My first experience with Margaret Atwood's body of work was when I read "The Handmaid's Tale", a chilling book that really moved and affected me. When I heard that her latest book, Oryx and Crake, was along the same lines as "The Handmaid's Tale", I knew that I had to read it immediately.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Jimmy (also known as "The Snowman") is the sole human survivor of an event that wiped man off the face of the planet. He now shares his world with an array of genetically altered, gene-spliced creatures, such as pigoons (a pig-baboon mix bred to provide organs for human transplants), rakunks (a raccoon-skunk mix), and wolvogs (a fearsome wolf-dog mix, bred to attack). The most interesting "experiment" that Jimmy now must deal with is a set of genetically altered humans, dubbed the Crakers. Jimmy/Snowman feels responsible for helping the innocent Crakers survive in this crazy new world. Jimmy is really just a (very) ordinary guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances.
As the story progresses we get to look back a bit in time, all through Jimmy's eyes. We see Jimmy's unhappy childhood, raised amongst the privileged as the son of two genetics-scientists. We learn that science is everything in this new world -- the geneticists live in domed, guarded compounds where they are secure and protected -- as well as watched and trapped. There are no moral or ethical limits to what the scientists can or cannot try, all in the name of improving life for the human population in general. From genetically-modified food and animals to designer-offspring, aphrodisiacs, and the fountain-of-youth, the sky is the limit. We see Jimmy's budding friendship with a classmate who is code-named Crake. We learn how adolescents can spend their spare time -- surfing kiddie-porn sites, doing drugs, playing extremely violent computer games, watching real executions. We also learn how Oryx, who they originally saw when she was just 8 years old on a kiddie porn site, becomes a big part in the lives of both Jimmy and Crake.
Ultimately, we get to see the events that unfolded to wipe homo-sapiens off the planet, and witness Snowman's fight to survive.
I both like and dislike the disjointed feel to the stories. You basically jump between 3 stories -- one of Snowman's current plight as the last homo-sapien man on Earth, one of Jimmy's past and the events leading up to the big mystery event, and the tale of Oryx's past (as told to Jimmy). At times it could be very annoying -- I would get involved in one of the tales (usually Jimmy's past) only to have the book switch suddenly to a different one. Other times it heightened the suspense and made me want to read the book that much faster. Ultimately the 3 different stories come together in a satisfying and thought-provoking way.
I wouldn't exactly classify Oryx and Crake as science-fiction, although the storyline certainly does delve there. There were times when I was impressed with the research Atwood must have done, particularly when it came to genetics (which is an interest of mine), however since the entire story is told through the eyes of average-guy Jimmy she wasn't required to get extremely technical. Atwood is more into telling the story of people than, say, that of the technology. The character of Jimmy/Snowman is richly drawn and exceptionally well fleshed-out, however both Crake and Oryx (particularly Oryx) are left more deliberately mysterious.
For the most part I really like the way the book reveals information little-by-little. For example, from the beginning you know that the Crakers are different, but exactly how different they are is revealed bit by bit as the book progresses. The one thing about this method was that I eventually got really tired of waiting to see how the human race got wiped out. I didn't realize that this revelation was actually one of the main climaxes of the book (if not THE climax), thus you really do not find out how it all went down until you are almost at the end of the book.
Eventually the book just ends. It doesn't seem like it should be ending right there, yet it does. It isn't necessarily an unsatisfying ending -- it ends with a character weighing some options on how to handle a new, sticky situation. I suppose this leaves the story very open, which I can respect, however I might have liked just a few pages more to get a sense of how this new twist was going to play out.
Oryx and Crake certainly seems to have an overriding theme of loss. We see the loss of Jimmy's mother and pet rakunk when Jimmy was young, we feel Jimmy mourn the loss of the intricacies of the English language, we witness the loss of love and friendship, and ultimately the loss of humanity as a whole. Even with the overall darkness of the tale, Atwood still manages to infuse quite a bit of humor (and even some hope) into the story. Although the subject matter is dark, she often tells it with a lightness and touch of humor that makes it fun and interesting to read (until she wants to pack a real punch, that is).
Atwood really does do an amazing job of stretching today's truth just a little bit and running forward from there to the world as presented in Oryx and Crake. As outlandish as some aspects of Atwood's world might sound, it isn't terribly far-fetched these days (for example, the current Discover magazine states that over 70% of the US's current soybean and cotton crops are from genetically-altered strains). Her future is possible, maybe even plausible...
Because much of the story has already taken place in Jimmy's past, you already know that the story-teller is going to make it through the situations okay, thus there isn't a lot of tension or suspense. Instead of staying engrossed in the book because you are concerned for the characters' well-being, you continue to read to find out more about this strange new world, both before and after the apocalyptic event. As a whole the book was not terribly suspenseful.
I read this book because I heard that it was similar in many ways to "The Handmaid's Tale", which is one of my all-time favorite books. They are indeed similar in that both books take place in a dark, strange future, and both are chock-full of disturbing ideas. That being said, the books are very different from each other. Ultimately, I didn't like Oryx and Crake as much as "The Handmaid's Tale" -- it didn't move me or affect me the way her earlier book did. It was interesting and thought-provoking, but certainly not life-altering.
I am glad that I read Oryx and Crake. If you are a hard-core science fiction person I cannot completely recommend the book -- although you may still enjoy it. I really cannot call this true science-fiction, although it certainly noses up to that line. It just didn't have that fast-action, wild-ride feel that I normally get from a good sci-fi novel. Although I do not think this is Atwood's finest work, it was still a very interesting and thought-provoking read -- a cautionary tale of science run-amok.
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