Inspiring Older Readers
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, The Snowman, possibly the last human left alive, sleeps in a tree to avoid the attentions of the genetically engineered wildlife that is constantly snuffling around him. He shares the land with a small population of genetically engineered human-like creatures he calls 'Crackers' and who revere him for his assumed relationship with their deities, Crake and Oryx.
The Snowman was previously a young man called Jimmy and as he surveys his surroundings he contemplates his problems – he’s starving to death slowly – and remembers how he’s ended up where he is. Central to these memories is his relationship with Crake, the nickname of a school and college friend, Glenn, who, it turns out, was directly responsible for the apocalypse that has befallen the world. Both Jimmy and Crake have a complex and convoluted relationship with a delicate young girl called Oryx who they first encounter while browsing child pornography websites.
The action of the novel is limited and involves Jimmy/Snowman’s decision to make the perilous journey to a gated compound where he hopes to find food that is still edible. On the way he has to avoid Wolvogs (dogs engineered as wolves) and Pigoons (pigs designed to have their organs harvested for human transplants). The journey there and back, and an injury to his foot are really only secondary to the real substance of the book which is the unfolding of his memories of the past.
At the end of the book we discover that the Snowman is not in fact the last human left alive and the ‘Cracker’ community informs him that three other people like him arrived in the area while he was away. The book ends with Snowman having to decide to either make contact with the new humans or kill them. We do not know which decision he makes.
Oryx and Crake, published in 2005, was in fact the first in a trilogy of books that Atwood described as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than science fiction – her reason being that speculative fiction better describes the logical playing out of forces already at work. And what we see here is Atwood’s concerns over the degradation of the environment, the coarsening of human relationships, the breakdown of social cohesion and elites emerging at the cost of human closeness. This is a world where human and animal genetic engineering has run wild and where science has the ability to create another Eden but, for selfish and commercial reasons, chooses to seed its food and water with illness and disease to ensure that sales of medicine and research into further genetic enhancements can continue. This we discover is what caused the apocalypse and Crake is at the heart of it.
I’ve gone out of my way to hold back lots and lots of information so that the story will unfold for you. I’ve especially kept the relationship between Jimmy, Crake and Oryx under wraps because that is the heart of the book and where the real complexity lies.
Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer and stylistically this book is an exciting and often tense read but it’s not, in my view, one of her best. The book lacks something that I’m not sure how to describe but for the sake of brevity I’m going to call it heart. Somehow her characters fail to become more than two-dimensional and I never found myself able to connect or identify with anyone in the book – relationships are at the core of the story and yet the characters don’t really live. Atwood focuses her attention on ‘issues’ and on complex storytelling at the expense of convincing character development and the result is that it’s hard to care or even believe what happens to them. For me at least the most inventive and clever storytelling can never quite match good, three-dimensional character development.
I wont be rushing to read the next two instalments in the trilogy but I have them and maybe I’ll give it another try in the future when we’ve screwed up the environment a bit more.