In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood details an apocalyptic plague, introduces a new species of creatures that have been genetically designed to replace humanity, and the villain is a mad scientist in love. What could be more “SFF” than Oryx and Crake?
Quite a lot, according to Margaret Atwood, who prefers to describe her novel as “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction.” In interviews promoting Oryx and Crake, Atwood explained that everything that takes place in Oryx and Crake is based on trends that we can see today, as opposed to distant planets that have an allegorical connection to our lives. Atwood is “speculating” about where our society is headed. It’s a distinction that some readers may choose to reject, but it’s an approach that adds urgency to the world that Atwood has built.
When the story opens, “Snowman,” the last human, is standing on a beach looking at now useless skyscrapers as he considers that no one anywhere can say what time it is. This is the world after the plague. However, although Snowman is the last of his kind, he is not alone. With him are the “Crakers,” a group of genetically hybrid creatures, designed to eliminate all of humanity’s flaws. The Crakers are better able to defend themselves against nature – the scorching heat, the biting bugs, and the surviving predators – than Snowman, but they are otherwise naïve about the world they find themselves in. Snowman shepherds this new species through its early years, and the Crakers use their manufactured genes to help Snowman survive the post-apocalypse.
A second storyline introduces us to the world before the plague. Today, many scientists warn that we need to curb our emissions, our wanton use of resources, and our reliance on monocultures. Atwood speculates about what will happen if we dismiss these warnings: the sun seems hotter, the weather is violent and erratic, and bacteria have evolved to the point that the wealthy live in isolated compounds that protect them from the germs that prey on the poor. Thankfully, there are also exciting new drugs like “Blysspluss,” which protects its users from sexually transmitted diseases and is also said to improve orgasms. Readers that have little patience for allegory or obtuse allusions will not have to struggle to find Atwood’s targets.
There are plenty of targets – and warnings – in Oryx and Crake, and it often feels like a call to action; however, it is not a simple screed in which a green-thumbed hero triumphs over a cigar-smoking businessman. Instead, Oryx and Crake, as the title suggests, is a love story. Our mad scientist, Crake, is in love with a former child prostitute, Oryx, who has also had a relationship with Crake’s best friend, Jimmy. Unfortunately, as fans of Margaret Atwood’s “literary” fiction already know, love is all too often a painful experience.
Oryx and Crake can also be approached as an “SF” adventure as well. One of my favorite scenes has Snowman on the run from “pigoons,” which are extremely intelligent pigs whose genetic code has been spliced with human code. Snowman has been cut off from his protective Crakers and he has to think fast if he’s going to prevent the extinction of the human race.
Oryx and Crake is a masterpiece that sits on the edge of several genres. Atwood combines the distinctive character development and wordplay that has earned her so many literary fiction accolades with the speculative premise that we associate with SFF to create an impressive story that few readers will be able to forget. Regardless of where it’s shelved, Oryx and Crake is a must read for SFF fans.
Oryx and Crake is a great book. One of the things I love about Atwood’s speculative fiction is her ability to take trends of modern society and spin them out to their logical, if extreme, conclusion. You’ll never look at a gated community quite the same way again.
I’d highly recommend this as well as the book set in the same world – The Year of the Flood. And Atwood’s classic dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.
I love this highly imaginative speculation about the future of our society. I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Margaret Atwood at my university and she read from Oryx and Crake. What a treat!
Oryx and Crake hit me a lot harder than I expected. It’s Margaret Atwood, so you can expect the deft characterizations, innovative narrative structure, effortless writing, and social criticism. What I wasn’t prepared for was the powerful emotional impact it had, and the thoughts it generated within me. In essence, Atwood asks a simple question: “What type of world are we creating, and does it deserve to exist? Moreover, do we deserve to exist if we stay on the path we are heedlessly pursuing?” This is not a new question. Plenty of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels have asked it in a variety of forms. But for my money, Oryx and Crake is the most eloquent and harsh condemnation of the world we have created, whether intentionally or not, that I’ve read in the last few years.
It has elements of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and I imagine some overlap with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (which I plan to read soon), but Oryx and Crake is a distinctive work with an unmistakable message. The story is about Snowman, the last human survival of a global biotech-induced plague that has wiped out humanity; the Crakers, a group of genetically modified herbivorous childlike-humans that have been designed to survive in this new world; Crake, the brilliant geneticist who has passed judgment on humanity and found it unworthy; and Oryx, a young Asian former child-prostitute who is involved with both Snowman and Crake.
The story is about a near future dominated by corporations that maintain carefully-guarded communities for their sheltered employees, and the rest of the population that live in pleeblands. Governments, armies, universities, security — everything has been privatized, as so many free-market proponents tell us would benefit us all. I wonder how many of those intellectuals, economists, professors, and social innovators live as the have-nots of the world do, on the fringes of our global economy. My guess — none at all. I myself work for a giant securities company that is built on the premise that the efficient use of capital leads to greater economic benefits for all members of society, and the fewer government restrictions, the better. So the irony of this message invariably coming from the privileged class is not lost on me, I can assure you.
Oryx and Crake is also about the online world we have created for ourselves, and with just the slightest bit of exaggerations, shows us the childhood of Snowman and Crake, growing up on a steady diet of online public executions, 24/7 webcams, Noodie News, assisted suicide, frog squashing, snuff videos, hard-core porn, and child pornography. It’s all just standard stuff for kids in the future. Looking all the content that the Internet offers without any restrictions to anyone with a smartphone, including kids of all ages, I think any parent out there can share my discomfort and fears about what this unrestricted flow of information can do to young minds not prepared to draw distinctions between what we still attempt to categorize as “good” and “bad,” “moral” and “immoral,” “healthy” and “harmful.” Who is it that decides? Well, nobody, unfortunately.
Nobody wants the censored internet of China, but what price do we pay, particularly children, for the unfettered freedom of the Kardashians, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.? I certainly have found much good in social media and endless information at my fingertips, but that’s because I grew up in the pre-Internet age when I first developed interests and ideas without the ubiquitous influence of social media. How would I and my peers have fared with non-stop free entertainment on the web? Would I have ever bothered to delve into lengthy novels for hours on end, or would I go for the instant gratification of Tweets, YouTube, Google, and the like? It’s such a slippery slope, and the same question applies: “Do guns kill people, or people kill people? Does the internet kill meaningful thought and reflection, or does it depend on the user?” It’s just a tool, after all, say proponents of the Internet. But when I see people’s fingers twitching on their mobile phones the instant they have a free moment, and the sea of bowed heads staring at their little private digital worlds (and my head among them), I have to wonder, is this the world we want for ourselves? It’s not as if going back to a simple agrarian existence is even a remote possibility in our massively-interlinked global society. 99.9% of us would be dead within a week without the global economic infrastructure, and if we did survive it would be about as pleasant as The Walking Dead.
So when the brilliant scientist Crake engineers a supervirus to wipe out humanity for its sins, his judgment is cold and harsh. To paraphrase, his view is: “The world we have created is evil, and we cannot expect to solve our own problems. Therefore, I will annihilate humanity and create a new, simpler, and more innocent species to carry on in the post-human world.” That’s much the same idea as Vonnegut’s Galapagos, though that book has a much whimsical tone to mask the harsh message beneath. And so every reader of Oryx and Crake has to ask themselves that question. Atwood doesn’t let us squirm away. Oftentimes post-apocalyptic tales are cautionary in nature, and warn us to step away from the path we are going down in terms of environmental destruction, overpopulation, religious intolerance, overreliance on technology, tinkering with genetics, etc. And certainly Oryx and Crake is about that. On the other hand, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a gentle and elegant hymn to the good and beautiful aspects of our world that we take for granted, and that is a valid view as well.
But Oryx and Crake is no gentle fable. The future world it depicts has basically nothing worthy of redemption at all. The privileged corporate workers in their guarded compounds live a cynical and willfully ignorant existence, knowing their activities are built upon exploiting the plebes outside. The plebes for their part live a brutish existence lacking in appeal. Snowman is closer to the reader’s perspective as he observes with horror what Crake has planned for humanity. And Oryx is an oddball — a young girl subjected to the worst that developing world poverty can dish out, and yet having a beatific and serene outlook on life that chooses to focus on the good and ignore the ugliness. But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Instead, Crake takes it into his own hands to pass judgment and ruthlessly exterminate humanity. He takes action, but what a cruel and final sentence. We, humanity, are not given any chance for redemption or even rebuttal. I hardly think Atwood is suggesting that his act is justified or right, but she also doesn’t shy away from putting our world on trial and letting us think about our own answers. It’s a very intense experience and I can’t imagine any reader who doesn’t finish the book without stopping for a long time, maybe even days later, to think about the implications. Amazing, wonderful, and terrifying all at once. I’m tempted to read it again right now, but I need to move on. I’ll definitely revisit it again someday.
I’m fully aware that Oryx and Crake is the first part of the MADDADDAM TRILOGY, but I’m reluctant to proceed to The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. That’s because I’ve read dozens of reviews of both, many from friends whose judgment I trust. And what I’ve gathered is this: The Year of the Flood explores much of the same territory of Oryx and Crake and fills in many details of the world and relationships there. And while some people say this book is just as good as the first one, many said they prefer Oryx and Crake where all the ideas and characters are new, and said the second book is well written but lacks the impact of the original. The reviews of MaddAddam are even more mixed, with a lot of people seriously disappointed in comparison to the first and second books. Because I was so impressed by Oryx and Crake, I don’t want to ruin that feeling, so if anything I’d rather re-read it instead. Or I may read The Year of the Flood someday to learn more, and skip the final book. We’ll see.