Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel Oryx and Crake was published back in 2003. I don't know how I managed to read so much dystopian fiction, including Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and never came across this trilogy. I've remedied that oversight.

Oryx and Crake is set in the future and follows a man who goes by the name of Snowman who may just be be the last human alive. Snowman lives as a kind of guardian of the Crakers, a genetically modified humanoid species that he has liberated from their life in a dwindling habitat under a great dome of biological experimentation. As we follow Snowman's (Jimmy's) depressing daily routine and slow starvation we are introduced to his back story, and hence the back story of this broken world. The structure of the story clips back and forth between the story of Jimmy's childhood and early adulthood and Snowman's journey into wild territory to forage for survival supplies.

Some readers may not like the back and forth structure, but the sections flow seamlessly into one another. The pace is aided by this structure and is relentless in the unfolding of the greater story. Atwood excels in making Jimmy a well realized character with a childhood spent living in corporate science established compounds. These compounds are the gated communities of the elite set apart from the pleeblands where the general population resides. Such social stratification already exists in many ways, so Atwood is merely enhancing the nightmarish possibilities that could emerge from unchecked biological science and corporate influence.

Atwood is a writer with important messages. It's not hard to see the future she assembles for Oryx and Crake as a possible path for humanity. Jimmy is our layman guide through this well researched world of complex scientific ideas. Atwood definitely did her homework on gene-splicing and biodiversity, and in places there is almost too much telling of scientific concepts that seem out of place for Jimmy. However, for the most part Atwood is able to keep true to Jimmy and Snowman's voice and relay the happenings of a highly scientific and commercialized world through his wordsmith lens.

Jimmy doesn't have a mind for science, and his emotionally stunted upbringing by a depressed and rebellious mother make him an interesting outcast in Atwood's well envisioned world. Jimmy is a liberal arts major in the making, and his close friendship with Crake, a genius with Aspergers, results in some disturbing adolescent adventures on the deep web that left me feeling a bit seedy (now that's an accomplishment of tone!). The boys are seemingly addicted to pornography, extreme reality television and games that have to deal with world wide catastrophe, war and extinction. It's clear from Crake and Jimmy's approaches to this stimuli that Crake is purely pragmatic and Jimmy is the emotional romantic.

As the boys head off to college, their friendship stays loosely intact. Jimmy grows into a believable womanizer with an affinity for broken women, who undoubtedly remind him of his mother. Jimmy's college has the lowest regard of all the educational institutions and focuses on the arts. Crake is recruited by a top notch school and excels beyond expectation in the field of genetics. Atwood's world is one in which humans manipulate nature, especially human nature, to delay death and remain young. The fear of the inevitable overshadows the parameters of ethics.

After college, Jimmy goes into the world of advertising; manipulating the public with his words. What good are all these genetic experiments if there isn't a way to peddle it to the public? Jimmy is eventually hired by Crake to work advertising for the BlyssPluss Pill (the seed of the future pandemic that wipes out the human race). Once the two are reunited, Jimmy is brought into the inner sanctum of Crake's biggest genetic experiment: the Crakers. The Crakers are everything Crake thinks humans should be to be the best version of their species. The Crakers are gentle, nonviolent, vegetarians with no capacity for jealousy and an eliminated curiosity about God (or so Crake thinks).

It's here I'd like to touch upon some issues I thought existed with characterization. Crake is made out to be the genius mad scientist. However, his lack of empathy and compassion never quite seemed like they justified his eventual decision to end the known world. Snowman is always chiding himself for not catching onto the clues Crake's plan, but I don't know that they were clues - they were contrived bits of thought that provide a glimpse of disturbed thought. Our understanding of Crake is purely surface level; his progression into the god-like complex is only hinted at through the change in his refrigerator magnets. Readers don't even know his true feelings toward the equally underdeveloped character of Oryx.

Oryx is first noticed by Jimmy and Crake when they are teenagers on the web and they come across a child pornography site. Her back story is brief, but we learn that she was sold into the business and eventually gained liberty once she was transported from Asia to the United States. Oryx is hired by Crake to teach the Crakers about their habitat. She and Jimmy engage in an affair behind Crake's back (or perhaps under his direction). Snowman's reminiscing about Oryx throughout the entire story reveals his depth of feeling, and yet he regards her as this ultimately unattainable image of his desire. She never seems real to Jimmy, and I felt the same way as a reader. Oryx is immortalized by Snowman and the Crakers after she meets her untimely end and the world falls apart. Snowman creates a narrative for the Crakers wherein Crake is their creator but is invisible, and thus he is able to impose rules of caution, and Oryx is Mother Nature. Mother Nature can be seen and Oryx was at one point a visible figure to them, so the Crakers accept this.

Oryx and Crake are the characters that the title of the book is predicated upon, and yet they are the most mysterious. Perhaps this was done on purpose to fit into the mythology Snowman builds for the Crakers. Jimmy is a complex character that readers get to know really well, but Oryx and Crake feel more like forces in Jimmy's life. Forces that eventually puncture through just Jimmy's life and define the existence of the Crakers.

This story is by no means easy to read. Atwood toys with language like the biological scientists toy with creating new species; the two go hand in hand. There is also a shifting tone in the story that is at sometimes grim, other times darkly humorous and then deeply mournful. More than anything, Atwood excels in driving home the disturbing themes of human nature at its worst, grasping for immortality and god-like status, and yet she simultaneous bares the value of language, art, and the imperfection of the human body as the redeeming qualities of our species.

I'll definitely finish the trilogy. I'm also really looking forward to the adaptation of the trilogy into a HBO series directed by Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky feels like the right choice for this dark and disturbing science fiction. Click here to read more about the adaptation.

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