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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Title: Oryx and Crake, the first of the MaddAddam Trilogy
Author: Margaret Atwood
Reviewed Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 376
Release Date: March 30, 2004 (this edition)

Oryx and Crake opens to find “Snowman,” alone and malnourished in a tree. Believing himself (and convincing us) he’s the last remaining human on the planet, he watches over a curious group of multi-colored beings known to us only as the “Children of Crake” and the “Children of Oryx.” Their odd behavior and impressionable nature has both entertained and exasperated Snowman up to this point. While he’s relished the power he’s had helping them navigate what remains of the world around them, he’s also found the lack of normal conversation frustrating. In his lingering despair, he traces his steps in time as he narrates through memory the events leading up to the mysterious plague that’s wiped out humanity. He walks through the broken city, avoiding wolvogs and pigoons--weird genetic amalgamations bred for specific traits and features--and finds in the wasteland the memories of a better time when the deserted streets he now walks flourished with people, activity, and promise.

One of the first things we learn is Snowman’s name isn’t really Snowman--it’s Jimmy. Before he reduced himself to walking around on a beach wrapped in a bed sheet, he lived on a compound with his parents, two OrganInc Farms scientists churning out the latest ideas for growing human-tissue organs and implementing their strategy on things like pigoons--a pig genetically altered to grow several organs at once that would then be harvested for human use. The genius of the project isn’t just the end product, it’s the guilt-free sustainability of the pigs as continued organ hosts. Once a product is reaped for use, the pig isn’t rendered useless--it continues to live and grow more organs like a tomato plant. The perpetua of the Pigoon project served to satiate concerns over waste and humane treatment. After all, who would want an organ harvested from an abused or poorly treated animal?

What drives Oryx and Crake forward is the desire to find out who Oryx and Crake are, what caused the plague that killed so many people, what Jimmy’s past has to do with his present, who are the weird, child-like beings Snowman surrounds himself with and why. What begins as a tale backward in time to Jimmy’s childhood unravels into a long demonstration of the tortuous back and forth game Snowman plays with himself: what if he had seen the clues earlier? What if he had said or done something? Could he have actually done anything? This recollection of events that turns into our narrative is a type of self-flagellation as Snowman tries once more to rid himself of the guilt of hindsight.

As his story unfolds, we learn Crake (originally Glenn--with two n’s) and Jimmy met in middle school and developed an odd relationship that survived into adulthood. Crake was an intellectual genius and after the two separated, went to one of the best schools, one of the best companies, rose to an enviable position at the top of a secret project rumored to alter the way mortality is thought of. Oryx is the survivor of a third world sex trade, hired by Crake to work on his project. Jimmy gets caught in between the two--in love with Oryx, admiring of Crake who, by now, has not only become his best (if oddly detached, tunnel-visioned) friend, but his only friend. Crake also happens to love Oryx.

Don’t let the romance run away with you. It’s really not the center of the plot, but rather, only a part of the complicated fulcrum that churns events around Jimmy, catching him in a vortex of his own shortcomings. It’s as much about the elusive figures of Oryx and Crake as it is about the legacy they’ve left behind and Snowman’s struggle to make sense of them even after they’re gone. He lives amidst the ghosts of Blood and Roses, of Extinctathon, of the “human experiment.” To his credit, he calls himself Snowman after the "Abominable Snowman," the mythical creature and for the transient nature of humanity (apropos to the short life of a snowman), to celebrate the here and now and exist in the present; in short, to celebrate himself as human, a monkey brain, juxtaposed against the creatures created to be better than their models.

Margaret Atwood’s imagined future is a marvelous and frightening extension of extant society and global concerns. Gene splicers have discovered ways to postpone the weather of age (through multiple and continued trial and error), create chickens that appear to be 95% edible meat, 5% niggling details, and process even more food for easier consumption. The product, company, and marketing names, if anything, make this book worth reading: ChickieNobs, Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail Sausages, HelthWyzer, NooSkins, BlyssPluss, RejoovenEsense, Paradice (this one might be my favorite, layered as it is).

Scientists have an elevated role in Oryx and Crake. They live in compounds separated from normal cities, or Pleeblands--an odd combination of “plebeian” and “bland,” apt descriptions for society’s opinion of these ordinary, unexceptional (non-genius) people. They work on everything from food, health, and beauty, to pets and disease control. It might be said that the biotechnology here is almost too present and unsurprising. The same could go for the wide variety of (and cavalier attitude toward) porn websites, crazy marketing campaigns, the extent of animal extinction, and the ever-present threat of global warming, but that’s the point of a dystopian novel. What we read is supposed to be quite similar to what we’re familiar with--so similar in fact, that it imagines a frightening reality, one which grows from the depths of the society of today and projects into the not-so-far-off future. We’re supposed to see in Oryx and Crake the derivations of modern practices, foods, and morals to see how close Atwood’s reality is to today’s, to imagine one possible extension of rising sea levels, vaccinations, disease, cosmetic surgery, genetically enhanced foods. This is not to say Atwood can do no wrong, it’s to say I had little to no problem believing her projections and on one level wondering, why are we not already there?

Oryx and Crake takes you on a frightening and mysterious journey to uncover the truth. It’s masterfully written, intelligent, and at times, witty. Fans of Margaret Atwood who haven’t read it, should. If you like dystopian novels, don’t let this one pass under your radar! Add it to your library. I already want to read it again.


Anonymous said...

I really should read more Atwood...

Erika said...

Yes, yes you should. :) She's one of my absolute favorites.

Lily Child said...

I agree with Erika, Atwood is one of my favorites! You should definitely read more of her if you have the chance!

Wonderful review! I am so glad you liked it! :)

Erika said...

@Lily Child Thank you! I don't know how I couldn't... I'm such an Atwood fangirl, really, I had to stop myself from just gushing. ;) I'm reading The Year of the Flood right now.

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