In the introduction of The Folio Society’s edition of Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood writes…
‘Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction – in the line of descent from Orwell’s 1984 – not a traditional science fiction in the line of H.G Wells’s War of the Worlds.’
Her reasoning is that it’s not a tale of intergalactic imagination, but, like 1984 and indeed The Handmaid’s Tale, borrows themes and ideas that are already, in one way or another, in motion in our current world. As she says, Oryx and Crake is about ‘what if?’ – ‘what if we continue down the road we’re already on?’. It certainly meets those musings. And it comes as no surprise when you consider Atwood is an author who has routinely, and with high regard, questioned our worldly path through scrupulous eyes.
At is core, Oryx and Crake is dystopian fiction (a sub-genre of speculative fiction.) It’s a novel of biological experimentation and catastrophe, two things that so perfectly, at times, go hand in hand. To quote Atwood once again, she writes, perhaps in slight contrast, that…
‘Oryx and Crake is a jolly, fun-filled romp in which almost the entire human race has been annihilated, before which it has split into two parts, a technocracy and an anarchy.’
I’m sure Atwood might agree that the novel is more than that. It’s flinchingly brutal in parts and broadly imaginative for the rest – ‘fun-filled’, I’m not entirely convinced.
The origins of the novel begin in Atwood’s childhood. She grew up among scientists, specifically biologists – ‘the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner […] is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice’. The probing nature of science is what drives the novel to its annihilated end. And we begin at the end, or near end, too. A narrative device than can often render a story cold – surely, we want to work towards the conclusion? Here it works in Atwood’s favour. (You don’t need me to tell you she is a writer who truly knows how to write.)
Our protagonist is Snowman, the last human on earth. He lives amongst creatures called Crakers on our late twenty-first century planet, where the remnants of the past surround. Through flashbacks it’s revealed that Snowman was once Jimmy, a boy who grew up in the technocratic world Atwood speaks of – corporations and private compounds abound. Snowman/Jimmy’s father was a genographer and then genetic engineer, first for a company called Organic Farms and later for HelthWyzer.
It is on the HelthWyzer compound, in his teenage years, that Snowman/Jimmy meets Crake (known as Glenn, until he decides to alter his name). ‘Crake was different. […] You could have an objective conversation with him, a conversation in which events and hypotheses were followed through to their logical conclusions.’ It’s clear from his introduction that Crake is a specific kind of genius.
Together they spend hours perusing the worst the Western world has to offer. Bloody video games, open heart surgery filmed live, hedsoff.com, a site ‘which played live coverage of executions in Asia, and pornography. It’s through pornography that the boys are first introduced to Oryx – ‘another little girl on a porno site’. (I’ll come back to Oryx in a bit). Eventually the boys make it to higher education – Crake attending Watson-Crick (think Harvard x 10), Snowman/Jimmy to Martha Graham, where he graduates and begins writing copy for AnooYoo ‘a collection of cesspool denziens’. Naturally Crake becomes a bioengineer and introduces Snowman/Jimmy to a pill called BlyssPluss, hiring him to market it. He too, introduces Snowman/Jimmy to his Crakers, an alternative to humans. This is where we find Oryx again. She is a teacher for Crake’s Crakers, and in a relationship with Crake as well. She begins a relationship with Snowman/Jimmy soon after – Snowman/Jimmy, it should be said, is utterly obsessed/in love with her.
It’s around this mark that the novel loses some momentum – for me at least. There are so many ideas woven into Oryx and Crake that I did wonder, whilst reading, if it would have been worth selecting one path – the Crakers or the BlyssPluss pill. There is a wealth of information to take in that it feels as though Atwood falls into telling us everything rather than showing us, because there is so much to tell. Backstory falters a little too – Snowman/Jimmy gets deep treatment, as he should, considering he’s the protagonist, but Oryx’s story is incredibly rich (and awfully brutal) that there could be several chapters or more written on that – instead she remains coolly passive about everything. Crake, well, he’s a character who offers no insight into himself, so it’s unsurprising Atwood offers no more than surface too.
To return to the story, as we already know the end at the beginning, it should be no shock that the BlyssPluss pill – a pill that protects users from diseases, an ‘unlimited supply of libido’, prolongs youth, and a ‘one time does it all birth control pill’ to manage over population – brings down mankind and leaves Snowman/Jimmy with the Crakers. What happens to Oryx and Crake in the oncoming aftermath? I’m not going to spoil it…but you can take a couple of guesses.
Alongside this backstory is, of course, Snowman, who is navigating the present. Perhaps like us, after reading such a roller-coaster of a novel, Snowman (lets drop the Jimmy now we’re in the present), is weary and searching for supplies in the rundown former compounds, and perhaps searching for answers too. What he finds? Again, I won’t spoil it.
Oryx and Crake is a novel of grand ideas. It is fascinating, horrifying, weird and, for the most part, an intriguing joy to read. Typically, of Atwood, it tackles a future that is not too distant. Is it social commentary? Maybe. I’m not sure, but it certainly takes us to the fringes of where science and big companies are already taking us, and presents an outcome that, with a little imagination, is none too hard to envisage. A pill that wipes out the human race – I can kind of see it happening, can’t you? In addition, the Crakers are an invention that is none too distant either. As Atwood writes in her introduction to the novel…
‘They are designer people. But anyone who engages in such design – as we are now doing, and as we will do increasingly – has to ask: How far can humans go?’
In other words, can we be trusted? Given the state of the climate and the path we’re on, the answer could be no. It could be yes too. ‘We’re a mixed bag, we humans.’
Oryx and Crake is worth reading, as are so many of Atwood’s novels. It should be said as well, that the copy I received from STORGY was a Folio Society edition. The introduction Atwood pens was specially commissioned for this edition, and like the novel itself, the design is unique. Found amongst the words are six beautiful colour illustrations by Harriet Lee-Merrion that visualise Atwood’s created world for us. The glow in the dark varnish on the cover is pretty neat too.
Reading this novel, and being the recipient of a Folio Society edition, has felt like an experience. What more could I really want?
The Folio Society edition of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake with a new introduction by Margaret Atwood and illustrated by Harriet Lee-Merrion is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, graphic novels and critical essays. Her novels include The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize, Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale – now a critically acclaimed television series – and The Penelopiad. Recent novels include the MaddAddam trilogy: the Giller and Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). The Door is her latest volume of poetry (2007). Her most recent non-fiction books are Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008) and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011). Her latest book of short stories is Stone Mattress: Nine Tales (2014). In 2016, Hag-Seed, a novel visitation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Angel Catbird, a graphic novel co-written with Johnnie Christmas, were published. Atwood’s most recent novel, The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was published in 2019. Atwood received the Peace Prize in 2017, and has been awarded the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize and the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
Reviewed by Emily Harrison
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