“When any civilisation is dust and ashes […] art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning – human meaning, that is – is defined by them” (167).
Margaret Atwood’s first novel in her ‘speculative fiction’ trilogy, as she prefers to call it (in response to critics who labelled it as ‘science fiction’), chronicles the life of ‘Snowman’ – a man who is suddenly dragged into a post-apocalyptic world, with himself as the only human survivor. What makes this ‘dystopian-esque’ fiction different from her most famous piece of work The Handmaid’s Tale, is that Atwood is speculating on what would happen if we continued exploring genetics and science to extremes and the power science has in a consumerist world. However, both novels explore the potentially catastrophic effects of what happens when those with power lose control.
Oryx and Crake is set in the future and the level of knowledge into genetics is far more advanced than where we are now. The third-person narrative delves in and out of Snowman’s past, as Jimmy, and the present. Human life has been wiped out by a contagious plague and only the ‘Crakers’ survive. The Crakers, we find out, are an invention by Snowman’s childhood friend, Crake. They are designed as the ‘perfect’ human species – or what Crake sees as being the ideal set of genes to sustain the new human race. Crakers are designed to have a shorter maturity period (16 years being a waste of time); they reproduce in a manner that eliminates jealousy, greed and selfishness; their skin is resistant to UV-rays; their bodies resistant to diseases; they do not reach old age but drop dead at the age of 30 with no fear of death; they only eat grass and berries to sustain themselves; and their appearances are, of course, beautiful.
Although this ‘speculative fiction’ may seem far-fetched, there are some elements to this world Atwood has created that eerily reflects our own, or one we can easily imagine. Around the world, demand is increasingly exceeding supply and much of the food that is prevalent in the novel is genetically modified or ‘fake’. Not only does this reflect the GM foods that are in wide supply today but it also reminded me of a recent news article where scientists have created a burger out of muscle stem cells.
Another element to this world, which really struck a chord with me, is the reliance on digital appliances:
‘[Jimmy] snared a summer job at the Martha Graham library, going through old books and earmarking them for destruction while deciding which should remain on earth in digital form, but he lost his post halfway through its term because he couldn’t bear to throw anything out’ (241).
I was desperately trying to finish Oryx and Crake whilst in Florence and, at first, I was kicking myself that I hadn’t even thought to read E M Fortser’s A Room with a View whilst out there. But I found that Atwood’s novel brought up a lot of questions about science and art, which were interesting to think about whilst perusing the many galleries in the Renaissance capital. Oryx and Crake forced me to try and imagine a world in which art no longer ceases to exist. Where books and pieces of art are destroyed. Where anything of ‘importance’ is now digitalised. This last thought wasn’t much of a stretch considering the increasingly popular demand for eBooks (and, ironically and hypocritically, despite my love of the written word and printed text, I was reading Oryx and Crake on my eReader!). However, a world devoid of culture was extremely hard to imagine, particularly whilst I was surrounded by some of the most famous and well-know pieces of art in history.
However, Atwood also shows us a world in which it is so easy to express and be exposed to the darker side of human nature via the internet. Porn, child-abuse and depictions of violence are prevalent in this novel. Jimmy and Crake, as kids, would sit for hours and watch porn and violence simultaneously:
‘So they’d roll a few joints and smoke them while watching the executions and the porn – the body parts moving around on the screen in slow motion […] If you switched back and forth fast, it all came to look like the same event’ (86).
This is, of course, a critique of modern society. Internet porn is a prevalent problem today – it is easy for children to access and so often blurs the lines of what is acceptable and what is not by distorting reality. Atwood’s unflinching depictions of the child porn industry, in particular, is shocking and distressing. Oryx, who both Crake and Jimmy are in love with, is taken away from her family at a young age and forced into this trade. But it is the distant and unaffected manner in which she talks about her life to Jimmy that seems to have a greater effect. Like Jimmy, we, as the reader, find it difficult to believe that she harbours no anger or resentment, but these emotions appear to be non-existent, no matter how hard Jimmy tries to coax it out of her. She becomes to us, as she is with the Crakers and to Snowman, an effigy, a mysterious and omniscient being.
Overall, I found Atwood’s Oryx and Crake a fascinating, if slightly unsettling, read. The way Oryx and Crake never appear as fully-formed characters – we always see them from Snowman’s memory – is particularly haunting as we never get to understand the reasons behind their actions. I don’t want to give away a major plot line (and one that I found most shocking), but we are definitely left with a lot of unanswered questions, like Snowman is, which will, hopefully, come to light in the next two books of the MaddAddam Trilogy.