Oryx and Crake

Reviewed: January 13, 2005
By: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Seal Books
443 pages, $11.99

As we enter this story the last man in the world is sleeping under a tree, wearing an old bedsheet. Snowman, as he calls himself, survives by scavenging the remains of the civilization which produced him. Snowman, who used to be Jimmy, has more than the usual sort of survivor's guilt about still being alive. He knows it's no accident. His friend Crake, who engineered the end of the world as we know it, made sure that he didn't die of the virus that killed everyone else.

The novel shifts back and forth from Snowman's story, told in an eternal present tense narrative, to Jimmy's story, in a more reflective past tense. In this manner we dance around the dramatic events of chapter 12, slowly building up pictures of the world before and after the apocalypse.

The before world isn't very attractive. Jimmy grew up in gated communities owned and run by the transnational corporations which really ran the world. His life was essentially the property of his parents' employers, who were obsessed with security, profit, the corporate line and brand name loyalty to an extent that almost puts Big Brother to shame.

In this world anyone who develops a conscience is branded a terrorist. Jimmy's mother becomes one, disappearing from the family when he is in his early teens. Jimmy's dad replaces her with a newer model. When everything is for sale, personal relationships don't mean a great deal, and besides, Jimmy's mom is a social and political embarrassment that has to be compensated for.

At school Jimmy meets a boy named Crake. They become fast friends in a world where advanced video games are the most frequent leisure activity, and kiddie porn is readily available. Crake is brilliant. Jimmy is Watson to his Holmes at best, but the bond between them is strong, so much so that Crake seeks Jimmy out in later years and finds him a position in his growing company, which is pursuing genetic research into possibilities of immortality.

Atwood has taken trends of the day and extended them into the future. Our own obsession with youth and with the acceleration of sexual marketing among the young has become the bedrock of the economy in her world. Genetic engineering has produced a transgenic pig (called a pigoon) from which organs can be harvested for transplantation into humans. Dermatology actually replaces skin and hair. Chemicals are used to define emotional states.

Crake has told his employers that he needs to do extensive experiments to pursue that fountain of youth. What he is actually doing is breeding mankind's successor, a being which eats only plants, comes into sexual activity in season, has a limited intelligence and no sense of the divine. Crake believes that religion is not only unnecessary but actually harmful to the planet and that humankind is a pest that needs to be eradicated.

Having produced his perfect green eyed children, Crake then ambushes the world, leaving Jimmy/Snowman behind to look after the Children of Crake. As the story progresses it appears that Crake miscalculated. The children want stories, look to Snowman as a link with their creator, enshrine Crake and his girlfriend, Oryx, as their spiritual parents, and seem to be well on the way to adopting their own mythology. All this is aided by Snowman, who tells them stories so that they will continue to provide him with food and some company.

The world is a dangerous place for the last man. Wolvogs, pigoons and snats (snake/rats) have adapted well to the decaying urban sprawl. They stay away from the Children, but Snowman, who must forage among the remains of the old word for food and clothing, is in constant danger from these genetically altered beasts.

This is Atwood's second foray into this terrain. Her first, The Handmaid's Tale, was more a novel of social engineering. This one deals with the hard sciences more. In spite of this, she has insisted that it is not a science fiction novel, an assertion which has raised a lot of hackles in that community. It's a silly claim, based on her notion that science fiction is only about spaceships and exploration. Any number of books have tackled the themes that she takes on here and come to many of the same conclusions.

What she has done, as the writing in her recent essay collection, Moving Targets, makes quite clear, is extrapolate some social and scientific trends that she has been writing about in other ways for some years. The seeds of this book are easily extracted from her essays. That doesn't invalidate the message or the method. Extrapolation is just what the more serious science fiction writers do, and Atwood is not doing them or herself a favour by denying the connection.

World decimation has been done before in such books as A Canticle for Leibowitz, Planet of the Apes, The Chrysalids and The Stand. New races have supplanted mankind in books like Childhood's End and the recent Darwin's Children.

Oryx and Crakebelongs in that company as much as it belongs on the shelf with Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-four) and Huxley (Brave New World), which seems to be where Atwood wants to place it.

It's a good read, though if you're looking for any sort of optimism, you'll have to look somewhere else.