Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

Another one for the book club. I’ve actually read this dystopian novel some years ago, but I was happy to revisit Atwood’s nightmarish yet highly imaginative envisioning of the future where messing with nature comes to a no good, very bad end for the human race.

This is not a spoiler, since the book opens in the post-apocalyptic future where the world’s population has been wiped out, and follows what could be the last human survivor who calls himself Snowman. The only other inhabitants are a mysterious new breed of humans called Children of Crake: physically flawless and beautiful, lacking sexual drive and violent impulses, unable to create art or technology, devoid of envy, anger and existential angst. Despite their reverence for Snowman, his chances of survival look pretty grim, with the dwindling supplies and no real weapon to protect himself against the genetically engineered animals now running amok (including some nasty mutant pigs you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark narrow alley).

Snowman’s physical and spiritual struggles in the dire present alternate with the recollections of his pre-apocalyptic life as Jimmy, a rather ordinary guy who’s passively drifting through life; not the best sort, not the worst, mostly guilty of indifference. The world Jimmy lives in is a cautionary tale about science and big corporations, where greed and unrestrained genetic engineering rule the day. As in many science fiction novels, it’s a world that feels just a few steps removed from our own, where the issues of the day like social disparity and climate change take on a more sinister and exaggerated form.

The higher classes of people, including Jimmy’s parents, live in gated communities, while the rest languishes in the over-populated “pleeblands” where violence and short-lived outbreaks of man-made viruses are common. Atwood clearly had a lot of fun imagining the possible outcomes of genetic-modification-gone-insane (the most comical creation is ChickieNobs, a new breed of chickens that’s all breast and no brain), and even before the final catastrophe this depiction of the future is pretty grim, though not without a dose of dark humour.

In the course of his life, Jimmy encounters Crake, an enigmatic and ambitious genius who becomes his best friend, and Oryx, the woman who becomes the love of his life. It must be said that despite the title of the book, Jimmy feels like the only well-rounded character on offer. Crake remaining a shadowy, unknowable figure till the end is not such a big problem since it rather suits his mastermind character, but Oryx is more frustrating. The book devotes a sizeable chunk to her backstory where she’s essentially sold into slavery by her poor family in some unnamed South-East Asian country, but this serves more to illustrate the injustices of the world rather than fleshing out her character, who remains elusive and gossamery and never expresses much emotion. This was undoubtedly a desired effect, but without something like Crake’s formidable intelligence to go with the mystery, it unfortunately leaves Oryx a rather bland creation and robs the ending of the emotional power it could have had.

Despite some reservations, Atwood’s limitless imagination makes the book a joy to read, and as the fall of humanity draws nearer it’s impossible to put down. It made me want to revisit the next two novels in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.

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