Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake Cover

A Speculative Morality Play


The story is told in the third person and it alternates between the past and present of Snowman, the last normal human survivor of an apocalyptic plague. Snowman is sworn to watch over the "Crakers," bio-engineered humans created by his childhood friend Crake. Snowman is very much alone, however, since the Crakers are very naive and have had many human traits (like love and the need to eat animal meat) bypassed in their design. Snowman whiles away the time reminiscing about his previous life, when he was known as Jimmy. Jimmy grew up under the domes of mega-corporations, segregated from the poverty-stricken, disease-ridden plebians. Disregarded by his father (a corporate genetic engineer) and abandoned by his mother (who leaves him to become a corporate saboteur), Jimmy befriends Crake, a boy genius who grows up to become a leading corporate bio-engineer. The story of Snowman/Jimmy is told as he wanders the wastes of civilization, pondering his relationships with Crake and with Oryx (former child prostitute, teacher of the Crakers, and lover of both Jimmy and Crake), and trying to reconcile the events that brought him and the rest of humanity over the precipice.

What Oryx and Crake Does Well

When talking about this book, Atwood described it as exploring the questions of "simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?" The speculation on these questions form the most interesting parts of the book for me. Atwood explores how unrestrained tampering with mother nature in the name of science and mass consumerism can backfire. The feel of this speculation reminds me of the ecological concerns of Bacigalupi and some Gibsonian corporatism; the near-future world of this book is ruled by big corporations doing just about anything they want, but they worsen a state of resource consumption that will become untenable.

Man tinkering with the genetics of animals is one of the biggest speculative elements of the book, and it can be horrifying in parts. Jimmy's father headed the Pigoon project, which involved genetically engineering mutant pigs to grow human organs for transplants as an alternative to body farms (you can see the creatures featured below in an illustration of a moment from Jimmy's childhood). One of the more disturbing advances was ChickieNobs, which are mass produced chicken breasts that are basically hunks of meat with a mouth on top for nutrition. Atwood presents the advances in fields like medicine and food sciences as digging us deeper into a strange and somewhat perverted mass-produced culture. And you know what? It rings true, because I can easily imagine scientists and corporations going whole-hog (pun intended) into these ventures if they could.

Other animal hybrids include Rakhunks (modified skunks) and Wolvogs (deceptively dog-like wolves), and some kind of rat snakes. The creatures and their respective portmaneaus don't come across as quite horrific at times, since the combinations are almost playful. The Wikipedia page on this book (I know, deep research there) called Atwood's process of combining animals as accentuating the fantastic rather than the more dark and manipulative. Indeed, they seem less like creations out of The Island of Dr. Mureau and more like the mythical Chimera or something else out of a myth or fable. It makes for a strange mix of horror and fable that works in a strange way, although it eventually stops being horrifying and becomes grimly funny. In this way the book straddles the line a bit between unflinching indictment of science-gone-wrong and satire.

The backslide of public morality is another speculative issue I found interesting and terrifying if only because I can see it happening. The arts are in severe decline in favor of the more "practice" fields of study, and being good at math and science has become the major if not the only criterion for status and social class. The media becomes even more saturated with smut and disturbingly-candid reality TV (like the "Nudie News" where newscasters read the news naked). The desensitization of teenage Crake and Jimmy as they watch porn of all shades, executions, and other things you wouldn't want your kids to have access to is disturbing because we can see it happening already.

A solution to man's ills is presented by Crake via his Crakers, in whom many of the physical and social flaws of humanity are filtered out. For example, to do away with the violence and emotional trauma brought on by those pesky emotions of love and jealousy, Crake designs his people go be polyandrous and to only feel the need to procreate at certain times when certain, controlled mating signals are given. As much as we might argue with Crake about the moral issues of making your own people and trying to forcibly solve all of humanity's ills, given the image of the future Atwood gives us we also have to seriously consider if he has a point. Although, we also have to consider whether or not Crake is merely remaking humanity in his own image, rather than making some absolute ideal form of it.

The moral issues around Atwood's scientific speculation formed, for me, the most engaging parts of the novel.

Where Oryx and Crake could have been better

My two biggest complaints about this book have to do with characterization and the overall structure.

In a review of The Year of the Flood, Ursula LeGuin defends Oryx and Crake by claiming "The personality and feelings of characters in Oryx and Crake were of little interest; these were figures in the service of a morality play." A morality play is an allegorical play in which characters are personifications of moral attributes (sin, piety, greed, etc.). The protagonist in these plays is usually representative of humanity in general, contending with the better and worse parts of human nature as he struggles to find and walk the right path that will take him to God and heaven. Of course, characters in these plays aren't terribly deep and can seem inhumanly archetypical, which can be a way of describing characters in Oryx and Crake as well.

Jimmy/Snowman becomes our everyman. He's a somewhat passive character trying to find his way in a world gone mad even before it suffered an apocalypse. It is through his memories that we receive our images of Oryx and Crake, whom Snowman presents as mystical beings to the Crakers: Oryx is the nature goddess and Crake is the creator god. They don't evolve much more beyond these types. Crake likes to play God even from an early age, Oryx is seemingly all-caring, and Jimmy is somewhat stuck in the middle. Despite the fact that the book is titled Oryx and Crake it's more about Jimmy and the world left to him by the titular characters. That may be intentional, as Oryx and Crake become allegorical, mystical, personifications of our better and worse natures. I'm not averse to this kind of characterization, but I wasn't ready for this going in, which I think is why I finished the book wanting more than I got from both characters.

The overall structure of the book seems geared towards building an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, but for me it just seemed to be refusing to tell the story until it was good and ready. In addition, the narrative also seemed uneven. Jimmy's childhood is related in lots of detail in the first part of the book, but when the apocalyptic plague finally emerges in the last third of the book it feels like it is over in a flash. This is despite it being the pinnacle event we have been waiting for since page one, the link between Jimmy's past and Snowman's present.

Concluding Thoughts

Oryx and Crake has some very interesting speculation in it presented in such a way that it highlights both the playful and the horrific elements of it. It's engaging in its speculation about how far we can go down the slope of perverting human and animal nature and how far we can push things before nature starts fighting back or starving us out. The writing itself is good and clever and flows well, but the structure and characterization left me feeling like there was a great deal I was missing. I imagine I could have enjoyed this book more if I had prepared myself for a morality play, as LeGuin describes it.