Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Taking Margaret Atwood’s collection of memoirs and essays In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination into consideration, it’s fair to say The Handmaid’s Tale was not a one-off. Atwood displaying a strong interest in utopian/dystopian fiction, she shows herself as familiar with its history as she is putting its concepts into story. A sort-of The Island of Dr. Moreau meets Neuromancer, Atwood’s 2003 Oryx and Crake is another dystopia, this time a gene-spliced world turned upside down by uncontrolled commercial research.

Flashing back and forth, from past to present, Oryx and Crake tells the story of Jimmy, or as he comes to be known later, the Snowman, and the predicament he ultimately comes to. One of few survivors after a mutated virus is set loose on the world, he lives among a group of humanoid people called the Crakers. Created and developed by Jimmy’s childhood friend Crake, the new species biological patterns likewise render them immune, but unlike Jimmy and other remaining humans, they are passive and peaceful, and settle their differences, sexual and resource-wise, amicably. The Crakers raised and educated by a former child prostitute named Oryx, the Snowman floats through the memories of his formative teenage years to arrive in an empty world where he must face the most telling choice of his life.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Oryx and Crake is how gritty and visceral the presentation of early-21st century society is. Akin to the “aliens” of Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, Jimmy and Crake’s teenage years are spent digesting the internet’s wealth of porn—sexual, violent, consumerist, and otherwise. Each pushed in a different direction by the experience, where Jimmy settles into a relatively routine lifestyle, Crake is pushed to extremes, extremes with consequences for the world. Both falling in love with a girl they see exploited in a porn video, when, by coincidence she ends up in their suburban adulthood, the character dichotomy of the novel balances itself.

On the surface, Oryx and Crake would appear to play with the time-worn genre conventions of apocalypse, the pitfalls of biological and genetic experimentation, and tell of a normal guy caught up in much larger happenings. And indeed these are the engines of the story. Deeper, however, Atwood is looking into the subjectivity of what constitutes a utopia, and the factors which drive an individual, or people, to “make the world a better place.” While the novel’s view one that can be construed as nihilistic given the setting, Atwood does offer the other hand—a fact consolidated by the choice Snowman faces in the final pages, as well as Oryx’s attitudes toward the troubling situations life deals her.

What might be called a more genre-specific novel, Oryx and Crake lacks the gender and social dynamics of The Handmaid’s Tale and instead focuses its energies on getting to human motivations in the pursuit of social perfection—a classic science fiction theme. The title an intentional dichotomy that ignores Snowman, each character represents something passive and active, distant and close, satisfied and dissatisfied, respectively. The need to act meaning different things to each person, it’s only at the end that Jimmy likewise faces such a decision point. Like the conclusion of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the decision acts is symbolic, and begs the reader to decide for themselves in which direction they would side.

But where Huxley’s ending was contrived (i.e. set up to emphatically mark which side of the ideological divide he fell on), Atwood’s is more equivocal, or at least open to interpretation. While certain lines of thought can be consistently traced throughout the text, the choice option is stronger. The reader has been shown the program, and now must decide for themselves, if possible—a complementary ending to any novel wanting to examine utopian/dystopian ideals.

In the end, Oryx and Crake is an interesting combination of mythopoeia and utopian thought written from a gut-level view into the human psyche. Not going easy on homo-sapien sapien, Atwood draws from the darker side of human existence toward motivating one man’s implementation of extreme change toward something “better.” The quotation marks needed to indicate precisely how subjective the idea of better is

And lastly, just for comedic purposes, the following is whoosh: the sound of an idea sailing over the head of the reviewer.

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