Oryx and CrakeAnchor Books, TPB, © 2003, 274 pp, ISBN #0-385-72167-6
Reviewed October 2004
Oryx and Crake is not my introduction to Margaret Atwood's work - like many, I've also read The Handmaid's Tale. On the one hand, Oryx is a much easier read than Handmaid, more accessible and not as unpleasant. On the other hand, the reasons this is so contribute to the novel overall being not a very good one.
Oryx takes place in the near future. It opens with Snowman, who as far as he knows is the last fully human survivor of an apocalyptic event. Snowman is the sort of caretaker and lawgiver to a group of sentients he calls the Crakers. Before the end, Snowman was a man named Jimmy, who was the son of scientists. Jimmy grew up in a world in which corporations had largely taken over the North American economy and political scene (as far as we can tell), and corporations are based in Compounds in which they perform highly secret and controlled research. Jimmy's mother decides she objects to the research and escapes. Jimmy is raised by his father, but feels parentless.
He becomes friends with a boy who adopts the name Crake, from the name he uses in an on-line game he plays with Jimmy. Crake is extremely intelligent and unemotional, contrasted with Jimmy who is only moderately bright and very emotionally driven. Crake and Jimmy grow up together, until they finish school and Crake goes off to a high-powered research institute to finish his education, while Jimmy goes to what is essentially a run-down arts school which turns out low-level marketing drones. Jimmy plugs along at his life until Crake calls him back to his fold, hiring him to produce the campaign for a new life-extension drug Crake's company is finishing.
There Jimmy meets Oryx, a young woman who Jimmy is sure is the same as the girl he and Crake once saw in an overseas porn film when they were children. Oryx and Jimmy become lovers, even as the countdown to armageddon is underway.
In Jimmy, Atwood has selected a character who is not the driver of the events of the story, and the narrative has a very matter-of-fact, undramatic tone. The only things which deviate from the tone are the occasional lines of sardonic humor, and the wacky, improbably-named environs of the pre-disaster world. The latter of these - companies named RejoovenEsence and Anoo-Yoo; products named BlyssPluss and Chickie-Nobs; research animals named Pigoons - feels like it could have been lifted from either Max Barry's Jennifer Government or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. (I personally find the leaps in societal development that all three of the books take to be fundamentally implausible, and naively constructed purely for humorous intent. Jennifer Government is largely played for humor, but this nature undercuts the seriousness of Stephenson's and Atwood's novels, I think.)
The real problems I have with Oryx and Crake are very broad: It's a story which very nearly lacks characters, a plot, or interesting themes.
Characters: Jimmy barely qualifies as a character, despite being the point-of-view figure, as he sleepwalks through his life and rarely acts to change it. Oryx is far less of a character, being at best a foil for Jimmy and Crake. Crake is the prime mover of the story, but we're never able to get into his head to understand why he's doing what he's doing. Indeed, the story is in many ways vague, and thus what he's doing - or even if he's the one doing it - is open to interpretation, but to no useful end. None of these characters has an arc in which they develop or change (or, if Crake does, we can't tell), and it's thus difficult to root for or against any of them. They're not really characters, they're plot devices.
Plot: To be plot devices, there has to be a plot, right? Well, sort of. Crake reasons that humanity is on a collision course with disaster, and engineers the Crakers to be able to succeed us, by genetically altering them to remove many qualities he feels are detrimental to humanity - such as tendencies towards religion or art. But the actual process of moving towards the apocalypse is presented up front as a fait accompli (since the story begins after the disaster), and the march towards it seems like the inevitable march of time. And Snowman's actions in the post-disaster world are not especially illuminating to us-the-readers and ultimately just feel like a bunch of muddling around in the ruins. There's really nothing here which hasn't been done previously and better in classic such as John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids or Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Themes: What are the themes here? Oryx and Crake seems like a cautionary tale against humanity going down its current path of corporate domination and lack of conscience in developing new applications of cutting-edge science, warning that all it takes is one madman (or mistake) to wipe out humanity. This, too, is nothing new, nor is its presentation (this is, effectively the central message of the final third of A Canticle for Leibowitz). The book has a decidedly behaviorist attitude towards its characters (who don't change and apparently can't act outside the parameters set up for them) and towards humanity as a whole (seemingly unable to alter its gloomy destiny). I found this to be both a false observation and a boring one. Rather than having characters struggling against the status quo - even if they fail - we have characters not struggling against the status quo, indeed - at best - simply giving in to it. This form of literature is neither entertaining nor instructive.
Oryx and Crake is at its best when it's tossing off little theoretical implications of its larger issues, but as with the larger issues it never really grapples with or delves into the smaller bits. The nature of the Crakers - and, by implication, the nature of humanity and the place of art therein - is fascinating on several levels, but thinking about it is left as an exercise to the reader (the role of art is somewhat similar to the point of view taken by Scott McCloud in his seminal critical work Understanding Comics). While Atwood has done a lot of research and has some interesting (albeit not always original) ideas, the book really needed to go beyond its root concepts and explore one or more of them more fully. Or just do something with any of its major components.
A book can be thought-provoking while still not being a good book. Oryx and Crake is such a book. Despite being one-stop-shopping for a variety of ideas, I feel you'd be better served reading four or five other books to get some of those ideas in more depth, and with more of a story fronting them.
hits since 11 October 2004.
|© 2004 Michael Rawdon (firstname.lastname@example.org) http://www.leftfield.org/~rawdon/|