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If you have strong feelings about genetically-modified organisms, the creeping spread of corporate power and private security firms, or man-made climate change, Oryx and Crake and its two sequels may very well be the ideal dystopian sci-fi books for you to check out. Oryx and Crake was written by renowned author Margaret Atwood, whose impressive literary offerings include The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about a grim future where women are stripped of their rights, and The Edible Woman, a novel that explores anorexia, written decades before eating disorders were something magazines and doctors were talking about. If that alone won’t inspire you to read it, consider this: Darren Aronofsky is converting this trilogy into a mini-series for HBO, which promises to be quite a viewing spectacle.
Oryx and Crake is a massive departure from Margaret Atwood’s other novels, because the narrator of this story is a man and it is more science fiction than her previous speculative fiction offering, The Handmaid’s Tale. Jimmy/Snowman is a unique and disconcertingly unreliable narrative voice, often leaving the reader to wonder if he’s telling the truth or the whole truth about situations he’s recalling or experiencing. Snowman lives in a tree, near a beach, where he’s surviving humanity’s last days. And he’s not alone, not entirely anyway. There’s a group of laboratory-created genetically-modified humans, dubbed the “Crakers,” a callback to their creator. Snowman is providing them with answers about the world around them and trying to keep them (and himself) alive.
These genetically-enhanced humans give off natural insect repellents, mature rapidly from childhood to adulthood, purr to cure each other, go into heat and flash blue stomachs when they do, shun monogamy and possessions, eat their own waste pellets as rabbits do and of course are preternaturally attractive. The entire novel is an exploration of how Snowman/Jimmy came to be living as a starving prophet to a tribe whose oldest individuals are not yet a decade old, explaining the detritus left behind by his civilization when it imploded.
In the highly-socially stratified future depicted in this novel, much humans live in danger and poverty in the pleeblands, while rich, intelligent elite families live in Compounds run by corporations. As a child, Jimmy lived in different Compounds with his parents. His father was a brilliant scientist, working on projects that involved growing human organs inside genetically-modified pigs, called pigoons. His mother is a social malcontent who eventually steals corporate secrets and runs away, abandoning the family.
Jimmy makes friends with a young man named Glenn when he transfers to their compound because of his stepfather’s corporate job. Glenn is brilliant, and the two teens spend time together, smoking “skunkweed,” playing games and watching online videos (often porn or death-related reality-show style content like live executions). One of the online games Glenn likes is a game called Extinctathon, “monitored by MaddAddam. Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones.” It involves the guessing of extinct species, and players choose names that are animals that have recently gone extinct, such as the Rednecked Crake, in Glenn’s case. The game, however, is just a front for something much bigger than even Snowman can see.
Their friendship is the tragedy at the heart of this novel, something complex and beautiful. They are watching society, what is left of it after terrible ecological destruction, decline rather rapidly. Both of them deal with familiar repercussions from the corporate control of society, in the form of loss of a parent, which is one of the primary bonding factors in their friendship and a motive for later events.
While science is spitting out new medicines, new viruses just keep popping up. Food is in short supply all over the world; real meat is scarce. There are riots breaking out over genetically-modified coffee plants destroying the traditional coffee farming communities of the world by undercutting their prices. Culture has devolved substantially. Executions are broadcast as entertainment, and competition for resources and advancements is so fierce that countries and Corporations have taken to kidnapping research scientists. Paranoia abounds; Jimmy and Crake often dance around the most important topics in their lives, especially in public, unsure of who might be listening.
And then there’s Oryx. She’s a powerful driving force in both Jimmy’s and Crake’s lives and a well-crafted, if mysterious, character. Sold into child labor at a young age, Oryx became an underage adult-film star before coming to America, where she was exploited by her employer. Eventually, her work in the world’s oldest profession leads her to Crake while he is at college. Devoted and brilliant at her job, Oryx is the ideal second-in-command. She’s also Jimmy’s secret obsession, and thus, a ticking time bomb in his friendship with Crake. Atwood deftly plumbs the deep beauty and power of interpersonal tragedies in Oryx and Crake, which is as heartbreaking as it is chillingly prescient.
Oryx and Crake is also full of tongue in cheek puns and very poignant wordplay. Within the darkness of the topic at hand, humor abounds. For example, the frighteningly powerful private security providers that maintain strict “law and order” are called the CorpSeCorps. This mash-up of the words Corporate Security Corps conveys not only the purpose of these groups but also their reputation among the citizens.
There is no question that Oryx and Crake posits a dark and degrading future for Western civilization, but what makes everything in Oryx and Crake feel so powerful is that nothing within it seems too extreme or unrealistic, given the status of our modern world. In that, this dystopian novel succeeds admirably. Oryx and Crake is a powerful work of fiction that reflections the arrogance and ignorance in our culture that could very well drive us to our destruction if left unchecked.
It is one man’s love song to his own doomed romance, the legacy of his best friend, destroyer of the human race. Although I won’t spoil the book, I will advise readers that this book has exactly the kind of interpretive ending readers have come to expect from Atwood. Thankfully, it is followed by two other novels, which help further unpack and explain the fall of the human race and Snowman/Jimmy’s place in it.
I believe Oryx and Crake is a brilliant book and an enjoyable read. However, the content may be upsetting to some, as Oryx’s history includes child pornography, sexual slavery, and possibly forced prostitution. Additionally, Jimmy has a moderately abusive/manipulative mindset toward his female partners, though he comes across as haunted by his mistakes and eager to better himself. Overall, highly recommended.