Book Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

 

Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes

 

“Oryx and Crake” paints a picture of a future world that is ugly, grim and desperate, with only a few rays of humanity and hope. In Margaret Atwood’s 2003 novel, a human-induced biological catastrophe has wiped out most of the world’s population, leaving but a few survivors who avoided death by their having been holed up in an airtight building. The novel alternates between the period before and after the catastrophe, developing the three main characters throughout.

 

We see “life” as it is portrayed in the novel, largely through the eyes of a young man originally named Jimmy who, in the post-apocalypse order, then goes by the moniker of “Snowman” as he ekes out a day-to-day existence by drinking rainwater and looting abandoned and already pillaged homes and offices.

 

Crake is the dour, enigmatic friend of Jimmy, who engages in highly questionable research and experiments. The system of the “haves” bestowed Crake with great power and authority. Oryx is a young woman who evolves from being a prostitute slave into being one of Crake’s unwitting co-conspirators. The plot weaves these three characters together in compelling ways.

 

The book’s author did a lot of research for this novel, particularly in the area of current and possible future biomedical developments. Atwood liberally splashes example after example of hybridized mammals being created by human beings of dubious intention; many of these hybrid species then run amok, threatening the human race that brought them into being. To me, Atwood went overboard with the mutant mammals; there could have been half as many references to these gruesome beasts, and I believe that the reader would still get the picture.

 

In addition, the author provides frequent descriptions of the sex lives of the characters, principally Jimmy|Snowman; Atwood ascribes great relevance to his libido and to his attitudes toward sex and toward women. I’m not sure that these aspects of Jimmy’s character needed to be developed to the extent that they were.

The book presents thought-provoking ideas: from the present day until the aforementioned catastrophe, the human race is divided into two groups: the privileged, educated knowledge workers who live in environmentally healthy compounds, and the majority in “pleebland”, where life resembles the later stages of our current polluting, consumption-happy society. Those in the compounds live an acquisitive, amoral life in which they consume endless images of violence and pornography, and develop miracle drugs to peddle to the downtrodden, anxious masses. Along these lines, there is a great irony behind the reasons for catastrophe; without giving away all of the details, the authors of a drug that was intended to solve the ills of the world end up as the authors of the dire and unintended consequences that effectively end human civilization.

 

There is a little suspense built up in the last few pages of the book. However, for the most part the novel is comprised of many lengthy commentaries of a degraded planet. Some such description is required, to be sure; beyond a certain point, however, I felt as though Atwood repeated herself.

 

I’ve also read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. If I were to recommend one of these two novels to a reader new to Atwood, it would be Handmaid which, I feel, has a tighter, clearer and more plausible plot.