Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake (2003)critiques modernity's commitment to homo faber--he who labors to use every instrument as a means to achieve a particular end in building a world, even when the fabrication of that world necessarily demands a repeated violation of its materiality, including its people. Atwood propels her novel through the memories of the main character, Snowman, a survivor of a deadly viral pathogen created and unleashed by his best friend, Crake. Too much a product of a profit-driven world who mirrors its economy of self-interest, Crake emerges as the quintessential homo faber, making it unlikely that any kind of positive social change will happen directly through him.
Instead, Atwood's character Snowman serves as a potential site for change. He faces the challenge of either taking deliberative and participatory action in the creation of a yet-to-be imagined inviolate world, or imitating homo faber. Atwood marks this tension from the outset of the novel, symbolizing it in Jimmy's name change to Snowman, which evokes The Abominable Snowman--"existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards [...] known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints" (8). These mythic and multi-directional footprints (they point backward as they move forward) represent Snowman's liminal position and potential power--to repeat a past cycle of aggression against nature in the name of personal profit, or to re-imagine a way for future living grounded in a genuine concern for others. Snowman's narrative about his past is concomitant of his ability to cross boundaries on several levels and to challenge existing structures all while working within them. At novel's end, when the possibility for again belonging to a community is revealed to him, he must choose: to retreat from, attack, or engage humanely the strangers with whom he is confronted. If he chooses the third option, it is possible that he will help to build a world unlike that which homo faber has produced. (1)
Under girding the development of homo faber is a basic, instrumental philosophy that has contributed to an elision of violence against material goods, including human instruments. This instrumentalism has naturalized the division of labor under capitalism and led to an increased decentralization in governing communities and alienation among individuals. Homo faber's instrumental worldview--grounded in separation and enclosure--acts as the cohesive agent that assures Jimmy a leading role in Crake's "Paradice" project. Of course, it is this same instrumental perspective that separates the two men as well. On one hand, Crake's scientific intelligence, evident through his work in Paradice where he creates the BlyssPluss pill and the genetically-spliced Crakers, positions him as a member of an elite class that values instrumental production only as it is linked with personal gain. On the other hand, Jimmy's humanistic tendencies socially marginalize him. Even as he is part of the privileged, scientific community because of his family background, he moves forever closer to membership in the "uncivilized" Pleebland culture that literally sits beyond the walls of his world.
Belonging and not belonging to his community is a marker that Snowman/Jimmy is Atwood's vehicle for showing that potential social change may be enacted. The supposed "good" life that homo faber has fabricated, and that has been reified in modernity, finds itself in question in this novel. Though it is plausible that readers, through Snowman, might concede the possibility for re-making a world in imitation of its predecessor, they might also be able to imagine a potential watershed moment in his decision--where future-life will be motivated less by personal gain and grounded more in a genuine care and respect for others. Since the novel concludes before that decision is made, however, choice and accountability are left in the minds of the readers, although Atwood does guide readers to contemplate seriously the ethical implications of particular choices. …