Saturday, December 1, 2018

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood, 2003

Grim end-of-civilization fiction.

Our protagonist Jimmy grows up in a world, a few decades hence, where the super-rich live and work in vast corporate-owned gated communities and everyone else lives in the world outside. Jimmy’s dad has a sweet corporate job working in the lucrative and rapidly developing field of genetically modified organisms, and Jimmy’s childhood friend Crake turns out to be a budding genius in this field.

But we know from the start that everything’s doomed. Chapters that describe Jimmy’s childhood alternate with chapters about Jimmy’s later life. Civilization has collapsed and nearly all humans are dead. Jimmy lives near a settlement of people called Crakers, genetically modified humanoids who live an Edenic existence, pure and innocent and ignorant of all trappings of civilization. They call Jimmy “Snowman”. Crakers are the creation of Jimmy/Snowman’s old buddy Crake.

Oryx and Crake describes how we get from point A (Jimmy and Crake’s childhood) to point B (planetwide apocalypse).

This is Margaret Atwood at her most science fictiony. I know Atwood pushes back against calling her books ‘science fiction’. Frankly, I see that as a cynical attempt to not get pigeonholed into what she sees as a literary ghetto, and since I’m not her literary agent I can call her book what it obviously is all I want.

In this sci-fi world (oooh, I’m calling it not just ‘science fiction’ but ‘sci-fi’), humans are reshaping the animal and plant kingdoms: “chicken” meat that grows on tree-like organisms; porcine creatures called “pigoons” with human-like physiology, perfect for growing transplantable organs. This tampering with nature, as we can surmise early on, eventually helps lead to the collapse of human civilization.

I’m sure some see this as a grim warning of the dangers of genetically modified organisms, while others see it hysterical anti-GMO alarmism. Personally, I don’t think the biotech of Oryx and Crake necessarily needs to be interpreted in either of these ways. Atwood is clearly fascinated by this technology, and she’s engaging in the time-honored science-fictional tradition of extrapolation. People who choose to read it as a big unsubtle moralistic message about GMOs are, of course, free to take it in whatever way they want; I choose to read it differently.

I haven’t mentioned the enigmatic Oryx (half the title!), because she’s weird and I’m still not sure how to think about her character. Keeping this spoiler-free, I can say that it’s hard for me to get into her head, and if Oryx and Crake were written by a generic male author rather than by the great Margaret Atwood, he’d be mocked over how he wrote the novel’s most prominent female character.

But my wife has advised me that Atwood is playing a long game here, and I should read the remainder of the MadAddam trilogy before rushing to judgement on Oryx. OK, that’s fair.

Oryx and Crake is a self-contained story, but it ends on something of a cliffhanger, and I’m genuinely interested in what happens next. We have the second book in the trilogy on our bookshelves -- I’m interested to see how The Year of the Flood expands on this universe.

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