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Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 376 pages

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood's books have been published in over thirty-five countries. She is the author of more than thirty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, her novels include Cat's Eye -- shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and her most recent, The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. She lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson. Oryx and Crake is her eleventh novel.

Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake
Excerpt from Oryx and Crake
The Atwood Society
SF Site Review: The Handmaid's Tale

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Oryx and Crake opens on a mystery: a lone man called Snowman, slowly starving to death in a world apparently empty of human beings like himself. Some great catastrophe has clearly taken place; there are references to rubble, buildings drowned by the sea, relics of civilization washed up by the waves. Strangely-named creatures -- pigoons, wolvogs -- stalk the land (Snowman sleeps in a tree for fear of them). There are also the Children of Crake -- eerily perfect beings whose exquisite human forms can't disguise the fact that they're not quite human, for whom Snowman appears to feel both distaste and some sort of responsibility. Who is Snowman? How did he survive? What happened to bring things to such a state?

The novel unfolds the answers to these questions in two parallel narratives -- of Snowman and his cathartic journey back to the derelict laboratory complex once run by his boyhood friend Crake, who appears in some way to be responsible for the change that has overtaken the world; and of Jimmy, the man Snowman used to be, in the time before everything collapsed. Jimmy is born into a world some distance further along the downward spiral of climate change, genetic manipulation, viral mutation, and social stratification than our own, but still basically functional. In high school, Jimmy encounters Crake (not his real name, but the alias he uses for an "interactive biofreak masterlore" game called Extinctathon), an enigmatic genius with a deep contempt for the human animal, with its inefficient biology and dependence on the primitive primate brain. Later, Jimmy goes to work for Crake at Paradice, Crake's fabulous cutting-edge laboratory, and falls in love with the equally enigmatic Oryx, whose image he encountered years before on a kiddie porn site and has been obsessed with ever since. Oryx is also loved by Crake, for whom she seems to serve as a sort of muse. But this isn't a conventional love triangle. While the tensions it creates do have consequences, they play out as part of a final scenario carefully devised by Crake -- who, destroyer and creator both, is determined to make the world anew in his own image.

Mainstream critics especially have been moved to compare this book to Atwood's other work of "speculative" fiction, The Handmaid's Tale. But though all speculative fiction may look alike to those who aren't used to it, and any speculative fiction may seem best compared to itself by those don't know what else to compare it to (and to be fair, many of the reviews from within the SF community have been equally obtuse), Oryx and Crake resembles that serious, ideology-driven parable of gender relations about as much as it resembles The Blind Assassin, which also features a protagonist stranded in a (figurative) wasteland, and proceeds by means of a double narrative toward revelation of a shattering secret. Oryx and Crake is concerned not with social inequity but with the disastrous consequences of human hubris -- specifically, the temptation to play God presented by our unfolding knowledge of the human genome; it's also a blistering satire, ruthlessly skewering the follies and obsessions and atrocities of the present day (amazingly, this aspect of the novel appears to have been missed by many reviewers, who seem to assume that Atwood's approach is entirely serious, and thus fault her for, in the words of one writer, "a morbid silliness"). As such, it stands more with Swift and Mary Shelley than with Atwood's earlier speculative work -- and also, which Atwood may not have intended, with such writers of cautionary science fiction as John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar, published decades earlier, touches on a number of the themes and issues Atwood examines in this book.

The satire is the most accessible level of the novel (or at least I thought so, until I began to research the reviews). The cyberpunkishly hegemonic corporations that dominate the world have deliberately cartoonish names -- HelthWyzer, RejoovenEsense, AnooYoo -- as do the consumer products they produce: Happicuppa coffee (whose genetically-engineered ripen-all-at-once coffee bushes trigger worldwide riots), SoYummie ice cream, a high-tech version of snake oil called BlyssPluss. There are the bizarre products of gene-splicing -- Rockulators, which absorb moisture in humid weather and then release it back (the Moses Model -- slogan, "Just Hit It With A Rod"); ChickieNobs, nightmarish headless chickens designed to extrude chicken parts for fast-food franchises. There are the websites: Hott Totts for kiddie porn, for live executions, for realtime coverage of hand-loppings and adulterer-stonings in fundamentalist Middle Eastern countries. There are the new creatures spliced together for fun by bored genetic scientists -- bobkittens, snats, rakunks -- and more purposeful creations, such as the pigoons, pigs engineered to grow organs for human transplantation (whoops: those already exist). There the games Crake and Jimmy play as adolescents: Kwiktime Osama, Three Dimensional Waco, and the strange Extinctathon, which later proves significant to the plot. The book is stuffed with such cleverly lampoonish yet eerily plausible details; one imagines Atwood had a lot of fun thinking them up.

This gene-splicing, instant-gratification, cheap-thrills culture, satirically extrapolated from of some of the ugliest popular trends of the present day, exists in a not-so-satirical dystopian setting that's also extrapolated from scary present problems. Climate change and uncontrolled disease mutation have devastated the world. Society has become rigidly stratified: the privileged live in sealed Compounds run by the corporations for which they work, while the rest must brave the chaos of the pleeblands, as the cities have come to be called, where dirt, crime, and exotic plagues abound. (Oryx, a product of the pleebland world, provides a sharp counterpoint to anomic, dissatisfied, Compound-born Jimmy, not only in the horrible nature of her experiences but in her refusal to regard herself as a victim of them). Science is king; art and artistic pursuits have been superseded by advancing technology and a general lack of interest. While Crake goes off after high school to the prestigious Watson-Crick Academy, a glitteringly luxurious mecca of learning whose students study disciplines like Décor Botanicals and NeoAgriculturals, Jimmy's talent for words and ideas relegates him to a shabby arts-and-humanities college, where he wallows in the detritus of the previous century's preoccupations, haunting the library with its moldering stacks of paper books and compiling lists of obscure words like a magpie hoarding treasure -- a foretaste of his Snowman future, where there literally will be no one but himself to remember them. (This segment allows Atwood, an equal-opportunity satirist, to make ruthless fun of artistic pretension.)

Brilliant, emotionally stunted, unencumbered by either compassion or any conventional system of ethics, Crake is an inevitable product of this world -- the ultimate expression of its most destructive trends, the scourge that it has birthed and brought upon itself. The secret project on which he embarks after he leaves Watson-Crick enables him quite literally to play God; lest the point be missed, Atwood furnishes this portion of the book with a series of Biblical references. The lab Crake builds to house his life's work is called Paradice (also invoking Einstein's dictum: God may not play dice, but humankind certainly does). The scientists Crake hires to work for him are part of a group called MaddAddam, originators of the Extinctathon game to which Crake was so addicted in his youth (Extinctathon's slogan: "Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones"). The Children of Crake, humanity re-engineered to Crake's design (and partly in his image: they have his strange green eyes), are as innocent as Adam and Eve. In time they are cast out of Paradice, not through their own choice but as part of Crake's plan to improve on creation/evolution. Ultimately, though, human nature has the last laugh. Did God mean for humankind to invent religion after the Fall? Crake certainly doesn't want his new humans to have faith, which he considers a pointless and destructive distraction: along with other changes and improvements, he has engineered out the religious impulse. Or so he thinks. Driven by the same need that has terrified and uplifted humankind throughout the ages -- to know the reason for its existence -- his Children transform him posthumously into a deity. Perhaps every god's creation gets away from him in the end.

As a work of fiction, Oryx and Crake isn't entirely satisfactory. Jimmy/Snowman, venal and self-deceiving yet ultimately sympathetic, is a character of admirable complexity; both the quiet desperation of his pre-disaster life and the ferocious loneliness of his post-disaster existence are powerfully conveyed. But Crake lacks definition, perhaps because he must carry so much thematic baggage; he's more a symbolic force than a human being, and his motivations, which Atwood doesn't really attempt to delve into, seem to spring less from character than from the demands of the novel's premise. Oryx has more dimension, but her story of abuse and exploitation seems to stand largely outside the concerns of this book, as if she's a visitor from some other book; and her brief appearance in the real-time narrative (in contrast to the large role she plays in Jimmy/Snowman's memory) isn't enough to explain why Crake is so fixated on her, or why he does what he does at the end. Finally, the conclusion, which abandons Jimmy/Snowman at a lady-and-the-tiger-like moment of decision, is too arbitrary to be satisfying. The chapter is called "Footprint", but even the reference to Robinson Crusoe -- with Jimmy/Snowman playing a role that seems closer to Man Friday's than to Crusoe's -- isn't enough to give definition to this abrupt finish.

Such novelistic shortcomings are often a feature of utopian and dystopian fiction, where intellectual exploration is paramount and plot and character take second place. As an intellectual exploration -- as satire, and as warning -- Oryx and Crake succeeds brilliantly. Gripping, scary, hilarious, and moving, its nightmare vision of where we might end up holds a mirror to where we are right now, and urges us to ask not just the obvious question -- can we stop? -- but a more frightening one: are we already too far down the road?

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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