Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake was published in 2003. It is Atwood’s 11th adult full length novel. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s classified as dystopian science fiction (but unlike the earlier book, it is not feminist). Also like the earlier novel, Oryx and Crake was a finalist for the Booker Prize, and winner of the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s prestigious literary prize. Oryx and Crake has a cliffhanger ending. Atwood just published a kind of follow up, The Year of the Flood, which takes place contemporaneously with the events of Oryx and Crake, but answers some of the open questions, and is working on a third novel. This week on Goodreads, Atwood is participating in a discussion with readers about her work, YOTF especially.

Oryx and Crake begins After, and is told from the point of view of a narrator who is called Snowman.

Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.

Out of habit he looks at his watch — stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

Through flashbacks, we come to know that Snowman is Jimmy. Oryx and Crake gets its title from two other characters, but it is Jimmy whose journey is narrated from age 5 through the present. Jimmy’s parents were geneticists working at OrganInc Farms. His father was an architect of the Pigoon project, which grew disease resistant human organs in a pig host. Human customers could, using their own cells, have organs custom grown. At first, OrganInc insisted that no pigoons would be eaten, but as environmental degradation destroyed food sources worldwide, pigoon items started appearing on OrganInc menus.

In the world Atwood has created, employees of biotech firms like OrganInc live on compounds. These compounds are sterile, well organized, and heavily secured, with good schools, health care, etc. In contrast, the cities, called “the pleebands” —  are unruly, mobbish, full of vice. When Jimmy is older, like many residents of the compounds, he takes the proper immunity drugs (“supergermincides”) and heads there for some illicit fun. Perhaps ironically, Atwood never describes the city in a way that makes it sound any different from today’s New York or L.A. or Boston.

Jimmy’s father loves living and working at OrganInc, but his mother has started to complain bitterly about the way things are going, describing their lives as an artificiality, a theme park. She quits her job in protest and wanders around aimlessly at home. She’s brilliant, but, everyone thinks, a bit unhinged. It is clear to the reader, who already knows from page 1 that Something Very Bad will happen, that she is in the right. But that doesn’t minimize the pain of experiencing her neglectful parenting form the narrator’s point of view.

The future Atwood envisions is, as she says herself, really just the present. everything she mentions is happening today in one form or another. Just this week, we have news that a company that makes a genetically modified salmon called AquaAdvantage will not be required by the FDA to disclose this fact. Looking at the company’s website, (Aqua Bounty)  it is impossible to distinguish it from the companies Atwood has envisioned. Aqua Bounty will take a gene from an eel-like fish and transplant it into salmon to make the salmon grow bigger, faster. Not so different from the Pigoon and Rakunks that populate Oryx and Crake.

There’s nothing much new here for readers of distopian fiction. Even the opening scene of a lone survivor on a beach with flotsam from the old world washing up is a cliche at this point. And Atwood having her futuristic teens using email made me giggle. Email is already so twentieth century. Atwood’s genius in this book is the way she takes so many different biotechnologies (new drugs are a huge part of the story too), economic trends, security trends,  environmental trends, social trends, and the invisibility and irrelevance of traditional political structures, etc. — all of which are absolutely descriptive of our lives today — and mixes them up in a way that makes them seem terrifying.

In many ways, this is just the story of a boy growing up in a world that looks a lot like ours. Jimmy is not terribly sympathetic. He is not that bright, not unique or creative, not driven, not generous or selfless or giving. He is a very ordinary man. He is less compelling than his mad genius best friend, Crake, who graduates from a teenage obsession with a computer game in which he invents all the species on the planet to actually designing the species that bring the world crashing down.  That in the end Jimmy is the hero — or the closest thing to a hero this book offers — tells you something about how bleak the book is.  This is a sci fi novel wrapped around a bildungsroman that takes its cue from middle class tales of unsatisfying male adulthood.

The biggest flaw in this novel, from this reader’s point of view, is the portrayal of Oryx. We first meet Oryx as an 8 year old Asian girl whose sex slavery is consumed by Jimmy and Crake via pictures and videos posted of her on the internet.  Oryx and two other girls are being forced to lick cream off a grown man’s torso. At one point, Oryx looks into the camera and Jimmy is sure she is looking at him:

Jimmy felt burned by this look — eaten into, as if by acid. She’d been so contemptuous of him.

Really? An 8 year old who has been ripped away from her rural family, taken to the city, and forced into sexual slavery is contemptuous? Anyway, he is frozen in guilt (and love and lust) and saves the picture. Years later, through an unbelievable set of coincidences, Oryx comes into his and Crake’s lives. They are both in love with her. My problem with this character was that she never moved an inch from the “enigmatic Asian/maybe wise, maybe dumb/maybe in control, maybe servile/always an object of male lust who fulfills their demands without asking questions”. Here’s an example of the dialogue with the adult Oryx. Jimmy shows Oryx the picture he has kept of the 8 year old girl:

“I don’t think this is me,” was what she’d said at first.

“It has to be!” said Jimmy. “Look! It’s your eyes!”

“A lot of girls have eyes, “she said. “A lot of girls did these things. Very many.” Then, seeing his disappointment, she said, “It might be me. Maybe it is. Would that make you happy, Jimmy?”

I found everything about this character disturbing, from stereotypical features, to her lack of growth, to her flat affect, to her literary function as a cypher for male fantasy. I was shocked Atwood wrote her.

I’ll conclude this review with some quotes from the debate over whether this book constitutes “science fiction”, “speculative fiction”, literature, or something else.

Atwood has famously distanced herself from science fiction by referring to it unflatteringly, as “rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space.”

Writing for The Guardian in 2005, Atwood clarifies:

If you’re writing about the future and you aren’t doing forecast journalism, you’ll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms – science fiction fantasy, and so forth – and others choose the reverse.

and more recently, in the New York Times, she again insisted

“I don’t write about Planet X, I write about where we are now,” she said, referring to such realities as environmental decay, the creep of corporations into ever more segments of society, and genetic tinkering.

On the book’s website (badly organized, and very hard to read or navigate), Atwood writes:

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, it invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?

Ursula Leguin has this to say in a 2009 interview with Vice Magazine:

This distinction makes most sense to me: Science fiction—and the correct shortcut is “sf”—uses actual scientific facts or theories for the source ideas or framework of the story. It has some scientific content, however speculative. If it breaks a law of physics, it knows it’s doing so and follows up the consequences. If it invents a society of aliens, it does so with some respect for and knowledge of the social sciences and what you might call social probabilities. And some of it is literarily self-aware enough to treat its metaphors as metaphors. “Space opera” is nice, but I’d call Star Wars sci-fi, because it’s what most people mean when they use the term. Sci-fi uses the images that sf—starting with H.G. Wells—made familiar: space travel, aliens, galactic wars and federations, time machines, et cetera, taking them literally, not caring if they are possible or even plausible. It has no interest in or relation to real science or technology. It’s fantasy in space suits. Spectacle. Wizards with lasers. Kids with ray guns. I’ve written both, but I have to say I respect science fiction enough that I wince when people call it sci-fi.

In October of last year, John Howell of Sci Fi World wrote a critique of the marginalization of sci fi, which resonated with me as a romance reader. Here’s his take on Atwood:

Taking even the narrowest definitions of science fiction, I’d suggest Atwood would have trouble arguing that some of her novels are not part of the genre. Apparently though, as long as you persist, you can convince the established order that your heart and mind is in the right place. Just keep insisting that everything science fiction is tacky, silly and sad and ridicule its creators at every opportunity. Disown the genre as emphatically and publicly as possible. As a writer there are tremendous advantages to avoiding the label science fiction, and Margret Atwood has successfully done that throughout her career and gained literary credibility in exchange.

Jeannette Winterson herself seems at times distancing:

I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace or Margaret Atwood, are great.

And at other times, she seems magnanimous, hoping “general fiction” can do away with genre:

“People say to me, ‘so is the Stone Gods science fiction?’ Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless. I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.”

I like this last point, myself. Thanks for reading!

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