Review: Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake (a novel)
by Margaret Atwood

InstaRating: 4 out of 5

In brief: Snowman is the last (traditional) human alive in a world curiously empty. He bears the secret of what happened to civilization and slowly reveals it to himself as he watches over the successor species: humans carefully designed to thrive in the ecologically-devastated world of tomorrow.

Spoilers and a more complete review follow.

Really, I’m not kidding. I’m going to spill the beans, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know.

This book was recommended to me by a friend (hi, Julie!) whose opinion I trust. So, despite an abortive attempt to get through The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago, I decided to give Atwood a chance and picked up Oryx and Crake. I’ll admit to being an enthusiast of post-apocalyptic fiction (no, coming of age in Reagan’s America didn’t scar me at all, why do you ask?). I like Alas, Babylon and especially The Postman, as well as Mad Max and its many cinematic imitators.

How does Oryx and Crake stack up? Pretty well, actually. The early chapters are appropriately bleak and otherworldly, as “Snowman” goes about his daily routine in this new life and then checks in on the “Crakers”, humans who have been genetically designed for optimal survival in the radically different world of (it is implied but not quite said) runaway global warming and ozone hole depletion. Snowman was once Jimmy, who befriended a loner genius calling himself Crake. Jimmy led the life of the semi-elite, not quite a “plebe” but not quite an important Corporate worker either; until one day, high school friend Crake rescued him from a dead-end life and brought him to Crake’s bioengineering sanctuary.

Snowman, who is what Jimmy became when the world ended, is at least borderline insane with grief and guilt. What, exactly, he feels guilty about is a central mystery of the book, which revolves around his odyssey away from his current habitat back into the smashed ruins of Crake’s corporate lab. Along the way we are treated to flashes of Jimmy’s life in a world spiraling out of control both socially and ecologically. Dark foreboding hints are dropped about the nature of the catastrophe. It turns out that Snowman, while journeying back to “the scene of the crime”, is also on a personal pilgrimage seeking understanding and redemption.

I liked the earlier part of the book more than its endgame. Snowman/Jimmy is more effective when we know very little about him; he never develops into a sympathetic character, though there are flashes. Indeed, by the end of the book, he is pretty much exactly the analog of what he was before the fall: drifting, irresolute, mildly irresponsible. (However, the very ending of the book is somewhat more ambiguous about whether Jimmy/Snowman has grown up any.)

Likewise, the early chapters paint society with a broad brush that nevertheless feels claustrophobic and nightmarish. The world of Jimmy’s teen years is very clearly close to our own; knowing (as we learn early on) that it is a doomed world strikes hard. Indeed, Atwood cleverly creates two apocalypses. (Reminds me of a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “When I’m around you, Buffy, I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”) You might think that the end comes from the abuse of Nature by greedy, stupid humans (and you’d be right, partially). But it’s also planned and caused by a human act of will. The two dovetail nicely, but (sadly) by the time Atwood executes the Big Reveal, it’s been obvious for fifty pages.

Oryx and Crake is clearly a book About Something but I couldn’t tell you exactly what. It touches on themes of responsibility (global and personal) and of blame. There are some wonderful snarky analyses of the causes of human misery, though the solution found by the characters (I won’t say “Atwood’s solution”) is a little depressing and offers no real hope. There are the required sidewise shots at consumerism and patriotism and corporatism and some meditation on the sex trade. But it doesn’t really come together, in the end. The book wraps up quickly given the pacing of the set-up. After drawing a rich and interesting quasi-dystopic future — and also a fantastic snapshot of a ruined Earth — Atwood doesn’t quite make anything of it.

I enjoyed reading Oryx and Crake and I appreciate the artistry of her world-building, especially in fleshing out the world early on. But it’s not likely to be a book I’ll read again; nor one to change my life. It seems to try too hard to bridge the gap separating science fiction and supposed Real Literature, and instead falls into the space between.