Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
Genre: dystopia, post-apocalyptic, science fiction
Man Booker Prize Nominee 2003
Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
This is an amazingly chilling dystopia that had me gasp in shock, outrage, and even revulsion. It is brilliantly done and has the feeling of the previous novel I’ve read by the author – The Handmaid’s Tale. It is disturbing on the same scale or even more, I’d say, but perhaps a bit less so from the start because the story takes a much longer time to reveal the true extent of the apocalyptic reality. Snowman, or Jimmy, is also a far less striking narrator as the poor handmaid but when he opens up about the past and his life he has a fascinating tale to tell. It pays off to persevere through the opening chapters.
Jimmy is probably the last of the humans still living, a relic of old times that the tribe he lives with just don’t understand or know to appreciate. The Crakers are a product of genetic manipulation and conditioned to be in harmony with nature. They also exhibit completely different traits in their social interactions and follow their instincts far more closely than humans. They may speak, sing, and dance, but they will never create philosophies, art, or anything like the extinct humans ever did. They are little more than intelligent apes he has seen before but he has learned to live with their idiosyncrasies. They can digest leaves and are puzzled by his desire for flesh yet still provide him with fish and fruit. They also have some fantastic markings and colours but unfortunately they are not what Jimmy desires in his life.
“When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. it must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?
But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.”
Jimmy was raised in a family of brilliant geneticists but he himself did not find pleasure in the sciences. The social pressure, the cut-throat competition between companies and institutions for the best students and employees daunted him too much and his early failure to show genius level IQ made him more or less a pariah in his own home, especially after his mother, Sharon, ran out on the family after her nervous breakdown. In fact, Jimmy was less interesting than her drink and fights with his father. She even took away the only friend he ever had – a genetically modified racoon. Her disappearance caused the family trouble with the company and they were routinely subjected to Gestapo like interrogations and spying (CorpSeCorps inspectors are the worst). It’s truly not an environment conductive to happy childhood.
Jimmy has one close friend – Crake, or Glenn as is his legal name. He is an excellent student and a brilliant geneticist, but he has an apparent psychological condition – he shows trouble connecting to anyone on a personal level and his ideas are sometimes far too ‘logical’ with no consideration for human rights of others. It’s just about him and what he perceives as right. He lacks empathy and he takes delight in truly gruesome stuff. Both are just magnets for trouble and far too smart for their own good. Jimmy’s father is often absent so the boys can use his computer and verification codes for all kinds of illegal stuff – pornography of the most brutal and disgusting kind (in a nod to The Handmaid’s Tale), drugs, hacking… you name it. I was horrified and I clearly saw where this lack of authority, good role models, and empathy, social norms and values will lead. Even the games they played online were downright creepy.
“EXTINCTATHON, Monitored by MaddAddam. Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play?”
In fact, the entire society in the world is trapped in some strange status quo with millions of underprivileged people barely scraping by and the small minority who can buy new organs to live longer, healthier lives. Genetic mutation allows business to produce all kinds of disgusting ‘products’ – headless chicken for meat, pigs for harvesting human tissue and organs, making them more intelligent in the process of breeding new brain cells for the Alzheimer patients… The list is endless and hair-raisingly prophetic. How our societies treat animals is just abhorrent – instead of providing animals we eat with a good, healthy life of dignity, we raise them in squalor and treat them with cruelty. Here, they take genes and manipulate them as they like, combining animals, plants, bacteria to suit their needs or just to play around and prove their brilliant mind – the scientists are essentially playing god and only few can say or think it wrong. The companies even manufacture new diseases so they can peddle cures. *sigh*
This book takes what is wrong in our world and runs them to the extremes they can turn into. While The Handmaid’s Tale feels very personal for me as a woman and an atheist, this book shakes you to the core if you follow the efforts of Monsanto and DuPont to disseminate their killer seeds. While I’m for science I’m also for regulation and transparency. Here, companies own the world and do what they like. Of course there are groups that begin to think otherwise; Jimmy and Crake become part of such group, working against the extinction of animals and habitats. Crake decides to create an environmentally friendly human species. To help teach them about gender relations and sexuality, he hires Oryx. Both boys recognize her face from an online child pornography site –in fact her face had haunted Jimmy for years and he falls in love with her. She seems to reciprocate his feelings in some way but she is closer to Crake.
Crake betrays both friends and concocts a master plan to rid the planet of human beings, saving it from collapse. He breeds a new deadly virus, disguised as a normal vaccination that gets spread across the world in a very systematic manner. Even Jimmy believed they were doing a good thing with the vaccine, helping the world, and realises Crake’s true intentions only too late. In a confrontation, Oryx is killed and Crake finally seems to realise what he has done. Jimmy alone survives the virus and now looks over the Crakers as a favour to Oryx.
“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”
The entire book series (trilogy) is being developed into a HBO show by Darren Aronofsky as MaddAddam. I hope it will be as good as the first book. I must open the next novel one of these days since I’ve quite recovered from this one in the mean time. 😀