Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (Nan A. Talese, 383 pages) presents the reader with a significant but rewarding challenge. Though as an author she rejects any association with the term “science fiction”, that basically is the genre in which this novel lives. And it really does come to life, though exactly which life-form might be open to debate.

Oryx and Crake are nicknames. Both are animal species and both are extinct. Oryx is female and Crake is male. They are both acquaintances of Snowman, who is really Jimmy.

We are in a dystopic future – a common enough setting for a sci-fi. But where Margaret Atwood’s work transcends such clichés of genre is in the development and description of character. Not only is their situation remarkable, so are their responses to it. What they sense as mundane is quite different from the reader’s. From very early on in the book, we engage primarily with the characters and their responses, but we know immediately that we are in a different world that we see only through their assumptions. This is writing of real skill.

Eventually it is the nature of the dystopia that provides the tension. We are all products of environment and circumstance., but in Oryx and Crake both of these are to some extent the products of the characters’ labour. Though there are no lengthy descriptions to set the scene, it is the events that led up to the world’s parlous state that are central to the story.

We are in a future where human society is fragmented and disjointed. What began as the operation of a market has forced a complete separation of social classes. The clean, even sterile, world of the middle class intellectual is a closed world. Filtered, protected, disease-free. Genetic engineering has bred out of existence many of those annoying aspects of humanity. That was, of course, before the environment was declared toxic, a fact that is a mere given for the book’s characters.

Growing up in such a world presents its own challenges. The usual ones of family break-up, unrealised aspiration, selfishness, self-obsession and power-lust obviously survive. But in a world where anything has a price and everything is sold, at least virtually, how is a growing lad to approach life? Well, no doubt, they’ll make a pill for it. Education is rigidly class-based, of course, so no change there then.

And then enter, jointly, a genetic engineer so brilliant that he can transform every aspect of even the already transformed and a willingly sold-on sex slave who has starred in many a virtual experience. Bring the two together and the chemistry surely has to reach instability. Jimmy the Snowman is their admirer, colleague and acquaintance, though never in that order. And, if it can go wrong, it probably will, just like it did in the past.

Oryx and Crake is no “Genetic Mutants Rule Manhattan”. It is a much more subtle and engaging idea than that. But perhaps the idiom did take over too much, thus allowing Margaret Atwood to get just a little too much frustration with contemporary life off her chest at one go. When it came, the emergence of a plot and denouement seemed a little contrived. And there were places where things did seem to get bogged down.

But Oryx and Crake is also an experimental book. It is written from inside the experience of characters whose values have been sold on as cheaply as life itself. When, eventually, you cut your foot, however, it still hurts, despite what the product claims on the tin. So, as ever with Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s the humanity and character that comes through, making Oryx and Crake a strange but rewarding glimpse of a strangely familiar future.
Philip Spires, author of A Fool’s Knot (1976) and Mission (2007)

Excerpt from Oryx and Crake

“Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.

Out of habit he looks at his watch — stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

‘Calm down,’ he tells himself. He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites, around but not on the itchiest places, taking care not to knock off any scabs: blood poisoning is the last thing he needs. Then he scans the ground below for wildlife: all quiet, no scales and tails. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, he makes his way down from the tree. After brushing off the twigs and bark, he winds his dirty bedsheet around himself like a toga. He’s hung his authentic-replica Red Sox baseball cap on a branch overnight for safekeeping; he checks inside it, flicks out a spider, puts it on.”

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