Introduction: Black Hearts, Red Spades

A Thin Line between Human and Animal

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3.6 A Thin Line between Human and Animal

Don LePan is mainly known as a publisher and founder of the Broadview Press, even though he has written academic non-fiction works and has recently finished his second novel that deals with the human/nonhuman animal relationship. In Animals (2009), LePan takes up the issue of moral and ethical aspects of bringing food to our plates further than most of us would even imagine. In this dystopian novel, the intensive farming and extensive use of antibiotics in farm animals eventually causes great extinction of species, including the meat animals as well as pets. A solution to this problem is found in the replacement of the wiped out species by mongrels, an adopted name for the people affected by Peake’s syndrome or similarly handicapped.

The story is narrated by Broderick Clark, whose younger brother Sam fails to acquire speech and thus falls into the category of mongrels. There are two layers of narration; the first tells the story of Sam and his original and new family, while the second layer offers a reflection on the regressive situation in society written in retrospect by Broderick in the form of a didactic essay. Sam’s story is that of a deaf child mistakenly taken for a mongrel due to his inability to acquire speech. His original family cannot provide for him and thus he is placed in a new family as a pet. He becomes best friends with Naomi, a young girl who starts to teach him how to speak and consequently realizes that his only impediment is his deafness.

At present, Broderick speaks for free-range animal products and disapproves of the voices that claim that people should stop eating meat entirely (LePan 90), which probably reflects LePan’s own opinions. The author might have drawn inspiration for this novel not only from one of the basic philosophical disputes over where lies the very thin and ambiguous dividing line between human and nonhuman animals, but also from Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” (1729), in which the author suggests that in order to alleviate the burden of the many poor parents, their children should be eaten. By combining and developing these two issues in a dystopian novel, LePan foreshadows a possible future awaiting us should the factory farming suddenly come to an end.

A similar concept, where human beings with disability are dealt with as if they were nonhuman, even if they are not capitalized on in other ways, appears in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. In both Wars and Not Wanted on the Voyage, Findley challenges the human-centeredness through his (re)writings of the First World War and the biblical story of the great flood. The protagonists of these two novels, namely Robert Ross and Mrs Noyes, do not consider animals inferior to humans and Findley incorporates animals into the plot as equivalent to the human characters. In Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) Findley contemplates the disquieting discrepancy between creatures that are still assigned the status of animals and those that are already considered human, and the subsequent difference in treatment of these two groups. Findley’s novel discusses the so-called ape children, who are in fact handicapped children, and how they were treated in the Before Christ period, meaning usually killed in secret.

From all of the themes mentioned above, general tendencies in contemplating the human-animal relationship in contemporary Canadian literature can be traced. As the examples of Atwood’s earlier writings show, animals and wildlife imagery can be employed in fiction in a purely symbolic way. Another popular tendency among contemporary Canadian authors is to challenge master narratives, including both the ancient and biblical myths, and the modern ones, such as the twentieth century world wars. Continuing in the popular tradition of animal stories in Canada, Gowdy and Alexis offer original variations on these, where the animals have become the narrators and science merges with fantasy. Exploiting animals for food and entertainment is yet another frequently addressed issue. Another frequently mentioned theme is the gendered nature of killing animals. And what accompanies all of the discussed narratives is the questioning of the thin line between what it means to be human and animal. The following chapter shows that Margaret Atwood has managed to incorporate most of these recent trends in portraying the human-animal relationship into the dystopian MaddAddam trilogy.

4 Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy

4.1 A Future: Possible, but not Inevitable?

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy depicts a theme of survival brought to the ultimate scenario. The trilogy presents a pre-apocalyptic world that is swept by the waterless flood caused by a man-made virus that has wiped out almost the entire human population from the surface of our planet. In the first book of the trilogy, Oryx and Crake (2003), three important characters are introduced. Jimmy aka Snowman, who believes to be the sole survivor of the catastrophe; Glenn aka Crake, a scientist who is the instigator of the lethal virus; and Oryx, a girl with an uncertain past whom the previous two first spotted on a porn site when she was about eight. These characters take their nicknames from extinct animals except for Oryx, who did not have any name as such before. The division of society in MaddAddam is twofold: there are Compounds, the safe, enclosed and corporate-controlled areas where Jimmy and Crake grow up. On the other hand, there are the Pleeblands, the haven of crime, prostitution and gang fights, described more in depth in the second book of the trilogy, The Year of the Flood (2009). Flood introduces in more detail the eco-green cult called God’s Gardeners who believe that a waterless flood is coming and they intend to survive it by living in tune with nature and by minimizing their footprint on the planet, while creating their own “ararats” of survival supplies. This book introduces mainly Ren and Toby, former God’s Gardeners who have survived the waterless flood and are now fighting to survive in the newly established world. MaddAddam (2013), the last part of the trilogy, concludes with the meeting of the surviving humans and the humanoid bioengineered Crakers. These two “post-human” groups manage to continue living in the devastated world together, in a way preserving humanity and co-habiting the planet with other creatures and plants, in part bioengineered and gone feral.

As Margaret Atwood contends, the MaddAddam trilogy is not a science fiction in the usual meaning of the words, as she does not write about technologies that were not yet developed, or about aliens and other planets. She prefers the term speculative fiction, which draws on things that are technically possible but might not have been put into practice yet. However, she admits that the meaning of both terms is sometimes blurred (In Other Worlds 56). Speculative fiction, in Atwood’s view, allows to explore more realistically the impacts of the currently developing technologies if followed through; it challenges the notion of what it means to be human; or it shows what rearranging social organization a bit might result in (In Other Worlds 56). Thus, the authors of speculative fiction are able to criticize the ruling force more effectively, and Atwood has definitely used this power of writing in The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). The protagonist of the novel, Offred, manages to flee from the jaws of the totalitarian theocracy ruling the Republic of Gilead, former New England, where women are subjugated and exploited by the system. The message of this work of speculative fiction is becoming all the more alarming and exemplifies an instigation to rebel against the system as recent events imply. For instance, one Guardian article from February 2017 informs about an anonymous donor in San Francisco who has bought Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale copies and offered it for free to “encourage readers to ‘fight back’” the ruling class (Kean, n.pag.). I believe that the MaddAddam trilogy has a similar potential to instigate profound changes, even if only in the readers’ minds, and that the case it might fight for is the increasingly blurred line between what it means to be human and to be animal, thus affecting the promotion of animal rights.

In “a future” (Atwood, In Other Worlds 8) that Atwood proposes in her MaddAddam trilogy, the United States of America are under total control of private corporations and most people have only a very limited command of their lives. On the global scale, most animal species are becoming extinct and are replaced by new and more resistant, genetically engineered organisms. Critics describe the Atwood’s vision of a dystopian world as consumer capitalism run rampant (Parry 242), corporate greed run amok (McHugh, “Real” 192) or biotechnology gone too far (Sanderson 219). The MaddAddam trilogy is Atwood’s second attempt at foreshadowing a speculative future, the first being the aforementioned The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood labels her first speculative novel as a classic dystopia inspired in part by Orwell’s 1984, yet offering a different perspective than the dystopias published before in the sense of providing the female point of view through the main character Offred (Atwood, “The Handmaid’s” 516). On the other hand, Oryx and Crake, Atwood argues, carries certain dystopian elements, but should not be considered a conventional dystopia as it does not provide an overview of the societal structure, but it rather focuses on the lives of its characters and offers only their limited societal viewpoint (“The Handmaid’s” 517). However, this limited description of society is done away with in The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, where the structure of society is depicted in depth. In 2015, yet one more dystopia by Atwood was published, The Heart Goes Last. DeVaul sums up the similarities that permeate this most recent dystopia and The Handmaid’s Tale as their “environmental concerns, ideas about the commodification of sex, portrayals of the dangers of allowing personal belief to influence power, and a focus on the vulnerability of women”, together with the total control over discourse, language and literacy imposed on the residents of either the Republic of Gilead or the twin city of Consilience/Positron (252).

This last chapter of my thesis is focused mainly on how the human-animal relationship is challenged through Atwood’s master speculative narratives referred to as the MaddAddam trilogy, and what it tells us about the current condition our planet, including its living inhabitants, is in right now. As Atwood claims, at the time of writing the trilogy, all of the technologies and human inventions had already been either put into practice or had been devised and might have become part of our daily lives soon (“Perfect Storms” n.pag.). As she states in the acknowledgement section of The Year of the Flood, the story is fictional, “but the general tendencies and many of the details are alarmingly close to fact” (573). This makes the MaddAddam message all the more alarming. In relation to animals, these dubious technologies include xenotransplantation, or the transplantation of living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another. In MaddAddam, this is represented mainly by the OrganInc farms, where the genetically adjusted pigs are raised for organ transplantation, or the NooSkins, where skin-related biotechnologies are developed for human needs (Atwood, Oryx 62). Similar questionable uses of genetic engineering on animals include transgenic organisms, or those who receive genetic material from a different species embedded microgenetically for different reasons. Examples of these are the pigoons, wolvogs, bobkittens, rakunks and other splices of two or more species. Atwood also challenges the reality behind fake meat products, the laboratory creation of tissue-cultured meat in form of the so called ChickieNobs, or the bioengineering of special farm-animal splices that are constructed to minimize environmental impact. Vegetarianism is another theme explored and challenged throughout the novel. Many characters, mainly from the ranks of God’s Gardeners, strictly reject eating meat while their group is still active, yet after the waterless flood hits, they are more than willing to replace their vegetarian diet for a more easily available carnivorous diet. On the following pages, the analysis reveals Atwood’s visionary powers and compares the reality with her prophetic MaddAddam future in terms of our behaviour towards and treatment of animals.

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