy leaves readers wondering what will happen next. What will Snowman do, now that he knows that the only few surviving humans might jeopardize the sustainability of life as they pose a threat to the Crakers? At the end of the novel Snowman declares “Zero hour, time to go,” without offering any further explanation as to what it means. Will Snowman choose Crakers over humans? This is an important question amidst the debate on the future of humanity. Crakers are engineered to sustain life, but they are also engineered to be human-like. How can Snowman decide on ending one type of humanity and allowing another type to live if he knows that both types, humans and Crakers (assuming they are different but similar types) will follow the same gender patterns that were the reasons for the demise of humanity in the first place? The choice becomes problematic for Snowman as he comes to realize that one of the problems that led to the demise of humanity in his world is the gender distinction that now also exists in the Crakers.

Gendered power relations are also examined in the character of the scientist and his relation to another character, Oryx. Crake creates his world and his Crakers by getting “rid of the chaos and the hurtful people, to make Oryx happy” (Oryx 4). And when his own destruction catches up with him, he has no resource but to kill Oryx, the reason behind his scientific madness, and kills himself in the process. As we read of the history behind Crake’s relationship with Oryx, and Snowman/Jimmy’s earlier involvement with her, we begin to appreciate the important role Oryx plays in the scientist’s decision to end the world[3]. During his last night with Oryx, Jimmy shares with her his suspicion that Crake knows about them and that he might be jealous (Oryx 321). While thinking about what happened, he wonders if this jealousy is what resulted in the final suicide/murder scene:

Had Oryx loved him, had she loved him not, did Crake know about them, how much did he know, when did he know it, was he spying on them all along? Did he set up the grand finale as an assisted suicide, had he intended to have Jimmy shoot him because he knew what would happen next and he didn’t deign to stick around to watch the results of what he’d done? (Oryx 343) 

Crake's final act is a clear sign of how his gendered relation with Oryx, and by extension with Snowman, distorted his vision of what is best for the sustainability of life on earth. And so, Crake kills Oryx and himself when he realizes he might lose her to Snowman, oblivious to the effects these actions might have on his project.

                  The scientist who fails to envisage the future of his experiment dies, while the imaginative Snowman/Jimmy survives, at least beyond the epidemic that kills almost everyone. In creating his Crakers, Crake emulates Plato when he insists on removing all imaginative traits, doing away with affinity for art and poetry and capacity for symbolic thinking, as he sees it to be the reason behind the destruction of man. Gradually, however, Snowman and then Toby start telling the Crakers stories that they seem to demand, to sustain them. The following conversation is an example:

“Snowman-the-Jimmy is coming closer to us,” says the short woman. “Then he will tell us the stories of Crake, as he always did when he was living in his tree. But today you must tell them to us.”

“Me?” says Toby. “But I don’t know the stories of Crake!”

“You will learn them,” says the man. “It will happen. Because Snowman-the-Jimmy is the helper of Crake, and you are the helper of Snowman-the-Jimmy. That is why.”

“You must put on this red thing,” says the shorter woman. “It is called a hat.”

“Yes,” says the other woman, nodding. “And then the words of Crake will come out of your mouth. That is how Snowman-the-Jimmy would do it.” (MaddAddam 38)

The Crakers begin to develop a need for the symbolic in their pursuit of art (they create pictures) and writing (which takes the form of poetry in the beginning). “Well, you can’t apparently do away with symbolic thinking,” Atwood notes, “and have something that will still be a recognizable human being” (Louisiana Channel). Atwood moves away from the general discourse on sustainability that is grounded in the “foundational assumption … that the roots of the ecological crisis are to be found in a failure of the imagination … to perceive properly what is already there” (Bergthaller 741). This view is grounded in a Romantic vision of the modern world, and it is not a view that Atwood holds here. In her novels, imagination is not a romantic trait “whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” as William Wordsworth described it in his investigations of poetry[4]; it is rather an imagination that is needed to see what is not there (Bergthaller 741). In Oryx and Crake, the Crakers appear as mere objects whose voices are almost never heard; the same goes for the second book in the trilogy. But by the middle of the third book, we begin to hear their voices. Finally, positioning the Craker as the narrator in MaddAddam grants the non-human agency and voice, rendering him more human than cyborg. These come alongside imaginative powers and symbolic thinking, traits that were denied to the posthumans by their creator largely because they were the reasons behind the creator's own downfall and the demise of his scientific mindset.

Narrative as a technique and a device is traditionally reserved for humans. Atwood does not follow the assumed method of narration, and the reader is here placed in a different, somewhat uncomfortable setting. As the reader searches for autonomous meaning and longs to identify with the narrator, there is further distance being imposed. Narrative power is granted to the non-human, because the non-human demands it, and by this Atwood opens up possibilities of disconnection between the reader and the narrator, and between human and cyborg, blurring any boundaries and disrupting any set of binary opposition at work here. With this she forces new ways of taking the voice of the cyborg/machine seriously, as one that is expressed and grounded in the experience of the non-human. The narration of the subject’s experiences is shifted to an altogether different space. There is a possibility in imagining a future that does not rely on the human, a future that opens up a space for different categories of “normal.” Atwood’s probing of boundaries suggests that it is not only humans who are part of a performative process, but the cyborg and the non-human, too. As species that live alongside the dominant human, they take part in the simultaneous construction and breakdown of the posthuman condition. And by narrating their own story, they begin the journey of creating a world that accommodates them.

The last book ends with Toby, the main voice, leaving the compound where humans and Crakers crossbreed. The reader cannot help but wonder if, by leaving, Toby shows her inability to accept a world where the human is erased and replaced by the cyborg. Or maybe her leaving opens up the space for Crakers to belong. Coibanu divides the trilogy into a masculine narrative in book one, with Jimmy, a man, as the sole survivor, a feminine narrative in book two that ends with two women saving a third one, and a “neither man nor woman, but decidedly post-human worlds order” in book three (159). Though it is Toby who gradually enables this posthuman world order by providing the Crakers with agency and voice, she struggles to accept it, maybe in the same way that Atwood struggles with accepting the future of humanity. Toby teaches one of the Craker children how to write, enabling the species to create their own history and culture. But when this finally happens she questions what she has done and wonders if, by giving them writing, and by extension by allowing them to imagine, she has not also doomed them to extinction:

Now what have I done? She thinks. What can of worms have I opened? They’re so quick, these children: they’ll pick this up and transmit it to all the others.

What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them? (MaddAddam 204)

Reflecting on this, Atwood argues that “the other effect of writing things down is that things can become solidified and then instead of a story being fluid, it is set. And then of course you're into the interpretations of the world and pretty soon you're into biblical exegesis, and after that, surely the religious wars are not far behind” (Mavity). Toby begins to understand that what she teaches the Crakers might be necessary for their survival, but that it might also result in their eventual demise. Bergthaller proposes that Atwood questions the role “language, literature and, more generally, the human propensity for symbol-making can play in our attempts to deal with the ecological crisis” (729). By granting them writing or symbol-making, Toby allows the Crakers the tools that will enable them to deal with their own ecological crisis as it arises, leaving the reader to speculate on how they will do that, and whether they will follow in the footsteps of their creator or be able to forge a new way of living.

Toby gives the Crakers more than writing. She gives them an “origin story,” almost in opposition to Haraway's cyborg who “has no origin story in the Western sense” (Reader, 9). Haraway expounds this further:

Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden... The cyborg does not dream of a community on the model of the organic family, this time without the Oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps this is why [Haraway] wants to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy. (Reader 9)

Atwood's cyborgs, on the other hand, do expect their father to rescue them. They do recognize their garden of Eden in the “egg” where they were created. This might be the reason they cling to Crake and stories of Crake. Atwood's cyborgs leave a compelling story to be told in their eagerness to hear about their own father, leaving the reader to wonder if, in creating the cyborg, Crake did not simply recreate a human. Or if, potentially, even cyborgs are human, and in their longing for an origin story, they prove their humanity. Haraway believes that cyborgs, being “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism … are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins,” insisting that to them, fathers are “inessential” (Reader 10). Yet when Atwood draws a picture of Haraway’s theory, she finds her cyborgs returning to desires that are deemed human and flawed, according to Haraway. These cyborgs have indeed been expelled from their heaven, and by teaching them writing and providing them with history, Toby allows them a semi-return to it, much in the same way that humans are promised a heaven to return to. Cyborgs, a human creation, are inevitably endowed with human characteristics, maybe even trapped in them.

Atwood invites us to consider the implications of the cyborg identity with the possibilities it creates and the dangers that come with being freed from everything that makes one human, including imperfections. By indirectly posing science and its creation of the posthuman in opposition to art in its imaginative power, Atwood seems to argue that imagination, which is vital to all artistic production and to the invention of the cyborg, might be problematic in creating a world without oppression. She links oppression with the capacity to create imaginary worlds, such as the one that Toby creates for the Crakers which results in her achieving a goddess-like status among them, and later, the one that some of the Crakers construct for themselves.

Yet one can look at Atwood's cyborgs from another perspective, regarding them not as returning to human desires and language but as fashioning their own desires and language. Haraway admonishes that “[c]yborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the work that marked them as other” (Reader 33). In portraying her cyborgs as innocent creatures who, through the use of writing, gain experience, Atwood suggests that they can seize the tools that will give them voice, fashioning them to their own liking.

The cyborg figure in Atwood’s work also begs another question that has been reiterated by the characters in the trilogy and was addressed earlier in this study. Are these cyborgs natural mutations or creations of a mad scientist? However, this line of inquiry is not straightforward. The cyborgs first appear in the beginning of the book as creations of a mad scientist, presenting the reader with a sense of an artificial abomination. Yet, towards the last part of the trilogy, their image becomes more ambivalent. Haraway investigates the line between what is natural and what is artificial as she suggests that nature itself is constructed: “If organisms are natural objects, it is crucial to remember that organisms are not born; they are made in world-changing technoscientific practices by particular collective actors in particular times and places” (Reader 65). And if organisms are made, one can argue that they are not different from cyborgs, also made by particular collective actors (in Atwood’s novels, Crake), at particular – turbulent – times. Haraway reminds us that the term “cyborg” was coined in 1960 to “refer to the enhanced man who could survive in extra-terrestrial environments,” and that in the cyborg, “the machine[,] is not other to the organism. Rather the machine and the organism are each communication systems joined in a symbiosis that transforms both” (Reader 299). Although Atwood's Crakers are not a symbiosis between human and machine, they are indeed not entirely other than human. And nowhere is this proximity between the Craker and the human more manifest than in the final part of the trilogy where cyborgs and humans begin mating to produce a new type of life.

What does Atwood's trilogy leave us with? As fiction exaggerates reality in order for us to notice it[5], what reality are we invited to consider here? At present, science and social studies are both constructing a new version of the human, the posthuman. Is this a project that should worry us? Is the posthuman world the end of our own humanity or a site of hope, a place where we can learn to better adapt to the world – even if, by doing so, we become less human or, on the contrary, bring with us old traits and features that hindered us before? I do not propose answers, and similarly, I find it hard-pressed to suggest that Atwood offers solutions or suggests unwavering decisions regarding the posthuman. She herself has argued that her book poses questions rather than offering answers (TownHallSeattle). In the trilogy, her presentation of posthuman subjects suggests further investigations into what is human and into alternate possibilities for humanity. Through these investigation, the trilogy offers its readers a new way of deconstructing Western ideology, presenting a model where, in trying to undo the destruction that is inevitable in a world that believes in the supremacy of one concept over another, of man over woman, science over art, human over non-human, we are reminded of the referential value of language and meaning. The trilogy can be seen as a reminder not to allow our distrust in our current ideologies to lead us to a quick and naïve dismantling of these ideologies. Though Atwood might not be saying that we are trapped into our modes of thinking, she is showing us that escaping this mode of thinking is not an easy feat.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. 2013. NY: Anchor Books, 2014.

–. Oryx and Crake. 2003. NY: Anchor Books, 2004.

Bergthaller, Hannes. “Housebreaking the Human Animal: Humanism and the Problem of Sustainability in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.” English Studies 91.7 (2010): 728–743.

Bouson, J. Brooks. “'It's Game Over Forever': Atwood's Satiric Vision of a Bioengineered Posthuman Future in Oryx and Crake.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 39.3 (2004): 139-156.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990. NY: Routledge, 2008.

Coibanu, Calina. “Rewriting the Human at the End of the Anthropocene in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy.” Minnesota Review 83 (2014): 153-162.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. NY: Routledge, 1991.

–. The Haraway Reader. NY: Routledge, 2004.

Louisiana Channel. “Margaret Atwood: On the Planet of Speculative Fiction 3/3/15.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Jan. 2016, watch?v=aOWYdX50qQc

Mavity, Anne. “Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam Interview 9/10/14.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Jan. 2016,

Q on CBC. “Margaret Atwood brings ‘MaddAddam’ to Studio Q 10/4/14.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Jan. 2016, watch?v=M9JY-PvFcXc

TownHallSeattle. “Margaret Atwood 'MaddAddam' 10/4/13.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Oct. 2013,

[1] In 2004, Atwood invented Longpen, a technology that replaces the author’s physical presence (in book signings for example), and allows for remote robotic writing. Her interest in forms of the posthuman are clearly evident beyond her works in the novel.

[2] This play on the opposition between science and art is very common in utopian/dystopian literature, literature that owes its existence, at least in part, to Plato’s invention of a Utopia that rests on the binary mode of thinking highlighted above.

[3] Crake and Jimmy first meet Oryx as an online avatar that they separately discover to be an actual sex slave of sorts. She remains a memory for Jimmy for a long time and it is actually Crake who frees her from her world and brings her into his, only to cause her final death when Jimmy becomes involved with her.

[4] In Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth hails the power of our imagination in making things appear more beautiful that they are, and thus more noticeable. Imagination in this trilogy leads to the ‘ugly’ destruction of the world, but it is also a vital force behind the evolution of the Crakers from robotic-like creature, to human-like ones.

[5] This brings us back to the Romantics in their view of poetry as adding “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” We can even “trace” in these stories, “the primary laws of our nature.” (Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballands)