Oryx and Crake

Author: Margaret Atwood

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: MaddAddam (#1)

Published: 2003

I read it: May 2015


Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.

The past and the present are a constant torture for Snowman, as in both Abominable (because of his mythological status to his not-quite-human neighbors) and a melting figure (as he wastes away trying to survive in a forest near a beach). When he’s not working to find food and avoid wolvogs and pigoons, he’s reminiscing about Oryx whispering in his ear. This was when he was Jimmy, though it wasn’t that long ago. Oryx was a person with a rocky past, a strange dream somehow turned into reality for Jimmy. And Crake was the closest thing to his best friend, an ambitious genius who simultaneously helped end society and start a new one.

There’s a lot going on in Oryx and Crake, not all of it comfortable to read about, but Atwood pulls it off by keeping things personal. The twin narratives of present-Snowman and past-Jimmy are equally peculiar in their connections to a world we know but yet is noticeably different. Jimmy’s time is a not-too-distant future from our own in which the lucky and educated live in isolated research communities. His home is within the compound of OrganInc, one of many companies that does genetic research. (Atwood’s creation of mashed-up words and catchphrases can be piercing or silly, but “OrganInc” is one of the great ones. It calls to mind the obvious “organic,” but also “organ” as in the growth or transplants of body parts.) Jimmy struggles to understand his distant and fighting parents, and his mom becomes a liability to his closely monitored existence. In high school, he meets the clever Crake, though they waste most of their time getting consumed by various internet distractions, interspersed with playing strategic two-player games that mimic broad cultural patterns, sort of like role-playing versions of Risk.

Snowman, on the other hand, is almost a separate being entirely. He’s the only human left after some huge catastrophe decimated most of Earth, or at least his portion of it. His task is to loosely oversee the Crakers, relatively simple humanoid beings who have a peaceful colony on the beach. Why are they named after Crake? Why do they worship both him and Oryx? These are the overarching questions that the dual timelines work toward, and they are fully answered by the end of the book. The big ideas are about the collapse and rebirth of a society, and the devastating yet creative hand humans have in genetic technologies. Someone once quipped that humans are just one generation away from returning to the stone age. That is, because most of our progress is taught and learned and recorded, but not possible to really internalize, if something were to blow it all up tomorrow we’d have to start from scratch (ijndustrially, scientifically, philosophically) and might not be able to get back to where we are now. Frightening stuff.

The book grips with its intellectual muscle, but it’s not a perfect story. Jimmy is sometimes too traditional a moody protagonist, which works in his high school chapters and on into some college, but the whole thing wears a bit by the end. I found it hard to care about his string of failed relationships and his adult ennui. It’s realistic, I suppose, but totally kills the momentum. Crake is intriguing, but struggles to break out of the loner genius trappings. The whole story of Oryx is dark and challenging, and I found myself wanting to both read on and turn away in disgust. I’m not sure yet what I really think of the decision to give her that sort of past.

Atwood is a highly linguistic writer, in that she can never turn away from the idea of words themselves and what they mean to us. This results in plenty of little treats, such as the aforementioned “OrganInc” or a facility called “Paradice” which uses a single letter to swing the meaning toward chance and risk. She can’t resist opportunities like this:

The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses, as he was soon in the habit of quipping during Happy Hour.

Atwood channels her own language play into a self-awareness that her too-smart characters use as defense mechanisms.

All told, I think I enjoyed this book because I knew that it was the first installment in a trilogy. I kept wondering if it would have worked as a novel on its own and I think…maybe? But the thematic vistas are too wide to be contained here, and there must be more characters who have a hand in this world. Will Snowman even be involved in the next book? Will we learn more about Oryx and Crake or do we already have enough to go on? As one of the passages in the last few pages goes: “Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?” It remains to be seen if the anthill can be rebuilt, and whether it will even be constructed by “ants” at all.

I like not knowing what is to come.


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