Human and Animal Futurity: Survival, Flourishing, and Care in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers


Human and Animal Futurity: Survival, Flourishing, and Care in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

Monica Sousa

Introduction

When humans generally think about the future, their thoughts are often primarily concerned with what the future will be for themselves. Animals are easily excluded from their thoughts regarding the future. As Claire Colebrook asks in Death of the PostHuman, “How is it that humanity defines itself as that being that inevitably chooses life, and yet has done so by saving only its own life?” (204). Colebrook asks this in her discussion of human extinction, yet the question also suggests a focus on a wider range of human destruction towards nonhumans. While humans literally kill animals for their own preservation (for food, medicine, research, clothing, etc.), the act of excluding nonhumans from thoughts of ensuring the future acts as a metaphorical killing. These recurring literal and metaphorical killings acted out by humans in the present implies a future of inequality, where humans remain at the top of the hierarchy of moral and ethical concern. How can we, as humans, move beyond this oppressive mindset? One of the places we can begin to look to reevaluate the enforced inequality between beings of different species is the genre of science fiction. Many works of science fiction stand as influential tools teaching or reminding us that to move beyond a future of inequality, we must first recognize the ways we too often treat animal life as below ours, and then begin to practice care responses. 

Yet, we should not simply think that an animal’s permission for survival and keeping them alive is equal to them having a sufficient quality of life. Animals, including genetically engineered animals that were originally created for human consumption, should also be empowered to flourish. In demonstrating this argument, this paper examines the representation of genetically engineered pigs and their relationships with humans in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy—Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2007), and MaddAddam (2013)—and Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja (2017). Atwood’s post-apocalyptic trilogy contains many genetically engineered creatures, including the humanoid Crakers, as well as many nonhuman animals. For this paper, I choose to focus on the pigoons, the transgenic pig hosts carrying fool-proof human organs for future transplants. In Joon-ho’s film, the “super pigs” are excessively large pigs genetically engineered for future meat consumption. Okja follows a young girl named Mija and her relationship with Okja, her “super pig” companion animal. When Okja is crowned as the best pig, she is taken away from her home in South Korea and brought to New York for the public revealing ceremony, and then to be slaughtered afterwards. Mija embarks on a journey to save her super pig. In contemporary Western culture, pigs are, indeed, commonly eaten and are often considered the best candidate for xenotransplantation. Both Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works are culturally relevant to contemporary Western society and human attitudes towards pigs. Yet, these works also demonstrate the ways we can see genetically engineered animals less as products, and more as subjects who are worthy recipients of care. 

Through an animal ethics of care lens, this paper explores the imagined possibilities in these works on how we can relate to genetically engineered animals that were originally created for sustaining and extending human life. How would care practices consider not only the animal’s survival, but also their ability to flourish? Martha Nussbaum states that the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects revolves around how our actions enable or impede their flourishing: “to shape the human-animal relationship . . . no sentient animal should be cut off from the chance of a flourishing life, a life with the type of dignity relevant to that species” (351). In proving my argument, this paper will first analyze the decision in creating these engineered pigs and the lack of care towards them, and then consider the cooperative, trusting, and/or fulfilling relationships between the humans (or posthumans) and the pigs.

Ethics of care believes that moral actions focus on the relationships we have with others, and emphasizes actions such as care, attention, and benevolence as virtues, as well as the importance of emotional compassionate responses such as empathy and sympathy. Ethics of care asks for flexibility and careful attention to individual situations, rather than emphasizing absolutes or a set of rules. Joan Tronto defines care as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life sustaining web” (142). Some scholars in animal ethics approach animal welfare by connecting ethics of care with animal ethics to form an animal ethics of care. Their goal is to focus on the personal relationships that humans have with animals. As Daniel Engster states, care ethics opposes animal suffering “not because we wish to maximize utility or consistently apply our rights theory across species, but because we have relations with animals and care about them” (521).

A Lack of Care

In Atwood’s trilogy and Joon-ho’s film, the oppressive systems that created the genetically engineered pigs are clearly lacking in care responses. In their works, genetic engineering technologies are practiced in a society that lacks appropriate care ethics. In Oryx and Crake, the first installment of Atwood’s trilogy, we learn about the pigoons, who are genetically engineered to serve as hosts growing human-tissue organs for future transplant. They are spliced with a “rapid maturity gene” so they could “grow five or sex kidneys at a time.” Atwood writes, “[s]uch a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then, rather than being destroyed, it could keep on living and grow more organs” (27–28). In Okja, the Mirando Corporation genetically engineers twenty-six “super pigs” to be sent to farmers around the world, and then crowns the best pig ten years later. Lucy, the CEO, explains their goal for the super pigs: they will be “designed to leave a minimal footprint on the environment, consuming less feed and forage, producing less excretions. But most importantly . . . They’ll need to taste fucking good” (00:05:03). As the audience later learns, it is this last point that is truly the most, if not the only, important aspect in the eyes of the corporation. After this point in the film, members of the Mirando Corporation show no signs that they are truly concerned with their environmental footprint. Rather, the super pigs (as well as the pigoons in Atwood’s trilogy) are defined solely as bodies and reduced to what Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer calls “bare life,” a social system that actively separates political citizens and individuals from beings that are regarded as mere bodies, and thus, killable. While Agamben’s “bare life” does not explicitly include animals, human beings that are stripped of citizenship (prisoners or people in refugee camps, for example) are treated as if they are reduced to the status of animal. Laura Hudson explains that “[a]s the representation and embodiment of nature, the animal becomes the marker of bare life” (1664). Indeed, the genetically engineered animal is especially a marker for this category. While companion animals can be seen with sentimentality and as more than mere bodies, too often the genetically engineered animal is defined by its body and what its body can do. 

Also, the genetically engineered pigs in the MaddAddam trilogy and Okja are developed under the assumption that people’s concerns and motivations are purely self-serving and individualist, rather than caring and relational. The creators of the pigoons and  super pigs do not assume that people could form bonds with these creations. While I would not argue that a strong, intimate bond is portrayed between a human and a pigoon in the MaddAddam trilogy, Okja and Mija in Joon-ho’s film certainly convey a strong, intimate bond. Regardless, the Mirando Corporation does not care about intimate bonds between humans and super pigs. Rather, they care about how they can portray it to the media. The Mirando Corporation takes advantage of their bond by paying for Mija to come to New York City and be reunited with Okja in a public event because they want to minimize public relations damage to the company.

To Be Granted Survival

While the lack of care is certainly evident in Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works, the potential for care ethics is also embedded throughout. Before we examine this potential for care ethics, let us first consider how and why, by the end of Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works, the pigoons and Okja—and another super pig—are granted survival. The pigoons and the two super pigs become survivors of the capitalistic systems that created them for human consumption, either in the form of sustaining or extending human life. In MaddAddam, when a violent group of humans called the Painballers are after the human survivors and start regularly eating pigoon piglets, the pigoons want revenge and turn to the humans and the Crakers for help (269). In asking for help, the pigoons are aware that they require care from the humans in order to ensure their survival from the excess and the hyper-consumption which the Painballers symbolize. In exchange, the pigoons will agree to a truce, stop eating the humans’ crops, and strive to co-exist harmoniously. 

Near the end of Joon-ho’s film, an economic exchange ensures Okja’s survival. Mija, however, refuses to see Okja in terms of economic value until the moment she is forced to do so by an uncaring system so she can save Okja’s life. When Okja is about to be slaughtered, Mija offers a pig figurine made from solid gold to Nancy, the new CEO of the corporation. Mija states, “I want to buy Okja. Alive” (01:45:13). It is this act that saves Okja from the slaughterhouse. Nancy remarks that the figurine is “worth a lot of money” (01:46:04), then congratulates Mija on her purchase. While typically it would not be viewed as caring to treat Okja in terms of economic exchange, the conditions in which Mija is operating forces her to be flexible and to consider the fact that in order to care about and care for Okja, she must start thinking in terms of economic exchange. 

Yet, while Okja’s survival is approved, almost all the other super pigs at the slaughterhouse do not receive this privilege. Near the film’s end, when Mija leaves with Okja after the economic exchange, hundreds of super pigs watch them through a feedlot fence. Two of these super pigs then engineer the escape of a piglet (presumably their baby), pushing the piglet through the fence. As Mija and Okja leave the feedlot (while Okja hides the piglet), they—and the audience—hear the cries of the hundreds of the super-pigs left behind. Sherryl Vint states that “[i]f we are to learn to see animals as others who can make ethical appeals upon us . . . humans have to accept that much of what animals may want to communicate to humanity is not what we might want to hear” (86). What we hear echoed back to us with the sound of their cries is human guilt—for our mistreatment of animals, and for the fact that we may not be doing enough to save them. Yet, we must also not forget that Mija, a young child, is certainly in no position where she can save and care for all the super pigs. It is also important to acknowledge that her decision to save the one piglet demonstrates caring about and reveals her compassion towards the rest of the super pigs.

Caring-for, Caring-about, and Flourishing

What we also see here in these examples of how the pigoons, Okja, and the piglet are able to survive is a difference between caring-for and caring-about. As Nel Noddings explains, “Caring-for describes an encounter or set of encounters characterized by direct attention and response. It requires the establishment of a caring relation, person-to-person contact of some sort. Caring-about expresses some concern but does not guarantee a response to one who needs care” (xiv). Noddings acknowledges that it is impossible for us to provide care for everyone in the world; even if we care about animals, we are limited by time, resources, and space. Mija is only in the position to care for two of the super pigs. Nonetheless, Mija has gained awareness of the mistreatment of animals through her exposure to the cruel system that created and abused Okja. Caring-about, then, also aligns with Josephine Donovan’s assertion that animal care ethics requires attention: “Attention to the individual suffering animal but also . . . attention to the political and economic systems that cause the suffering” (3). In contrast, while the humans do provide care for the pigoons by helping them and honoring their truce, it remains ambiguous at the end of MaddAddam whether the humans are doing this because they care about the pigoons, or if they mostly care about peaceful co-existence. 

In comparison to the ending of MaddAddam, a scene in Oryx and Crake shows Jimmy caring-about the pigoons, but he cannot, at the time, care for them. As a child, Jimmy feels distress when the men at his father’s work make jokes about the pigoons being in the meals: “he [Jimmy] didn’t want to eat a pigoon, because he thought of the pigoons as creatures much like himself. Neither he nor they had a lot of say in what was going on” (24). Jimmy cares about the suffering of the pigoons, sees them as “creatures much like himself,” and can recognize their inability to speak against their own oppression. While the use of the pigoon for medical reasons is accepted by the general public, there are many objections to eating the pigoons. Their objection is not because of any compassion towards the creatures, but because human DNA exists in them. While the public are only opposed to eating pigoons because they are concerned with the disgrace of the human (through the consumption of pigoons), Jimmy cares about the pigoons’ wellbeing. 

While it would be ideal for caring-for and caring-about to always work in conjunction, it is caring-for that allows the genetically engineered pigs the widest opportunity for flourishing. In MaddAddam, years after the battle with the Painballers, the humans and pigoons are still respecting their truce. The final pages of the novel show us that the pigoons are living happily in forests, untroubled by the human survivors. They are able to live this untroubled life because the humans, after helping them with the Painballers, allow them the space to live their lives undisturbed and as they wish. Yet, this form of caring would not have been possible without the Crakers first caring-about the pigoons. It is the Crakers who inform the humans that the pigoons need help, through their form of telepathy. It is the fact that the Crakers, this group of humanoid posthumans created by Crake, initially care about the pigoons and then express this caring to the humans which allows the humans to then care for the pigoons. Lars Schmeink notes that it is through the Crakers where “Atwood . . . introduces compassion for the pigoons” (93). Compassion, which is a sympathetic concern for the suffering or misfortunes of others,  implicitly indicates a caring-about. Throughout the trilogy, the Crakers are characterized as benevolent and nurturing. The fact that they are the ones who can easily feel compassion towards the pigoons and show their caring-about them by voicing their concern to the humans suggests a vision for a future of posthumanity: what comes after human-centric mindsets. Caring-about other species, even ones that were originally created for human consumption agendas, is a frame of mind that can be cultivated and practiced. 

In The Year of the Flood, Toby (a protagonist in the novel and a member of an environmental religious group) often treats the pigoons as abject nuisances. She shoots one of them to protect the food supply in her garden, and when witnessing them having a funeral for the boar she calls it “truly frightening” (328). Yet, in MaddAddam, her mindset shifts, and she even accepts that the pigoons have a culture. As Nussbaum writes, “[p]art of respect for other species is a willingness to look and study, learning the internal rhythms of an animal community and the sense of value the way of life expresses” (372). Toby also shows the potential for care and multispecies cooperation. When Jimmy wonders if the pigoons are leading them astray to ambush and then eat them, Toby responds: “I’d say the odds are against it. They’ve already had the opportunity” (348). In the face of uncertainty, Toby chooses to believe in the intellect and potentially compassionate capacities of the pigoons. She recognizes the fact that the pigoons are able to think about themselves as well as the humans and the Crakers—and that humans should adopt that same empathetic practice.

In Joon-ho’s film, Okja is given the chance to have a flourishing life. When Johnny the zoologist, in awe of how well Okja was raised, asks Mija’s grandfather what his methods were, the grandfather responds: “I just let her run around” (24:54). Indeed, Okja is given lots of space outside to run, play, and carry out the life of a regular pig. While it is true that she needs to be raised well to eventually carry on her super-pig duty (to be slaughtered for meat), by the end of the film Okja and the other piglet are running around outside, this time without the oncoming threat of slaughter. Okja also flourishes by having a compassionate caregiver. While one does not necessarily have to truly care about someone in order to be in the position of caregiver, Mija does indeed care about in addition to caring for Okja. Even before Okja is taken away, Mija shows compassion in many ways, ranging from removing burrs from Okja’s paws, and treating her body for injuries when Okja hurts herself. These moments are shown early in the film, which allows the viewer to recognize early that care requires work as well. Near the beginning of the film, Mija also shows compassion by showing great distress when Okja falls off the cliff that she saves Mija from falling off. As the two of them embrace, the camera captures Okja’s eye, and the gaze exchanged between her and Mija. By showing Mija whispering in Okja’s ear and the close-up of Okja’s eye, we can recall Jacques Derrida and his cat in The Animal that Therefore I Am. When Derrida looks at his cat, and sees her looking back, he is not looking at Cat as a representative of the entire species or as a metaphor or an allegory, but at an individual cat (6). The first step in connecting with the Other is to recognize it is not simply a placeholder of a group or a symbol. By showing Mija whispering in Okja’s ear and the close-up of Okja’s eye, the audience sees how Mija is looking at an individual super pig—not just an animal bred for productive purposes. In these moments of touch, gaze, and senses meeting, we see interspecies communication. Donna Haraway explains that “touch ramifies and shapes accountability” and emphasizes the importance of “accountability, caring for, being affected, and entering into responsibility” (36). When species meet—as Haraway would put it—we see a moment of encounter that can arouse care and empathy.

On the Question of Autonomy

Donovan asks, “how does one generalize beyond the individual particular instance of caring or compassion to include all creatures within an ethic of care?” (184). One important critique of ethics of care is the idea that it is more well-suited for individual animals that have been domesticated and that people have personal, close encounter relationships with, and not as useful when talking about wild animals or other animals that people typically do not have intimate relationships with. Grace Clement shares this concern and argues that when considering wild animals, ethics of care should still be present, but it should also be willing to incorporate elements of what care ethicist Carol Gilligan refers to as justice-based ethics, which is a type of ethics that encourages moral choices based on a measurement of rights. Factors such as autonomy and respect are key ideas in justice-based ethics, and Clement argues that animal ethics also needs to also incorporate these factors. As she points out, “an ethic of care which does not value autonomy tends to result in forms of ‘caring’ which are oppressive to either the caregiver or the recipient of care” (309). In MaddAddam, the pigoons want to be able to live their lives in the wild unbothered, with respect, and separated from humans. In respecting their wishes, the humans care for them by allowing them their autonomy. In comparison, Okja spends a lot of time outside, but I claim that she is more domesticated than the pigoons. While domestic animals certainly rely on human support more in comparison to wild animals, there is a fine line between caring for a domesticated animal and limiting their autonomy. 

Ultimately, an animal ethics of care needs to also be attentive to this justice-based tenant of autonomy.  I would argue that ethics of care already hints at recognizing this through its assertion that a proper ethics of care, as Adams and Donovan explains, is attentive to the political systems that shape certain oppressions (3). As I previously mentioned, Mija is undoubtedly affected by her experience seeing Okja and the hundreds of other super pigs in the slaughter factory, even though she only comes home with two of them. While she is only in the position to allow the autonomy of those two super pigs, Mija is certainly aware that the hundreds of other super pigs are denied their autonomy. Mija’s discovery of where Okja came from and the larger group of which she is a part demonstrates how an ethics of care needs to recognize that the individual is never entirely separate from the collective of which they are a part—nor should they be.

Conclusion

While some may worry that animal ethics of care is anthropocentric in how it draws attention to the humans performing the care, animal ethics of care does try to jettison this implied anthropocentrism and instead foreground other significant elements that this ethics emphasizes, such as interconnectedness and responsibility. Furthermore, an element of ethics of care is reciprocity; this reciprocity does not imply that there needs to be an equal trade between both participants, but instead implies reciprocation in the sense that when the caregiver gives, the care recipient will have a response to that care. It is up to the caregiver to pay attention to the care recipient and how they respond to the care. By using what partial knowledge they possess to interpret their response, they should then re-evaluate, if need be, or learn more about how to provide that care for that individual. This willingness to learn, evolve, and transform can allow for posthumanism and care ethics to compliment each other. This reciprocity is suggested in Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works. In MaddAddam, the pigoons can flourish by living a life undisturbed in the forests, with the humans and Crakers separated but close enough, respecting them and their wishes. In Joon-ho’s film, Okja and the piglet can flourish not only by living a life with the freedom to roam, but also through their compassionate relationship with Mija. The pigoons and the super pigs desire different types of care, which demonstrates their role as active participants in their care relations with humans.

In this paper, I examined Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Joon-ho’s Okja to argue for human care towards the flourishing of genetically engineered animals originally created for human use. These works of science fiction demonstrate how the genre is not only a useful vehicle for showing us different ways of being, but also for emphasizing a multi-species interconnection or kinship. Yet, why genetically engineered animals? Why specifically care about their flourishing? Genetically engineered animals are created/altered through biotechnology. Both animals and machines are traditionally seen as separate from humanist constructions regarding the human condition, and so connecting the two may lead to feelings of abject horror. Since genetically engineered animals are discoursed in this unfair way and have no say in what is done to their bodies, humans especially have a sense of responsibility and especially owe them possible opportunities for flourishing. 

As Nussbaum writes, “[t]he purpose of social cooperation, by analogy and extension, ought to be to live decently together in a world in which many species try to flourish” (351). To heighten our chances of moving beyond a future of inequality, we should foster mindsets and practices that encourage both caring-for and caring-about. What is ultimately at stake in not doing so is not only the lives of nonhumans, but a future notion of humanity that is caring, empathetic, cooperative, and considers the livelihoods of both humans nonhumans.

WORKS CITED

Adams, Carol and Josephine Donovan, editors. The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. Columbia University Press, 2007.

Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. Knopf Canada, 2014. 

—. Oryx and Crake. Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2004. 

—. The Year of the Flood. Knopf Canada, 2010. 

Clement, Grace. “The Ethic of Care and the Problem of Wild Animals.” The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. Columbia University Press, 2007.

Colebrook, Claire. Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction. Open Humanities Press, 2015.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Luise Mallet, translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Engster, Daniel. “Care Ethics and Animal Welfare.” Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 37, no.4, 2006, pp. 521-536.

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Hudson, Laura. “A Species of Thought: Bare Life and Animal Being.” Antipode, vol. 43, no. 5, 2011, pp. 1659-1678.

Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press, 1986.

Nussbaum, Martha. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Okja. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Plan B Entertainment, 2017. Netflix. 

Schmeink, Lars. Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society, and Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press, 2016.

Tronto, Joan. Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice. New York University Press, 2013.Vint, Sheryll. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool University Press, 2012.

Monica Sousa received her BA and her MA from Brock University. She is currently a PhD candidate in the department of English at York University. Monica specializes in contemporary literature, and her research focuses on animal studies, posthumanism, and biotechnology in contemporary science fiction. Her dissertation explores human and nonhuman animal relations in contemporary science fiction, with a focus on biotechnologically engineered animals (including genetically modified animals or animals with cybernetic/robotic enhancements). She is interested in care responses and in the ethics regarding how we treat these animals and care for and about them after they have been created. In 2021, Monica contributed a chapter to Posthumanist Perspectives on Literary and Cultural Animals (2021), published by Springer Nature, and to Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Twenty-First Century Narrative (2021), published by Routledge (on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Borne). In 2020, she contributed a chapter to Critical Insights: Life of Pi (2020), published by Salem Press. She has presented conference papers at many conferences, including WorldCon, the International Conference on Contemporary Narratives in English, the European Association for Critical Animal Studies, the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Science Fiction Research Association. 


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