Sunday, April 8, 2018

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: A review

In the beginning of this book, we meet a character called Snowman. In an earlier life, which we hear about as the story proceeds, he was called Jimmy. But now he's Snowman and he may be the last human survivor of a great apocalypse.

The cause of the apocalypse is not clear to us at first, but it is gradually revealed as having been a quick-acting plague. Moreover, the plague was caused by a virus created at a place called the RejoovenEsense Compound. The character known as Crake (Glenn in his earlier life) worked in a high research position at this compound and he had brought his childhood friend Jimmy/Snowman on board to write ad copy and press releases for RejoovenEsense's products.

When Glenn and Jimmy were growing up together, they engaged in all the usual activities of male adolescents, including watching a lot of porn, often porn featuring children. There was one young girl featured in the films that Jimmy became particularly obsessed with. Years later, when he went to work at RejoovenEsense, imagine his surprise to find that now grown-up woman also working there. She was serving as a teacher to bio-engineered humanoids that will come to be known to us as Crakers. And who is this porn actor grown into woman/teacher? It is Oryx.

Thus, we have the three primary characters, indeed the only characters, that we get to know to any degree in this tale - Snowman, Crake, and Oryx.

This is speculative science fiction and so the story is built on premise rather than upon well-developed characters. The characters exist only to explicate the premise and to push it toward its resolution. The story is set at some undetermined time in the future and its premise is based on scientific initiatives gone awry, not unlike Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and his monster. 

While I recognize that the characters here are only pawns in Atwood's greater chess game and really only exist to move the story along, I confess I found it a little disconcerting that we don't learn more about them, about what makes them tick, their psychological motivations. Crake, for example, appears to have a god complex. He is a monomaniac who wants to destroy what he sees as an imperfect creation and then recreate a new and improved biosphere. (Think Jehovah with Noah and the flood.) But why? What led him to this point?

As for Oryx, we know practically nothing about her, except that she was bought from her family to work in porn movies and that she was kept as a prisoner (a sex slave?) in a couple's garage for a time. She is remarkably forgiving of all those who have used her in this way and she is in thrall to Crake whom she greatly admires, even worships. Does she have a sexual relationship with him? That's somewhat ambiguous, but she does have an affair with Snowman, who is still obsessed with her after all these years and maybe in love with her. I think I would have felt a bit more engaged in this tale if Atwood had let us know and empathize a little more with these characters. But who am I to question the plot choices of a master writer?

The book was published in 2003 but it seems very current with our present scientific preoccupation with such things as creating hybrids, cloning, deextinction, and all manner of bioengineering. One senses a clarion warning in there about the possible dangers inherent in such activities. We might do well to heed it and proceed with caution.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

4 comments:

  1. I agree with your statements in the last paragraph. It sounds like such an odd story, though.

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    1. Odd would certainly be an adjective that could apply to it.

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  2. She does develop the three characters more deeply in the second and third of the trilogy. Since they were so young in the first book, I thought they were realistic for their ages.

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    1. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

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