Oryx and Crake
By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has probably never been better known than today, what with the premier of a serialization of her superb dystopian novel about the transformation of the U.S. into a religious totalitarian state that enslaves women, The Handmaid’s Tale (one of the top five dystopian novels of the 20th Century). So, with greater visibility today, hopefully readers will explore her long list of novels, among them Oryx and Crake, the first in the MaddAddam Trilogy.
If you’ve never read Atwood’s speculative fiction before, you’ll be struck by what sets her apart from others mining this popular subgenre: She grounds her work firmly, and frighteningly, in reality. Take Oryx and Crake, for example. Atwood paints a world first and foremost ravaged by ecological disaster: violent storms, over population, reduced coastal landmass, UV poisoning, crop failures, a maelstrom of ecological destruction. Layered onto that is the direct destruction caused by humankind due to meddling in the genomic process of life (read recreating species for various commercial applications; rakunks make terrific pets, don’t you know), the creation of diseases and cures for profit, the commercialization of biologic products, and the radical stratification of society based on intelligence and, to borrow from Marx, the means of production. This represents the result of the gradual destruction of planet Earth, the kind of destruction that can be denied until it is upon the deniers.
And, as the novel illustrates, it can be accelerated by a lone wolf, a tormented genius, into a great extinction event. Oryx and Crake, and the successive novels in the trilogy, take place in the aftermath. Our guide to this burned out world, and to how the world came about, is Jimmy. Jimmy is bright, but he is not genius. He’s a word man (“Advanced Misrepresentation” at the Martha Graham Academy) in a world of mathematical genius. But in his youth, he befriends such a genius, Crake. Both in their own ways, the children of dysfunctional homes, have gripes with the world, but Crake’s are the more extreme, and it is he who develops the skills and power to wipe the slate clean and begin again in his own imagining of what a better world would be. Jimmy gets involved because he’s Crake friend, probably his only friend. What further unites the pair, but also serves as the ultimate wedge between them, is the girl, the ever ethereal Oryx. They first become acquainted with her not as a person but as an image in a pedophiliac pornographic world. (You can think of Oryx as a symbol of the total decadence of society, of how inured society has become to the wonders of the new world that only the most base can stimulate them.) Jimmy falls in love with her. Crake possesses her. As vengeance, perhaps, Crake also uses her to in his plot to remap the world.
Oryx and Crake, in short, is a nightmare that, unfortunately and as much as many refuse to believe, is in the process of unfolding before our very eyes. Atwood here is drawing back the curtain on one horrifying and entirely possible future in the hopes we’ll pay attention and change course. As you can see, she’s quite the optimist, if she thinks people will listen before reaching the CorpSeCorp stage. w/c