Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oryx and Crake

Raccoons make me nervous. Sure, they're cute from a distance, with their little black masks and that weird rattly sound they make when they shake their heads, but they also have fingers and I a kind of predatory fearlessness. I'm not saying my nervousness about raccoons affects my day-to-day life or anything, but it's there. There are all kinds of other animals that people have problems with, so many that you wouldn't think it was necessary to create new ones to make people uneasy. Margaret Atwood thought differently. In her novel Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a vision of the future in which technology isn't used to build fancy flying cars and hovering buildings, but strange hybrid animals and an entirely new race of "people." 

Often, with futuristic or science fiction novels, when the story begins the author orients the reader in the new world. Strange things are explained (at least somewhat) in concise, one- or two-sentence blips and by the end of the first chapter, you know most of the rules of this new place and time and can settle in and enjoy the story. Atwood does not do this. 

Oryx and Crake opens after some kind of natural disaster has ravaged the world. The only human left alive (that we, or he, know of) is Snowman, and he is not exactly the adventure hero type. He lives in a tree on a beach, teaches things to a group of "people" he calls the Crakers (human-like, but not human) and spends a lot of his time trying to keep his skin protected from the sun and drinking. We don't know what happened, it's not clear that he knows what happened, the world is a mess but still surprisingly recognizable.

Rather than offering up all the explanations at once, Atwood builds the story by alternating between Snowman's present and his memories of the past – when he was still called Jimmy. The picture is not a pretty one. Advances in science have spurred a kind of heyday for genetic engineers, but instead of splicing together different kinds of apple trees (like they do today) the geneticists of the future splice together animals. Hence rakunks (raccoon-skunks suitable as pets) and wolvogs (animals that look like friendly dogs, but are bred to be vicious and feral as wolves). But the genetic fun doesn't end there, Atwood also dreamed up ChickieNobs (chickens engineered to only grow one body part, such as a chicken growing twelve drumsticks, for the food industry) and Pigoons (pigs shaped like balloons that grow specific organs for hum transplant). 

In the safe world of Snowman's memories, all the bioengineered animals are confined to the various pharmaceutical or bioengineering compounds (highly prestigious gated communities with a specific corporate interest) but in his precarious present they are running wild. 

Snowman is a bit of a pathetic character, but he is generally good natured and as he takes you through his childhood memories, his friendship with Glen (who eventually becomes Crake) and what happens to them, the world unfolds. Not that it's a particularly nice world, with its bioengineering and incredibly vulgar and violent commodification of sex and poverty, but Snowman is so genuine that you can't help but understand his longing for it.

Atwood's story, though, is more than a simple apocalyptic cautionary tale. It is also a love story in a strange way, with Oryx at the centre of both Jimmy and Crake's lives. Oryx, the former child sex slave who Jimmy and Crake discover in an Internet video and become obsessed with – Jimmy openly and Crake secretly. For the "people" living near Snowman on the beach (who, of course, have been bioengineered), Oryx and Crake are like their gods – Crake because he created them and Oryx because she taught them. In this strange reality, Snowman is suddenly a prophet because he was a friend to these gods.

As novels go, Oryx and Crake is incredibly dense, in that it's packed with various storylines, events, political and biological suggestions and characters. I'm not sure that it's a novel you enjoy, exactly (because there are some quite disturbing scenes and suggestions), but it's an incredible piece of fiction and I can certainly say that I liked it very much. Perhaps what I liked most about Oryx and Crake is that it doesn't have that blinding sense of inevitability to it that so many science fiction stories do. Rather, Atwood offers her characters many chance to turn back, and even though they don't, we still can.

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2003 (cover image shown from Seal Books edition)

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