Summary: a good book about the downfall of civilization written by an author that doesn’t normally write science fiction.
Oryx and Crake is highbrow science-fiction. It’s not hard science fiction, like something written by Clarke or Sagan, where you’ll learn plenty of physics along the way. I mean it’s written by an author with literary credentials. Mainstream critics tend to all say the same thing about this book: “It’s sci-fi, but it’s good,” which is more than a little insulting to the rest of us. That put aside, this is a good book.
Most of the book reads sort of like what you would expect from everything else Atwood writes, despite the futuristic setting: children lose their innocence and discover their parents aren’t saints; love turns to jealousy; admiration turns to hate and fear and people do things they previously never could have imagined. In the end, which is usually where the book starts, the characters try to piece together some meaning out of it all, and grieve their loss.
Margaret Atwood’s style by this point is well established: her characters change names when their situations change. The book starts off at the end, and the reader discovers what happened when the characters reflect on their lives in thoughts and conversations. Margaret Atwood loves writing about male-female and parent-child dynamics, and the subconscious forces that drive us, and Oryx and Crake is no exception.
I’m not going to run through the entire plot, but the book begins with somebody named Snowman picking through the detritus of western civilization. The plot unwinds while Snowman reflects on his life from childhood until the present. Along the way, we get the story of how the little boy named Jimmy grows up in a world that looks sort of like our near future, and becomes Snowman right after that civilization comes crashing down around him.
In Jimmy/Snowman’s childhood, the world looks vaguely like a more privatized, slightly more technically advanced version of today. As an adult, civilization has collapsed, Snowman is all alone, and he spends his time picking through the wreckage looking for snacks.
I’d wager that at least half of the books on the shelves in the sci-fi section in any bookstore revolve around some sort end-of-the-world scenario, leaving one or a few survivors to make sense out of it all. Atwood dodges the rookie mistake of trying to make her scenario seem plausible, or even worse, mentioning certain years, or real-life politicians. Instead, she goes in the opposite direction. We piece together a picture of the world in the future from snippets of conversation, consumer products, and advertising. We don’t get a detailed roadmap of how we got to a world where corporations run most everything, and their employees live in combination housing developments/office parks/shopping malls.
Crake is Jimmy’s childhood friend; they grow up together in the same private compound where their parents work. They play computer games together, they get high, they watch inordinate amounts of porn (no word on whether Atwood lurked on slashdot to research).
Like a lot of the little aspects of life in this future world, the computer games that Jimmy and Crake play are fleshed out almost to the point that it’s hard to believe these aren’t real games. “War of the Roses” is one game; it seems sort of like Magic The Gathering, or Pokemon, except the mythical monsters are replaced with the highs and lows of humanity. One player can play the Holocaust card, and another player can play the Sistine Chapel card” to negate it. Crake actually gets his name from another game, “Extinctathon”, where the players take turns wiping out species.
The boys grow apart. While Jimmy becomes more aware that he has none of his parents’ aptitude for science, Crake takes off in school. Jimmy goes to a crappy art school and Crake goes to a top science university where student research is sponsored by corporations.
Later, they come back together when Crake hires Jimmy to write marketing copy for the Crake’s corporation. Jimmy becomes possessive of Oryx, a woman who previously worked as a not entirely consensual prostitute in some unknown third-world region. Now, Crake employs her at his company, and they have some nebulous relationship that drives Jimmy away from Crake.
I liked this book because Atwood made the characters seem real. She really captures the alienated teenage boy vibe in Jimmy. The highlights of the book are Jimmy’s adolescence. Besides that, Atwood creates a fascinating view of a possible future, with pigs that are genetically engineered to provide compatible organs to humans, chickens that are refactored without sense organs, brains, or anything extraneous to the purpose of getting fat enough to harvest as quickly as possible, and popular revolts battling with corporatization. Inside all that clever scenery, there’s some pretty good characterization of children abandoned by their mothers that grow into alienated adults.
The next paragraphs could be construed as spoilers, so stop reading if that sort of thing bothers you.
Besides all the good things I mentioned above, I gotta say that the ending of Oryx and Crake left me dissapointed. We never get an explanation for why Crake wiped out humanity. We spend the whole book wondering about how civilization gets destroyed, and we eventually find out how, but we never get to the more important issue of why Crake destroyed it. Crake has been a cypher throughout the plot, so it’s not out-of-character, but, like I said above, the ending is a little dissapointing.
Maybe Atwood is trying to make some point about humanity in general: people do crazy stuff and the rest of us are stuck trying to pick up the pieces and figure out why; but, to borrow a line from Marge,
“That’s a pretty lousy lesson.”