Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
I knew Margaret Atwood was careful crafter of dystopias after reading The Handmaid’s Tale several years ago, and picked up Oryx and Crake knowing I wanted more.
We open onto Snowman: seemingly the last human being left in a world ravaged by some hinted-at biological extinction event. He’s lonely, living an arboreal lifestyle by the seashore upon which flotsam appears, reminding him of the old world now defunct. The trash includes a range of eerie futuristic commercial products with such names as ChickieNobs Nubbins (lab-grown chicken with no head and hundreds of breasts, sort of like a jellyfish), SoyOBoy Burgers (the recently destroyed world featured groups of militant vegans), and BlyssPluss Pills (which act as birth control to reduce the population levels, and peace-pills, by giving everyone an amped up and easily satisfied libido that removes the need for jealousy and obsession).
Snowman, wrapped in a grubby sheet and wearing his pair of one-lensed sunglasses and imitation Boston Red Sox cap, also happens to live near a small colony of pseudo-humans named the Children of Crake; beautiful, simple-minded genetic experiments created by his erstwhile best friend and bona fide scientific genius, Crake. Later, we learn these beings, who turn blue when they are in heat, and have no need for clothes, culture, or violence, were intended as a fundamental improvement to the human race. They are odd, and innocent, and provide a counterpart to the novel’s overall cynicism—as well as the tangible result of the parable when man tries to play God.
The novel is structured as two parallel narratives: the primary one being Snowman’s attempts at survival in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, which include him risking a treacherous journey back to the remnants of civilization in order to scavenge food and weapons. Then, through a series of chronological flashbacks which punctuate the current state of affairs, readers gain steady trickles of insight into what happened to Snowman (real name: Jimmy), the rest of the human world, and the two people he cared most about: Oryx and Crake.
Crake was perhaps the most compelling of these two: Jimmy’s genius-minded childhood friend, who grew up with him and offered a counterpoint to Jimmy’s verbosity and self-defensive humor with a dry-minded, logical/mathematical/philosophical obsession with ideas such as natural selection and the (meaningless) human pursuit of meaning. Oryx, meanwhile, reminded me of one of the Murakami women I can’t stand: silvery, distant, cast in a fixed mold of beauty and perfection in the eyes of men, remaining coy and alluring while expressing little substance in the soul.
Atwood is a masterful writer; her sentences sing off the page and her imagery dense with linguistic delights, wit, and intellect. Once I gave myself more time to dive into it, and the plot picked up—the beginning was a tad slow, with a lot of scenes of Snowman trapped in his own reveries—the novel was, as a Guardian review put it, “a cracking read.” The tension between art-minded Jimmy and scientific-minded Crake provided plenty of fruitful ground for Atwood to do some philosophizing of her own:
“When any civilization is dust and ashes,” [Jimmy] said, “art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning—human meaning, that is—is defined by them.”
As a current dabbler in writing science fiction with a dystopian bent, I’ve gleaned a few key lessons from Oryx and Crake. One of these: do your research when including scientific ideas, so that the logic holds up. Ensure you build a world that is tight and follows it own internal rules and laws, so that the reader feels well-supported, that there is clear grounding on which to stand. The other, perhaps more important: character comes first. The book follows Snowman/Jimmy from a close third person and the narration is infused with his sarcasm and idealism. The voice is consistent from start to end, allowing a deepening empathy with Jimmy’s plight and enjoyment of his company. The way Atwood portrays his relationship with his parents—his corporate father, who worked in one of the “Compounds” where the rich and lucky could escape the environmental degradation in the rest of civilization’s “pleeblands” and disillusioned, depressed, rebellious mother—are poignant. This personal history grounds his personality and give shape to his vulnerabilities, while softening some of his less attractive habits, which include sexual promiscuity and self-delusion.
As I think about characters—and how to craft good ones—Jimmy/Snowman is an excellent example of a narrator who succeeds by being likable, and flawed; and funny, even when hopeless. As Anne Lamott puts it in Bird By Bird, “I don’t mind if a person has no hope if he or she is sufficiently funny about the whole thing, but then, this being funny definitely speaks fo a kind of hope, of buoyancy.”
Oryx and Crake is, as expected, a bleak take on the trajectories of our current world, a nightmare taken to its logical conclusion, filled with memorable scientific ideas running amok—most memorably, the spliced creatures, including enormous pigoons which grow extra human organs within them, rakunks (exactly what they sound like), and snats, a rat with a snake tail and venomous fangs.
As a piece of writing, it is an excellent model of world-building, character development, and voice. As a message to readers, it is a chilling reminder about the dangers of what happens when science and capitalism run on unchecked. We don’t want to end up feeling this way about our current world:
Jimmy found the place depressing, as did—it seemed—everyone there with any more neural capacity than a tulip.