Friday, 1 May 2009

Oryx and Crake by Margeret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is a dystopian, end of the world type novel kind of in the same vein as The Handmaid's Tale but with a political and economic slant rather than a new world created by a theocracy. Surprisingly, for an Atwood novel, this took me a while to get into, but it was worth it in the end. And since for some reason I found this really hard to write a review of this is just my thoughts, and in a somewhat convoluted fashion at that!

Set in the early twenty-first century (I think), it is the story of a catastrophe that wiped out almost all of humanity and left our narrator virtually alone in the world. Although the story is narrated by one person throughout, the narrator has two incarnations, Jimmy before the catastrophe, and snowman after, and the story is told in a non linear fashion from both viewpoints, although there is some chronological progression in Jimmy and Snowman’s individual narration. We don’t actually discover what actually happened until very near the end of the novel, but there are hints and suggestions right from the start.

The world Jimmy lives in is similar to modern western society, but more advanced. I assume it is meant to be viewed as an exaggerated version of the world we live in now. It is a very divided society, with the educated and skilled elite living and working in compounds, with their every need taken care of on site. Everybody else lives in what are termed the Pleeblands, which we don’t learn too much about, but are viewed with derision from inside the compounds, where Jimmy lives.

The various compounds all seem to be highly scientific, involved in Genetic modification for food production, healthcare, cosmetic surgery and similar activities that are all present in our world today, although in a less exaggerated form. Nothing eaten seems to be real, although meant to taste as much like the real thing as possible. Everything is created artificially, with any possible dangers removed, and to maximise financial viability. Among other things, the compound Jimmy’s father works on is working on creating new breeds of animals from splicing two species together. Hence Racunks, snats, and wolvogs (work it out for yourselves). They also breed Pigoons, large vicious pig type creatures who have the capability to grow human organs for use in research or transplantation.

However, at the same time as we learn about this technologically advanced, self obsessed society, we also learn about Jimmy’s current predicament, as Snowman, from where he is narrating this story. He lives in a tree, dresses in a sheet, scavenges for food, and appears to be the only human left alive, apart from a strange group of primitive humans known to Snowman as The Crakers, who seem perfectly content with their lives and almost revere Jimmy as a God. How Jimmy/Snowman got from his sterile, protected life to this tough, lonely one is the focus of the story.

Through Snowman’s narration we learn of Jimmy’s childhood, adolescence and college years and his friendship with a boy named Glenn, although always referred to in the novel as Crake. Although they seem to have the normal teenage relationship, Crake’s brilliance shines through, as does his obsession with human faults, and his understanding of why the world is as it is, although his eventual solution is pretty drastic. He has an obsession with changing humanity, using genetics to iron out all the flaws, therefore creating the perfect human race and obliterating the need for wars, violence and even love. Jimmy serves as the foil, proposing counter arguments, although he can’t argue with the science. In their teenage years, Jimmy and Crake play Internet games, watch Internet porn and discuss the state of the world. The porn leads both of them to an obsession with a young child they see in a video, and the games lead Crake to an obsession with extinct animals. Much later in their adult lives, Jimmy and Crake end up working together, with a woman named Oryx, who both would like to believe is the girl from the Internet, but probably isn’t, although she’s had a similar background.

And without totally giving the plot away, which I’ve tried really hard not to do, that's about as far as I can go. Both Crake and Oryx take their names from extinct birds, although Oryx’s was chosen for her by Crake. Oryx is a strange character. Jimmy and Glen are both fairly well developed, but Oryx always seems a bit on the outside. As well as appearing in the chronological story, she also appears in Jimmy’s head. He fantasises about her, and it does appear that what he tells us about her is not altogether true. He seems to have created a persona for her with the absolute belief that she is the girl from the video.

One of the things I found most interesting was Snowman's obsession with words. As Jimmy, he studied language and as Snowman, he is constantly thinking of different words that could be applied to his situation. It is almost as if language is creating a structure for his life where nothing else can. It also provides a contrast with the Crakers I mentioned earlier, who have very little language.

I could go on for pages and pages about this. It serves as a warning, and just as The Handmaid’s Tale, I think it will be relevant for many years to come. I think there will always be something in it that will be relevant. However, I don’t think it’s one of Atwood’s best and I do think it strayed slightly too much into the realms of science fiction, although it is feasible that most of the science in the story will be possible at some point in the near future.


Cath said...

My library has this so I'll get it from there at some stage. Sounds interesting. Another book I really like along these lines is Gate to Women's Country by Sheri Tepper. It's probably much more in the sci fi vein than Atwood but has some interesting ideas and characters.

BooksPlease said...

It's been a few years since I read this. I enjoyed your post and it did bring back scenes from the book. My memory of it is that I was bewildered whilst reading it, but at the end it did seem clearer - I think!

I didn't think it was one of her best either.

Jo said...

Cath, its worth a read. I've not heard of that one but I'll keep a look out for that.

Booksplease, I got that bewildered feeling aswell. I think thats why I found it so hard to write a review of! I think I got it by the end, and Iliked the ambiguous ending.