- Genre: Science fiction / post-apocalypse
- Series: MaddAddam trilogy, part 1. Can be read as a standalone.
- Pages: 433
- My rating: 9/10
Atwood sketches an arresting world of rampart genetic engineering. In the not-too-distant future, designer species like engineered pigs – pigoons – grow organs for us, and powerful engineering firms battle each other. But then, after an unspecified apocalyptic event, the designer species take over the world. Our character Snowman might be the only real human left, but he still has strange company.
A post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that can be found in the mainstream section of the store. I’m making it a special point to brand this book as science fiction, because Margaret Atwood unfairly doesn’t want to do so. The blurb also says that it is “speculative fiction” instead, in hopes that it does not end up between Asimov and Banks. However, her book’s success rests completely on the tropes and techniques of science fiction that she has borrowed for it. It is dishonest not to acknowledge the genre.
One of the narrative techniques that Atwood borrowed from science fiction is what scholar Darko Suvin named “cognitive estrangement”1, which has always been part of the SF genre. It is the stimulation of the brain by talking about unfamiliar future situations and letting the reader see in the mind how the world got that way. It is the dialogue between the book and the reader, where the reader asks how reality could be extrapolated to arrive at the situation of the book. The story starts with a man known only as “Snowman”, for reasons that are up to us to discover. He lives alone on the seashore where the detritus of modern civilization is washing up: rusty cars, soda cans, a computer mouse. We can quickly infer that this is a post-apocalyptic world.
Putting aside this genre tug-of-war, this book is extremely well written. Atwood’s prose is sharp and she shows a wry, mocking humor. Her characters are well fleshed-out and unusual. Not necessarily likeable though but that was not an objective. Her science fiction is very much focused on making the reader ask questions of the text. She gives her characters nicknames that both obscure and illuminate their origins. She drops unknown brand names that suggest lost industries of the past that are still in our future.
Those ideas about the future and biotechnology are rather well researched, but also lacking subtlety. Everything about today – genetics, internet, consumerism, climate change – is disastrous in this book to the utmost degree. I’m not sure Atwood is all that serious here. In fact, she’s downright hilarious at times. The new names she cooked up for modified animals are quite playful, not to mention the cringe-y consumerist language of future brand products. She talks about games like Kwiktime Osama, companies named HelthWyzer and animals named Pigoons and Rakunks. Lampoonish? Yes, but together with the fairy-tale names like Snowman, Oryx and Crake, the story feels like mythological allegory.
Which is no coincidence. The post-apocalyptic chapters in effect show us the rise of a new civilization, a new humanity, with Snowman becoming a prophet with stories about the past, about Oryx, and Crake. Especially Crake, who had a hand in creating the designer animals and perfected designer people. There isn’t much plot to Oryx and Crake, instead a whole lot of short chapters of impressions and flashbacks. Humans playing God, even though they didn’t meant to. And the new world has an innocence to it, like a new Eden, that came forth from the depravity of the consumerist genetic market of the past. A very interesting vision, if you ask me.
Snowman, mentally unhinged and heartbreakingly lonely, reminded me more than anything of Grendel in John Gardner’s Grendel (1971). A nihilistic loner who prattles to himself. “Ah, sad one, poor old freak!” I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he, he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing. (It’s mostly fake.)” That’s from Grendel, but could as easily have been from Oryx and Crake. We see moments from Snowman’s youth and his troubled connection with his mother, also similar to Gardner’s Grendel. No wonder that he struggles with tragic feelings of lost love now that he is grown up and alone.
Snowman’s story and his connections to the figures Oryx and Crake are the emotional heart, and it’s quite a twisted heart. Heavy topics like pornography and eugenics are part of it, making this book more interesting than just a future exploration of genetic engineering. How Atwood deals with it is partly witty and partly shocking for the sake of shocking.
In any case, I am very impressed with Oryx and Crake and immensely enjoyed this deeply layered story, even though in the final calculation it is all very unsubtle and ham-fisted.
- Suvin, Darko. Estrangement and Cognition. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Eds. Gunn, J and Candelaria, M. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005. p. 23-35