Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Which I Rant a Little: A Review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is Brave New World meets Castaway meets a plague thriller. And it is worth every minute of your time.

The day I started reading this book, my friend and co-worker, Olivia, told me how much she enjoyed this book. We had been having a discussion about the last book I read, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and she revealed that she too really liked literature of the type I'm examining this month. I was telling her how much Brave New World felt familiar in terms of today's culture and she said that she felt that Oryx and Crake was an even more familiar novel. Her fear is that that's where we're headed. I told her to stop right there and not give anything away, but I tucked that little nugget of information into the back of my head and kept it there as I was reading.

She was a way. I think in a lot of ways, we're actually there already. Of course, we don't have out of control genetic splicing or an overabundance of preordered babies...yet. But Margaret Atwood touches on a lot of the issues of our own society in her futuristic world. Climate change, class structure, genetically modified foods, biohazards, the overly violent and sexualized nature of our society.

Oryx and Crake is, at face value, the story of Snowman (formerly Jimmy) who has taken on the responsibility of taking care of the Children of Crake. He is, as far as he knows, the last man on Earth, following a plague that wiped out the human population, leaving these "children" untouched. He lives in a world falling apart, overrun by genetically modified predators such as the wolvog (a wolf/dog) and the pigoon (a highly intelligent pig that was spliced with human DNA in order to provide organs and skin for human beings). How he got to this point and what it all means is slowly eked out as the book progresses through Atwood's clever use of flashbacks and flashfowards. While the story of present day Snowman moves forward in a straight line, the rest of the book takes detours into the past to answer all of the questions that pop up within the first chapter or so.

Atwood's novel is, as always, beautiful and moving. It is also disturbing and, in some parts, sickening. This does not detract from the novel, however. In fact, it merely adds to it. The world Jimmy used to live in was corrupt and in over its head. It had devolved even though the people living in it refused to admit to that. For the most part they felt that things were fine and that this was the way things were supposed to be.

Things were not as they were supposed to be.

In Atwood's vision of the future, science is the only thing worth studying. Anything else is seen as being below contempt. The arts are neglected; scientists have holed themselves up inside compounds with their own homes, malls, and schools, leaving the rest of the population to live in the "pleeblands". They raise themselves up to be pillars of morality when in actuality they are immoral, corrupt, and, in some cases, almost evil. They do experiments on the people who live in the "pleeblands" and try to develop new and different pills and medical procedures to cure whatever ails you. The only problem is...what happens when you run out of diseases to cure?

I won't answer that question, because I highly recommend reading this book. What I will say is that the Earth Atwood created is so eerily similar to our own that I felt physically ill during some parts of the book. She was, I suspect, writing what she believes are the consequences of our current problems in society. We didn't try to stop global warming, so the seas rose, many places dried up, there were famines and floods and chaos. We aren't trying to slow down our studies of the genetic structure of things, and that led to splicing everything (including a snake and a rat, the "snat" *shudder*) and putting farmers out of business through genetic modification. We continue to privatize everything in society, including education, and that led to walled off compounds and students literally being auctioned off to colleges. We didn't curb our more base appetites, which gave rise to snuff films, child porn, and other atrocities being easily accessed on the internet.

In Atwood's novel, books have all been digitalized. The common vernacular has changed, with new words being invented all the time to replace old words (sound like 1984 to anyone?). The arts have fallen so far out of people's esteem that the difference between an arts college and a college devoted to science is stark. The arts school that Jimmy ends up attending is in such bad repair. The students plagiarize all the time and the faculty doesn't care. One of the main programs of study is Problematics--basically the study of spin, of how to word things for the most commercial or political value. The science college that Jimmy visits is new and shiny and rich and offers students numerous avenues of study. It's the complete foil of Jimmy's school and the whole thing is disturbing to me.

Why? you may ask. Because too much of Atwood's novel is based in reality. Privatization of education, the heavy focus on science at the detriment to other fields of study, the desire to genetically modify everything, the polarization of the wealthy and educated from the rest of society. There are colleges and universities that are getting rid of any program that isn't related to math, science, technology, or business. There are schools at the primary level that are basically doing the same thing. Social studies is no longer seen as important. Foreign languages; what are those? President Obama's education reform plan includes getting all students proficient in science and reading by the year 2014. That's it. Just those two areas.

And it isn't just education. We are being dumbed down by what we watch on TV, all the reality shows, all of the "news" that's really just a bunch of partisan drivel. Right now some of the richest people in the country are dictating how politics should be run--Bill Gates and his education "philanthropy", the Koch brothers and their ties to Wisconsin Governor Joe Walker's push to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers, the insane number of people working for the government who were previously affiliated with Goldman-Sachs. These people, much like the scientists in Oryx and Crake, are building themselves little privatized walls to hide behind where they can continue to live their perfect, sanitized lives, while people are out of jobs and out on the streets because they're hoarding all the money that could be used to improve the standard of living in this country. It's all become one big "pleebland" and not a damn thing is being done about it.

As you can tell, this book really got to me. It was well-written, the characters were interesting and were developed in a unique way. The storyline was non-linear, which was really fun to read. It was also humorous in several places. Two of my favorite bits are as follows:

The memos that came from above telling him he'd done a good job meant nothing to him, because they'd been dictated by semi-literates; all they proved was that no one at AnooYoo was capable of appreciating how clever he had been. He came to understand why serial killers sent helpful clues to the police. (p. 249) 
"I'm not just any dead man," he says out loud.
Of course not! Each one of us is unique! And every single dead person is dead in his or her very own special way! Now, who wants to share about being dead, in our own special words? Jimmy, you seem eager to talk, so why don't you begin? (p. 359)
This book was a perfect midpoint book. It is a nice blend of post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature, so it makes a nice segue from A Canticle for Leibowitz to Bend Sinister.

Oryx and Crake gets a five out of five from me.

Oh, and why is it called Oryx and Crake? You'll have to read it to find out.



  1. Very nice to read your eloquently expressed thoughts on this book. :) I've read this book a few times, and it's one of my favorites by Atwood. I like that it's familiar, and disturbing - does that make sense? I find it fascinating that Atwood takes some things that exist now, and just spin them in a different direction.

    The one phrase that always pops into my head when I see something about this book is "Bucket O' Nubbins."

  2. Thank you. That's so kind of you to say so. :)

    That makes complete sense. I think one of the things I like about dystopian novels is that they are so familiar. The authors who write them are on a mission to scare people into changing their ways.

    Those chicken things literally made me lose my appetite. I had heard a discussion on NPR a few months ago about people who were working on creating meat substitutes in labs instead of getting the meat from animals and that's all I could think of whenever the "nubbins" came up. While I agree that animal cruelty is an issue, there are alternatives to the prison-like conditions that many farm animals are subjected to without creating fake meat. The fact that in the novel these "chickens" had no brains and no real discernible heads was so gruesome and inhumane that I think I'd prefer eating meat that had been tortured (if that makes any sense and doesn't make me seem like a jerk).