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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Seal Books 2004 (2003)
Mass Market Paperback
443 pages
Post-Apocalyptic Fiction; Speculative Fiction

Set in a post-apocalyptic North America – an apocalypse that, in a way, came after a long drawn-out apocalypse of gradual disintegration that was already well established – the story is told by Snowman, once called Jimmy. Not very many years have passed since everyone died, and his memories are a constant companion. His only reason for going on is that he promised Crake and Oryx to watch over the “Crakers” – a group of genetically modified “humans” that Crake created, improving them and removing impulses that lead to reverence and creating graven images (graven images, Crake’s theory goes, lead to all the bad things in humans – an interesting and plausible theory, though it saddens me that Art could be indirectly to blame for genocide etc., when Art is one of our saving graces).

The world that Snowman left behind, where he was Jimmy, was futuristic, one where pharmaceutical companies, cosmetics, biotech, gene-splicing and fake foodstuffs inventors, are the rulers. If there’s a government it’s not mentioned, it’s implied that these all-powerful and wealthy companies, locked away in their Compounds where the air is purified, run the show. Down from the Compounds are the Modules, and at the bottom of the rung are the Pleeblands, places of filth and pollution and corruption (not that the Compounds aren’t corrupt as well – as Crake discovers, they’re putting virus’s and things into medication to make people sick so that they buy more medicine – if you’ve cured everything, no one would need medicine anymore – I’m sure there are conspiracy theorists who believe this is already happening).

Jimmy grew up within a Compound, where his father worked on gene-splicing – things like the pigoons which grow human organs inside them, and the rakunks, a blend of racoon and skunk, and the wolvogs. His best friend Crake is a genius and rises quickly in their world, while Jimmy struggles along. Oryx was a child from south-east Asia sold into slavery, who ended up in kiddie porn movies before being sold to a man in San Fransisco. She ends up working for Crake, teaching the Crakers.

Told in a mix of present-day and flashbacks, Oryx and Crake is an excellent example of master craftsmanship – the prose is in the third-person yet reflects Jimmy/Snowman’s personality, and is a mix of beauty and grit and tension with moments of sheer coarseness and brutal honesty, while the plot is clever and very carefully dolled out. While the present-day is told in present tense (a perfect example of how to use it, because present tense gives everything an equal importance, and grounds the reader completely in the here and now), the flashbacks are told in past tense, which gives it a solid finality. You know the shit’s going to hit the fan, just not how or when or what’s behind it all. You can piece it together as you read, and that makes it a kind of puzzle, which I loved.

The past world of this book is frightening and believable, because if we go too far in one direction it’s exactly where we’re headed. With very little real food left, most of it is replica food made from soy (ugh), and the point of the world, of success in this world, is to come up with new drugs and new ways of prolonging human life, youth in particular, and getting one up on your competitors. People’s values have changed, and those few who try to break out of it are shot for treason. The web sites that Jimmy and Crake watch when they’re teenagers are live feeds of assisted suicide, people on death row getting their sentence, porn of all kinds, and all manner of sick things. It’s a none-too-gentle dig at our ridiculous penchant for reality tv and where it could lead us.

All in all, you could see Oryx and Crake merely as a vehicle for Atwood to express her scorn and a warning or two, but it’s a bloody good vehicle. She’s an exceptional storyteller, both in terms of writing style and creativity of plot and characters. It helps that I love post-apocalyptic fiction – I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fascinates me to explore the various scenarios where we could end up, and it’s satisfying, in a way, to be punished. As much as I wouldn’t want this kind of thing to happen, I also wouldn’t want the world that was destroyed (in this book) to happen either. Remember Twelve Monkeys, the Terry Gilliam movie? This is a bit like that, except that the world that was destroyed really deserved it. Most post-apocalyptic fiction doesn’t go so far into the future first, it takes our own world as the sacrifice. But it’s all part of the plot and I wouldn’t want to give it away.

1 comment to Review: Oryx and Crake

  • […] Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – again, this is Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction (as much as Atwood hates her work to be relegated to a genre, there’s no escaping it), but I wouldn’t call this Dystopian. It’s a post-apocalyptic world with flashbacks to a Science Fiction world. I’m not sure where the dystopian label comes from for this one. […]

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