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Book Review - Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

If At First You Don't Succeed . . .

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood

Published by Nan A. Talese

Review by W. R. Greer

I'll admit at the beginning of this review that I hesitated reading Oryx and Crake. Dystopian novels are often depressing one-note symphonies. They might start with an interesting premise, but then the same point is often hammered home again and again in an attempt to convince the reader just how rotten humanity has become. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale managed to deliver tinges of humor and hope in the middle of the horror and made you think about multiple topics at the same time. I was hoping that Oryx and Crake would be in the same vein. To my relief and enjoyment, I found that once I cracked the book open, it was hard to put down.

Oryx and Crake begins with a man, who calls himself Snowman, sleeping in a tree, apparently the only human survivor of some worldwide cataclysm. Nearby is a village of humanoid creatures who look to Snowman for guidance and answers. Snowman refers to these beings as children of Crake or Crakers. He tells them that Crake created them, and Oryx created the rest of the plants and animals. The Crakers are different colors, their thick skin is impervious to the damaging sunlight, they are polite, gentle, naive, and unable to be violent or jealous. They also have a strange mating ritual. Snowman functions like a messenger to their God and creates myths for them to explain where they came from and what happened to their creator.

Snowman tells us the story of his past, his life as Jimmy in what appears to be the late 21st century. This was a time when mankind's environmental arrogance had led to radiation holes in the atmosphere, melting of the polar ice caps, flooding of coastal cities, drought, and desertification of the continents. The vast majority of the population lives in the pleeblands, where urban sprawl, crime, and illness make life cheap. Jimmy's parents are prized scientists and they live in the Compounds, walled communities built by large biotech companies to provide safety and luxury for their employees. Life in the Compounds was predictable, controlled, and guarded by corporate security corps called CorpSeCorps. Not only did they protect the Compounds from the people and diseases of the pleeblands, they spied on the employees and protected the secrets of the biotech companies. Jimmy's father explains the idea behind the Compounds to him as a young boy:

Long ago, in the days of knights and dragons, the kings and dukes had lived in castles, with high walls and drawbridges and slots on the ramparts so you could pour hot pitch on your enemies, said Jimmy's father, and the Compounds were the same idea. Castles were for keeping you and your buddies nice and safe inside, and for keeping everybody else outside.

"So we are the kings and dukes?" asked Jimmy.

"Oh absolutely," said his father, laughing.

The biotech companies had perfected gene splicing and DNA manipulation. Jimmy's parents originally worked for OrganInc Farms where they helped create a pigoon, a supposedly tame pig-like animal that would have multiple human-tissue organs that could be used for transplants. His father is a company man, not really involved in Jimmy's life as he grows up, unsure even of the date of Jimmy's birthday. He also shows obvious disappointment that his son hasn't inherited his scientific genius. Jimmy's mother used to be a microbiologist on the pigoon project, but now she stays home all day. She's a severely unhappy woman and rarely spends any time with Jimmy. One day she leaves the Compound forever, taking Jimmy's pet rakunk (cuddly cross of skunk and raccoon) with her. Her disappearance has the CorpSeCorps questioning Jimmy for years if he has any knowledge of where she might be.

As a teenager living in a new Compound after his dad transferred to a new company, Jimmy meets Glenn, and they become best friends. Glenn is a genius, a whiz at science and hacking computers. Glenn's father is dead, and his mother and her lover pretty much leave him alone. The two boys grow up on their own, surfing the Internet where they could play games like Blood and Roses, where the Blood side played with human atrocities like massacres and genocides, while the Roses played with human achievements like artworks, scientific breakthroughs, and stellar works of architecture. It was a trading game where one side would put up achievements to stop atrocities, and the atrocities player tried to loot the achievements. Another of their other favorite games was Extinctathon, where players had to name extinct species and tell when they vanished from the earth. Each player in Extinctathon chose an extinct species as a codename. Glenn chose the red-necked crake, and was thereafter known as Crake.

When the boys weren't playing games, they'd surf the net for violence and pornography. Anything could be found on the Internet, state-sponsored executions from around the world, people stomping on animals or tearing them apart with their bare hands, to third world children involved in all sorts of pornographic acts. It was on one such web site called HottTotts where Jimmy first saw a young girl who looked right into the camera, and seemingly right into Jimmy's eyes and soul. He was haunted by visions of this girl, whom he would come to know in adulthood as Oryx.

Jimmy and Crake grew up like normal boys, although devoid of any parental love or attention. Jimmy was more of a smart aleck, a user of girls and women, not staying with any of them too long, and tended to wander through life bored with its aimless existence. Crake's intelligence and ambition led him to the best college and to the top of the scientific ladder until he was in charge of top-secret projects of his own bidding. It was Crake's mastery of genetic manipulation that led to his creation of the newly designed creatures from human embryos. Crake designed them so they would cohabitate more harmoniously with nature and removed those behavioral tendencies that have led to misery among the human race. It was Crake's plan that led to the end of humanity as he knew it, leaving Jimmy as Snowman to protect and care for his creatures.

Oryx and Crake moves back and forth between Snowman trying to survive in his future that has no future, and his past where his only enjoyment of life was his friendship with Crake and his love for Oryx. Jimmy is not a particularly likable character and his actions, especially his obsession with Oryx's past, makes you want to shake some sense into him at times. Yet we all can empathize with his longing for love, whether the maternal love his mother couldn't offer or the love for Oryx that he could never fully have to himself. It's a testament to Margaret Atwood's literary skills that we're always interested in Jimmy and want him to find happiness. In lesser hands, Jimmy could be a disenfranchised protagonist, both from the story and from the reader's interest. Jimmy's pointless existence is just a reflection of his society's pointless existence. Life in the Compounds, controlled and sterile, exists only to further the profits of the biotech companies. Science is not used as a means to understand the world, but as a vehicle to maximize corporate profits by controlling the environment and people's bodies. Life in the pleeblands with its constant action and threats of danger appears a more exciting lifestyle to Jimmy at times.

In a capitalistic society, the successful companies provide a product the public desperately wants or must have. In Margaret Atwood's dystopia, the biotech companies control the world because they pander to society's aching desire for what they don't have. Providing products or techniques to allow for perpetually youthful looks and skin, drug-induced euphoria, and ultimate sexual satisfaction makes their products indispensable to the public. By bioengineering plants and animals that allow maximum production of food and other products, these same companies allow the rape of nature to continue as the world struggles to provide for a continuously growing population it can no longer support. The author obviously feels this is one potential future, where a combination of man's destruction of his environment while attempting to provide for too much population and man's arrogance that he can sculpt the world in his own vision will lead to an untenable world. While Jimmy can't figure what his place in that world should be, Crake's solution is to start all over again.

Oryx and Crake are the mysterious and intriguing characters of this novel. Crake lives life on an even emotional keel, never giving in to anger or passion. He poses philosophical questions to Jimmy, that in retrospect, Jimmy wishes he hadn't given short shrift. While there are hints in Crake's life of an undercurrent of resentment and anger in his personality, he never becomes the cliché mad scientist ready to exact his revenge on the world that wronged him. Crake's actions make perfect sense to him in his appraisal of society and what it would take to fix it. As Jimmy wonders at one point:

Had he been a lunatic or an intellectually honourable man who'd thought things through to their conclusion? And was there any difference?

In contrast to the chaos of the pleeblands and the paranoia of the Compounds is the serenity of Oryx. Bought from her family at a young age, she has been the property of different men during her life who have used her for their own purposes. Instead of bearing any ill will toward these men, Oryx was always accepting of her situation and aware that the alternative was usually something more unhappy and destitute. Oryx is a woman who treasures the positive aspects of her life, refusing to dwell on what she doesn't have or despairing over her situation. Jimmy, however, burns with rage when he thinks of the men from Oryx's past who have victimized this woman he adores.

We know early in this story that Jimmy loves Oryx and that Crake's action brought about the catastrophe that has marooned Jimmy with the Crakers. Even knowing the ultimate result, their story is a suspenseful one. Jimmy is a highly believable character. We easily identify with his disdain for his parents while aching for their love and acceptance, his manipulation of the women in his life, and his passion to possess Oryx and avenge any wrong that was ever inflicted on her. While following the trajectory of his life, the parallel stories of Oryx and Crake build to the climax when they all live together in the Compounds and Crake launches his plan to correct man's sins.

While the world they inhabit is bleak, Margaret Atwood manages to sprinkle humor throughout the story, albeit with a bitter twist. In a society where math and science are prized above all skills, the writers and artists are shunted aside. Jimmy, being more comfortable with words than numbers, goes off to a poor and struggling college called Martha Graham Academy, where those involved in the arts pass the time knowing they don't have much a future with it.

So a lot of what went on at Martha Graham was like studying Latin, or book-binding: pleasant to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything, though every once in a while the college president would subject them to some yawner about the vital arts and their irresistible reserved seat in the big red-velvet amphitheatre of the beating human heart.

One web site,, was for watching people commit assisted suicide. It became so popular that people would pay huge amounts of money for their 15 seconds of fame, fatal as it was. While playing their game of Blood and Roses, a sidebar would be provided if the players were unaware of some atrocity or achievement. If they clicked on the sidebar, they'd get two choices:

. . . R for children, PON for Profanity, Obscenity, and Nudity. That was the thing about history, said Crake: it had lots of all three.

It is these flashes of humor and insight that keep the story fresh by highlighting some of the unflattering truths of human life.

While a smaller part of the story, Jimmy's life with the Crakers, is no less enthralling and important than his life with Oryx and Crake. Here lies a creationist story. A new humanity has been created on an earth already populated with plants and animals. With mankind's demise, nature is rebuilding itself, covering the things of man. The Crakers, despite their pacifism and naiveté, want to understand their world, not simply just exist within it. They constantly ask Jimmy (as Snowman) who created them, where does this creator live, how can they talk with him, and what is right and what is wrong. Snowman struggles to tell them what he can, at times grasping for the simplest or most convenient answer, because explaining the truth to them is too difficult and incomprehensible for them. And for Jimmy too. In their attempt to understand their world, both seen and unseen, the Crakers already have the beginnings of religion, leaders are emerging, and some of the very things that Crake tried to design out of their behavior seem inevitable. In starting over from the beginning, will the Crakers repeat the same behaviors?

None of the characters in Oryx and Crake are overtly evil. Margaret Atwood suggests that humanity may be doomed by our own vanity, lust, greed, and arrogance. While this novel is not one of hope, it is a story that grabbed me at the beginning and didn't let go until it shook me off at the end, and even then I was unwilling to go. This is a novel to be devoured, to let the ideas charge through your body and mind. It packs a wallop at times on both a visceral and mental level. While stranded alone in the new world, Jimmy often hears Oryx's voice talking to him. Whether this is a touch of madness or Oryx transcending reality (the Crakers already worship her), she's the mother goddess reaching out in love to a tortured soul and world. It's her voice that sticks with me as I leave this novel.

Oh Jimmy, you were so funny.
Don't let me down.

In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood has delivered a cautionary tale. It's not a new warning; religious leaders have preached for millennia that the seven deadly sins can lead to man's undoing. What she has provided for us is a vehicle to see that path of self-destruction and delivered it in a novel both chilling and entertaining. Read it and weep.

Copyright © 2003

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Margaret Atwood

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