A review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s world is thoroughly formed, her imagination extraordinary, but only just one step in front of the world of today. She touches on serious biological concerns, terrorism both individual and corporate, and big philosophical concerns, without losing the beauty and power of everyday life – the here and now of love, pain, loss, and dysfunctional families.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Oryx and Crake
By Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury
2003, hc, 374pgs
ISBN 0-7475-6259-8
RRP $A45

“How much is too much? How far is too far?” It’s zero hour on snowman’s blank faced, stainless steel watch, which can mean anything. Has time stopped altogether? Is it the end of the story, or the beginning? “Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.” Snowman is the protagonist in Atwood’s latest novel, Oryx and Crake, a true science fiction distopia in the mould of The Handmaid’s Tale with a post-modern twist. The story follows Snowman’s struggle for survival and meaning in the face of post-apocalypse as he fends off dangerous man made hybrid animals gone wrong while fending off starvation, UV poisoning, and infection. Snowman may be the last human alive. There are some other creatures though – the childlike and beautiful Crakers – for whom Snowman is a kind of demi-God. The plot of the novel is Snowman’s trip back to the science laboratory to find food, and weapons, and his internal trip back in time to work out what happened to mankind.

The story is great fun, and although the picture is a bleak and frightening as any produced in literature, Atwood’s comical touch is evident everywhere. Right from the start we know that this is going to be a linguistic feast, as Snowman struggles with scraps of sentences, “archaic” words, a female voice in his head:

Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see however. That was the trouble.

Snowman is afraid of the pigoons (a feral version of a pig and baboon cross bred for organs and rapid growth), and the Wolvogs (bred to deceive), and is bothered by cute but pesky Rakunks. There are various consumer objects populating the recently destroyed world: “A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket O’Nubbin, ditto.” The recently alive world was a post modern science fest, where chickens don’t even have heads, and people drink HappiCuppa coffee, and eat SoYummie Ice Cream in roasted dandelion green tea soy (the flavours are familiar enough), and there are pills for everything, including longer life, increased and risk free sex drive, and the line between manufactured and “real” is thin indeed as childless couples get to pick out children from catalogues. Atwood’s science appears impeccable and is close enough to the currently possible to appear plausible.

As Snowman relives his youth, we find out that he was once called Jimmy, and had a brainy genius friend called Crake, with whom he played a range of computerised D&D games like her they surf sex-and-murder sites and play computer games: Blood and Roses, Extinctathon, and watch the Noodie News on the net. There are a few moments in which the book edges on the silly, especially to those not used to the futuristic world of sci fi, especially when Crake shows Jimmy, whom he introduces as a “neurotypical” though the Willy Wonker like wonders of the high class super university Watson Crick. There are projects like Décor Botanicals, where wallpaper and bathtowels can change colours to match your mood, although: “they hadn’t yet solved the marine-life fundamentals: when algae got wet it swelled up and began to grow, and the test subjects so far had not liked the sight of their towels from the night before puffing up like rectangular marshmallows and inching across the bathroom floor.” (202)

What makes this book so superior though, and saves it from just being an excellent and engaging read (though it is certainly that), is the serious and thought provoking questions it keeps raising. Snowman/Jimmy is a terrific character who struggles with his very human desires for love, understanding, care, and meaning in his world. His love for language and books, and right brain thinking in a world where science, mathematics and left brain are the gods makes him an exceptional hero. Nor are the questions raised pat ones, despite the clear sympathy readers will feel for Snowman/Jimmy. He wants to know whether the butterflies at Watson Crick are real. Crake answers that the process is no longer important , “If you could tell they were fake – it was a bad job. These butterflies fly, they mate, they lay eggs, caterpillars come out.” (200)

Immortality too comes into question: “If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear.” (303) Snowman/Jimmy accuses Crake of sounding like “Applied Rhetoric 101,” but this is close to the very essence of Buddhism. The big life experiment, the Paradice project, creates Crakers who are, at least in Crake’s definition, as real as Snowman/Jimmy, although their short life span, and perfected bodies make them less romantic than a real human. But then, as Crake suggests, at what point does plastic surgery, make-up, hair dye, etc change the nature of a person, and when does it matter. This novel touches on the very nature of what it means to be alive, and it isn’t easy to criticise the manufacturers of chickieNobs for removing chickens’ unnecessary cerebral functions and even more unnecessary desire to roam, or for the life saving properties of the pigoon’s fast growing organs. The greed of the large chemical companies is clear enough though, and it is hard to work out whether Crake is a greedy meglomaniac, or a Conrad styled anarchist like The Secret Agent’s Verlock. One suspects the latter, though the tension, and lack of easy answers is marvellous.

Atwood’s world is thoroughly formed, her imagination extraordinary, but only just one step in front of the world of today. She touches on serious biological concerns, terrorism both individual and corporate, and big philosophical concerns, without losing the beauty and power of everyday life – the here and now of love, pain, loss, and dysfunctional families. Her linguistic skills are as poetic and powerful as ever: “From tree to tree he limps, elusive, white, a rumour. In search of his own kind.” (372)

The ending is both shocking in its lack of revelation and in its suggestion. It is, after all, zero hour. Anything is possible. It is hard to imagine a reader that wouldn’t love this novel.

For more information visit: Oryx and Crake

Or visit: http://www.oryxandcrake.co.uk/home.asp

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