Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood

Summary

A post global-warming dystopian novel from the pen of Margaret Atwood, it focuses on Jimmy (aka Snowman), who believes himself to be the only human survivor of a deliberate viral destruction of the human race. This is the first part of the MaddAddam trilogy, so essentially is setting the scene for the next novels to come. Reading this in 2020, it is too eerily resonant of what is currently happening globally.

Snowman lives in a tree, within sight of the ocean and the Craker camp. It is a blasted landscape. It is too dangerous to sleep on the ground, as genetically-altered animals like wolvogs and pigoons could kill him. He spends a large part of the book in flashback mode, reliving how he got to be where he is, as well as thinking about food and security. While the Crakers attend to his needs, bringing him fish once per week, he does not consider them as human as he is, as they have been genetically-altered.

Snowman relives his former family situation, his mother’s distance and near-total ignoring of him, and his equally unavailable father. He recalls how and when he first met Crake, and the bond they formed over video games, in particular Extinctathon, run by MaddAddam.

They have several discussions about society, and social experiments, etc., and Crake usually wins through Jimmy’s inability to match his genius friends arguments. At this point in time, through the abilities of his parents, Jimmy lives a comfortable protected life inside the OrganInc Compound, which is the company employing his parents. This world is ruled by all-powerful pharma/bio companies with varying interests, in this case growing rejection-proof human organs in pig hosts. Outside these compounds are the pleeblands, where the great unwashed live and die in an increasingly unlawful world. Later, his dad gets transferred to HelthWyzer, where he meets Crake.

We follow Jimmy’s career, as essentially a marketing man for drugs and creams, and his personal life which becomes debauched and reckless. Crake, the ultimate “numbers man”, needs a “word man” like Jimmy to help grow his own project, so throws Jimmy a lifeline. Crake is in charge of a huge project, with hundreds of people working for him, and lives a life of unimaginable luxury, where everything is available. Jimmy now finally meets Oryx in person, whom Crake “ordered”/bought earlier. She is impervious to her own history, and a love triangle soon develops, which begins to poison the Jimmy-Crake relationship. Jimmy also realises that all the scientists under Crakes command were formerly with MaddAddam, hired to develop his secret drug.

Jimmy eventually comes out of the tree, driven by hunger and a need for weapons. He undertakes a trek back to the HelthWyzer Compound, and relives how the former world hurtled down the path to self-destruction, and Crake’s plans came increasingly to the fore. We learn how the cataclysm erupted, and how Jimmy dealt with his destructive relationships. After several interactions with the murderous genetically-modified animals, he makes it back to his camp, where he learns of three other humans who have survived. He spies on them from a hidden vantage point, and must decide to join them, or kill them.

Main Characters:

Jimmy/Snowman: Above average intelligence, but not as smart as his friend Crake. His own family has serious dysfunction, and Jimmy increasingly becomes distant from them. Jimmy’s life is a cocktail of drugs and cheap sex, spiralling destructively downwards until Crake rescues him.

Crake: Jimmy’s only true friend, of genius level intellect, yet curiously detached when it comes to more visceral human interactions. He becomes afflicted with a god-like sense of mission.

Oryx: She is originally a child prostitute, whom the two boys first see when browsing internet porn. They eventually get to meet her, and Crake takes her as a lover/mistress. Jimmy fantasizes about her (has done for years since seeing the porn-site,carrying a picture of her in his wallet) and becomes her illicit lover, though this seems to cause Oryx no moral dilemmas. She comes across as somewhat emotionally cold.

Minor Characters:

Jimmy’s Parents: Jimmy’s mother gives up work after having Jimmy, retreats into a secluded life, and eventually runs away to join a radical violent environmental group. Jimmy’s father is a distant man, under serious pressure at his bio-engineering job, and provides Jimmy with no emotional support.

The Crakers: Genetically-altered humans, physically perfect, and socially engineered. They lead simple lives, exhibit no desire to create art or undertake philosophical reasoning, and who seem to have little to do bar providing food and an audience for Snowman.

What I Liked:

  • To be reading in 2020 of a virus being deliberately released sends distinct shivers down the spine. I loved the prescience of this.
  • The research is excellent, and the scenarios and outcomes make logical sense.
  • I liked the world the author created, with all the new words and animals.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The characters are very hard to empathise with – they feel somewhat cardboard. Oryx evokes no sympathy for her life or experiences, which is incredible, and Crake is too one-dimensional. Jimmy is more a lens than a person.
  • The ideas are presented brusquely, rather than being cleverly worked into an overall tone. This means the novel comes off somewhat as a lecture, rather than a read.
  • The book can be a slow read, which is understandable being essentially a scene-setter for the next in the trilogy.

Overall:

This book was first published some fifteen years ago, yet still has a huge resonance today. I think her message is watch out for big government, and profit-centred science, and ensure both remain subject to checks and balances. I did like the book, and that is was an interesting read. A reader would need patience to stay with it in the early part, but the pace accelerates half-way through, and becomes more interesting. However, I was not so convinced, that I would rush out to get the next two books. Not a bad summer read.

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