Review

Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood

Review #1 by Kathy Weissman

The best fantasy is the kind that reads like a mystery: you start inside one person's head --- in this case, the addled, tortured, highly intelligent brain of a man named Jimmy, a.k.a. Snowman, apparently the only human survivor of a worldwide biological catastrophe --- and gradually pick up clues about the society in which he lived. In THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood used religious fundamentalism gone mad as the basis for her imagined culture of the future. In ORYX AND CRAKE, her new novel, it is science and industry --- profit-driven and amoral --- that have run amok. Although there is a murder (actually, two) at the end, there is no real suspense around whodunit; it's the complex and horrifying how that keeps you reading this science-fiction tour de force.

When we first meet Snowman, he is living like a wild man --- sleeping in trees to avoid the voracious pigoons (a pig/baboon cross originally bred to supply organs for human transplant but that has now multiplied and is running wild), dressed in a bed sheet, subsisting on what he can scavenge from the wrecked landscape. He serves as father figure and demigod for the Crakers, a tribe of not quite humans (also products of the lab, they're kind of like a collective Adam and Eve) camped nearby. Snowman's struggle to survive is punctuated by lengthy autobiographical flashbacks describing society as it was before the advent of the plague known as JUNE (SARS or AIDS, anyone?), when his name was still Jimmy.

Jimmy grows up with his father, a genetic specialist, and his unhappy, rebellious mother in a heavily guarded Compound, one of the corporate city-states that house the elite of the mid-to-late twenty-first century. Outside the gates are the untidy, dangerous pleeblands, where the masses dwell. Atwood's disturbing vision is implicitly a commentary on how we live now: the rich and poor are literally two nations, weather patterns have gone nuts, cyberspace features untrammeled sex and real-time executions, bio-industrial giants manipulate nature in the name of progress, and anybody who doesn't get with the program (like Jimmy's mom) is a security threat.

Although he's bright, cynical, amusing and sexy, Jimmy isn't one of the leading minds of his generation; that privilege belongs to Crake, his best friend at HelthWyzer High. Together they surf sex-and-murder sites and play computer games: Blood and Roses (civilization vs. barbarism) and Extinctathon, in which players name themselves after dead species (like the Red-necked Crake). Their paths diverge when Jimmy goes to college at Martha Graham Academy, a rundown, marginalized former bastion of the arts, while Crake gets into Watson-Crick, which caters to budding scientists. Crake later becomes a leading light of the RejoovenEsense Compound (Atwood has a ball with names), whose products include a youth-prolonging pill called BlyssPlus and the Paradice Project, where bioengineered humans, or Crakers, serve as prototypes for customized populations with pre-selected features (beauty, docility, disease resistance).

He locates Jimmy, toiling as a copywriter at a crummy Compound called AnooYou, and hires him to handle the ad campaign. And there is a love interest, the mysterious Oryx, first sighted by the boys in their teenage years on a kiddie-porn website, now a teacher and guide for the Crakers and a BlyssPlus saleswoman. Beautiful, superior, attainable yet curiously elusive, she and Crake are foils (and, perhaps, surrogate parents-cum-lovers) for the all-too-human Jimmy, whose father is an emotional cipher and his mother a victim of the Compounds' totalitarian "justice."

It's difficult to write science fiction that isn't didactic and cerebral; classics of the genre often are celebrated more for their moral and social acumen than for their literary splendor. ORYX AND CRAKE contains plenty of dazzling prose and good old-fashioned suspenseful storytelling, but it also has "cautionary tale" written all over it. The characters have a tendency to become mouthpieces, especially Crake (pure intellect) and Oryx (pure sensation); even Jimmy/Snowman's defense of art, love and other almost-obsolete institutions is a bit predictable. Yet Atwood's heart --- and ours --- is clearly with this endearing survivor; he is a rich character in his own right as well as her argument for an enduring core of humanity, messy and illogical, in the midst of barbarism.

One of Jimmy/Snowman's most memorable characteristics is his passion for language (Craker and the other success stories of the modern age are numbers people). While in college he starts compiling lists of words no longer used: "He'd developed a strangely tender feeling toward such words, as if they were children abandoned in the woods and it was his duty to rescue them." Words of all sorts, precise and evocative, run through his head as he struggles to make sense of the post-plague world. They come to represent something much larger, something like a soul --- he holds on to words as if they could stave off death and/or the end of civilization; he thinks of himself as a castaway and contemplates keeping a journal. The irony is that the only other people on earth seem to be the Crakers, who are illiterate. "Any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past."

This reader emerged from ORYX AND CRAKE as from a nightmare, glad there are still words and books like this one to warn us of catastrophe and comfort us with love.

   --- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman


Review #2 by Shannon Bloomstran

Margaret Atwood is brilliant. There I said it … got it right out there in the open. She's not content to give us insight into situations so often mined by contemporary authors, dysfunctional families or the love affairs of the angst-ridden. Her novels give us entire worlds, albeit some pretty dystopian ones, right down to the flora and fauna. Her latest undertaking, ORYX AND CRAKE, is no exception.

In this world, humanity has been reduced to one human and a group of human "floor models," genetically engineered to be beautiful, placid and drop dead at the age of 30. Atwood takes us on a journey into the not-so-distant future where the last human, who calls himself Snowman, leads us back into the roots of the cataclysm that has reduced the Earth to rubble. Part of the novel's intensity lies in the fact that the readers know what has happened, they just don't know how … something Snowman does know and in fact, played a major role in. The unfolding lacks the structural intricacy of Atwood's last novel, THE BLIND ASSASSIN, but it is nonetheless exhilarating.

Snowman, then known as Jimmy, grows up in a North America dominated by corporations, calling to mind the old nineteenth-century company towns. The companies house their workers in villages known as Compounds and provide for their every need, literally from cradle to grave. Jimmy's particular Compound is run by an outfit that engineers, among other things, "pigoons," animals that could grow "an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host-organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection." Atwood manages to make these and many other scientific descriptions not only understandable, but also thrilling and shocking at the same time. Jimmy grows up in this cloned and spliced society, never quite fitting in, finding only a measure of friendship with an unusual boy named Glenn who soon adopts the moniker Crake, an extinct Australian bird. The novel follows the lives of Jimmy and Crake as they enter university and flounder (Jimmy) or flourish (Crake).

After graduation, while Jimmy toils writing copy for inane self-help products, Crake uses his oily and arrogant intelligence to ostensibly better society. His company, RejoovenEsense, humbly aims to "eliminate the external causes of death.War.contagious disease, especially sexually transmitted ones. Overpopulation.environmental degradation and poor nutrition." They hope to achieve these goals with the distribution of the BlyssPluss Pill, which gives an "unlimited supply of libido" while prolonging youth and protecting against all sexually transmitted diseases. Oh, and it would also render anyone who took it irreversibly sterile, but they choose not to advertise that little fact. Atwood deftly wheedles the reader into complying with the grotesque ambitions of Crake and RejoovenEsense. End war and disease as we know it? With endless and inconsequential sexuality thrown in? Where do I sign up? Jimmy himself signs on to be the chief ad-man for BlyssPluss.

In an intensely thought provoking "what if?" scenario, Atwood has us ponder the nature of life itself. Crake's biggest project "creates totally chosen babies that would incorporate any feature, physical, mental or spiritual, that the buyer might wish to select. Beauty.docility.UV-resistant skin.ability to digest unrefined plant material." Jimmy dubs these life forms Crakers --- beautiful, strong, placid beings that are shepherded into a society by the beautiful former Internet porn star, Oryx, whom Jimmy has fantasized about for years. Jimmy and Oryx fall into some sort of love, adding yet another layer of meaning to the story. Jimmy promises Oryx he will take care of the Crakers, should anything happen to Oryx or Crake, just a little bit of ominous foreshadowing.

Throughout the unfolding of Jimmy's story, Atwood brings us back to the "present," as we see Jimmy, who now thinks of himself as Snowman, try to survive in a world of scorching heat, little food, and nasty animals like pigoons and wolvogs. In order to better his chances of survival, Snowman journeys back to the RejoovenEsense compound, ostensibly to find food and weapons but also to revisit the scene of the world's downfall. Crake's manufactured world starts to cave in with the onset of a killer virus that spreads like wildfire. Various world governments try, ineffectively, to contain the disease by quarantining off cities and issuing travel bans. Gee, good thing nothing like that could ever happen in the "real world."

Atwood asks plenty of difficult questions and provides absolutely no answers. She's one of the very few contemporary novelists who leads, rather than pulls, the reader into a more heightened state of social awareness. The "lady or the tiger" ending has the reader analyze not only the issues raised by the novel, but also his or her core beliefs as well. What else could that be but brilliant?

   --- Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran


Review #3 by Rob Cline

Margaret Atwood is a heck of a science fiction writer. Much like Kurt Vonnegut, she has largely avoided the acquisition of the genre label, but her science fiction credentials are substantial. Her best-known novel, 1985's THE HANDMAID'S TALE, revealed her ability to create fully realized future worlds extrapolated from the landscape of current society. Her skill for spinning tales in the science fiction tradition was on display again in 2000's Booker Prize-winning THE BLIND ASSASSIN, a layered novel in which a lover's fantastic pillow-talk creations provide an imaginative gloss on many of the book's plot points and themes.

Atwood's latest novel, ORYX AND CRAKE, imagines a future quite different from the culture dominated by conservative religion she portrayed in THE HANDMAID'S TALE, though she has by no means abandoned her distrust of religious orthodoxy. ORYX AND CRAKE, however, is primarily concerned with the dangers of genetic engineering, as Atwood explores a future in which today's initial forays into manipulating the genetic codes of plants and animals (including humans) have exploded, driving the world economy and requiring not just teams of able scientists, but savvy marketers as well.

Snowman, once known as Jimmy, was one of those marketers, working for his brilliant friend Crake, once known as Glenn. Crake was in charge of a two-pronged project --- creating a pill that would properly channel mankind's misplaced sexual energy, thereby eliminating war and other nasty problems, and developing a new kind of people, genetically engineered so that those problems would never arise in the first place. But the story opens after something has gone terribly wrong, leaving Snowman apparently alone on Earth with Crake's new people (the "Crakers") and memories of his long friendship with Crake and love for a woman known as Oryx, who served as the Crakers' first teacher. The tragic tale is told in flashbacks as Snowman makes an arduous journey back to the origin of the global disaster to scavenge for much-needed supplies.

Of course, this isn't particularly groundbreaking material. Much quality science fiction (and a lot of bad science fiction, as well) has taken contemporary concerns and used them to create cautionary tales about the future. And the major philosophical question of the book --- do the ends justify the means? --- has been batted around since time immemorial. But ORYX AND CRAKE succeeds, not just because Atwood has imagined a future that seems at least plausible and provides a framework for an ethical conundrum, but because of her carefully employed literary skills. Hers is an exciting story that is well told. The adventure aspects of Snowman's story are never overwhelmed by overly-mannered writing, but neither is Atwood's distinctively understated style sacrificed to advance the plot.

The result is a wholly successful novel that should please not only Atwood's many fans but also science fiction fans who might not be familiar with her earlier work.

   --- Reviewed by Rob Cline (rjbcline@aol.com)


Review #4 by Kate Ayers

As the story opens, a brilliantly planned utopian society has gone bad. The creators have all been wiped out, except for Jimmy, now known as Snowman, our narrator. But then, Jimmy wasn't one of the top brains in the big scheme. Far from it. That title was held by Crake, Jimmy's best (actually, only) friend pretty much all of his life. Once things went horribly awry at the Compound, Snowman fled and now lives in a tree to avoid the pigoons, wolvogs and bobkittens, streamlined biologically invented animals, the mutant creations of the Paradice Project.

Once again, some scientific types thought they could improve on the way things were and took a stab at perfecting Earth's flora and fauna. Margaret Atwood has plenty to say about genetic alteration or, as some call it, playing God, messing with Mother Nature and a host of other dangerous --- and possibly someday fatal --- arenas we play in. I tend to agree with her.

Snowman --- his life as Jimmy now over --- is dying, unable to get enough food. With little hope for his future, he revisits his past in an attempt at understanding his life. Surprisingly, he feels an uncharacteristic responsibility for the Crakers, a humanoidal breed developed by Crake and saved from the apocalypse by Jimmy. He dreams of Oryx, a wise, ethereal beauty who haunts his past, played teacher to the Craker, and belonged to Crake. Jimmy loved both of these people, but they are now dead. This is the story of how they died and the legacy they left behind.

ORYX AND CRAKE is not my usual literary fare, but there is just something irresistible about a doomsday novel. Haven't we all envisioned what it might be like to be among the survivors of a huge, cataclysmic event, or maybe the survivor? As the Earth continues its daily rounds, the devastation wrought by a handful of folks who thought it was okay to manipulate neurons and genes leaves the human race teetering on the brink of extinction. Life in the world-after takes on a new shape. Even though dangers lurk nearly everywhere, the prickly problem of foraging for food strikes me as more fun when it involves pillaging 7 Eleven stores for Snickers and raiding Costco warehouses for giant bags of Cheetos.

In Atwood's society, however, not only are the animals unfamiliar but so are the foodstuffs --- with tongue-in-cheek names like ChickieNobs Bucket O'Nubbins and SoyOBoy meatless wieners. And Jimmy's and Crake's environs are all high-tech biological campuses and laboratories, with airlocks and ruthless security guards ensuring that the secret work of the scientists living within remains within. It's probably for the best. The products of the cross breeding in Paradice are best kept caged and controlled. Crake's ego, not small in his youth, overtook him in early adulthood. That, coupled with an intelligence measuring off the scales, brought about these disastrous results. Now Snowman must pick up the pieces and try to go on. Not a simple task for a fellow who was always irreverent, self-indulgent and now slowly losing his mind.

While the bulk of the book kept me rapt, the ending was not quite satisfying. I wonder if Ms. Atwood is perhaps looking at a sequel. Hmm, there's hope for us yet.

   --- Reviewed by Kate Ayers


Review #5 by Jen Robbins

After winning the Booker Prize for THE BLIND ASSASSIN, Margaret Atwood returns to the idea of dystopia (first addressed in THE HANDMAID'S TALE) in her newest novel, ORYX AND CRAKE. Set in an apocalyptic future, her protagonist Jimmy is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague. As the last human, he coexists with genetic experiments gone awry, including the "Crakers," a test-tube bred race of childlike superhumans who have no memory of the world as it was, and a set of new species turned predators, including creatures like the wolvog, a nasty combination of wolf and dog.

As the novel opens, Jimmy, who now refers to himself as "Snowman" (in a reference to the mythic Abominable Snowman), is leaving his dilapidated seaside shelter to procure more supplies. As the story moves backwards to shed light on the cataclysmic event that led to such dire circumstances, Atwood creates a science fiction world that's alarmingly familiar to the path we find ourselves on now.

Jimmy was raised in a society split between corporate compounds (gated communities for the rich and intellectually elite) and the "pleeblands" (dangerous urban centers for the rest of humanity). His best friend was "Crake," a remote, oddball genius. The two teenage friends first encounter Oryx online as a pre-adolescent star on the pedophiliac site HOTTOTS. As adults, Crake finds Oryx and makes her his personal assistant when he embarks on his top-secret genetic experiments, the main purpose of which is to create the "Crakers." Oryx's destitute upbringing serves as a stark counterpoint to Jimmy and Crake's privileged lives: Oryx was sold into sexual slavery by her parents at a young age and was only rescued from the pleeblands and the sex industry by Crake. Oryx's job is to train the Crakers how to function --- she shows them what foods and animals are safe and teaches them to cope in the world.

As the novel progresses, the mystery slowly but surely unravels and you discover the pivotal roles played by Crake, Oryx and Jimmy in the downfall of humanity, and how Jimmy survived. Atwood raises pertinent questions about the consequences of our biotech pursuits, painting a stark, haunting world in the process. Her sardonic humor and razor-sharp wit are in abundance, but ORYX AND CRAKE lacks the bulletproof pacing and plot structure of THE HANDMAID'S TALE and, as a result, seems less plausible. However, her novel will still resonate with anyone who considers the potentially devastating consequences of taking genetic experimentation too far.

   --- Reviewed by Jen Robbins

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 30, 2004

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2004
  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385721676
  • ISBN-13: 9780385721677