Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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Series: MaddAddam #1

Kindle Edition, 400 pages

Published: March 30, 2004 by Anchor (1st published 2003)

Setting: Future North America

Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2003), Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2004), Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2003)
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Snowman lives a life of solitude, struggling, from day to day, to survive. The world has been decimated by global catastrophe and drastically reshaped by climate change and unchecked genetic engineering. As far as he knows, Snowman is the sole survivor of the original human race.

He looks after a small tribe of people he calls Crakers, genetically engineered humans created in a lab. Like the denizens of Eden, these new people are as innocent and unschooled as toddlers. Snowman serves as a de facto prophet, creating a mythology through which the Crakers understand their existence.

The narrative steps back and forth in time. Once Snowman was known as Jimmy; he grew up in a self-contained scientific community. The world outside these tightly sealed facilities, where scientists lived and worked, was seen as mysterious, feral, and a bit frightening. Possibly this segregation of scientific geniuses from the rest of the world was society’s undoing. We are all meant to live in vibrant communities, surrounded by people educated in various disciplines and with myriad worldviews.

As a young boy, Jimmy befriended “Crake,” a hubristic genius who aspired to change the world. He was brilliant and unable to relate to others. It is implied that Crake has Asperger’s Syndrome, but that is probably irrelevant. Together the boys engage in virtual adventures, via the internet, that educate them and, at the same time, desensitize them to the world’s evils.

As an adult, Jimmy, a lonely wordsmith, becomes complicit in Crake’s professional schemes. His friend uses Jimmy’s writing ability to his advantage. “Oryx,” a former child prostitute and the love of Jimmy’s life, becomes entangled in their work. And as Crake’s friend and colleague, Jimmy becomes a voyeur in the demise of civilization.

In parallel storylines, we see Snowman struggling to survive, in the present, and the chain of events that led to apocalyptic events. How we got from a living culture, which looks familiar to us in many ways, to a bizarre wasteland is not wholly revealed until the end, and it keeps you guessing.

This novel stands out, first and foremost, for the author’s gorgeous use of language and eye for detail. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant novelist and poet, and this is my favorite of her books so far. Considering the dark, disturbing quality of this story, Oryx and Crake is surprisingly humorous and enjoyable. This is partly because of Jimmy’s narrative voice — eloquent, cynical, funny, and fiercely intelligent.

Atwood’s skill at world-building also shines here. Through flashbacks, we see a world that seems to closely resemble our own, in many ways, yet is perched on the brink of global destruction. The realm of Snowman and the Crakers is futuristic and foreign, a scorching wasteland where feral genetically engineered animals roam around in the shambles of civilization. Yet is seems wholly real, and the transition from our own reality, to a society dominated by sealed scientific communities, to a post-apocalyptic world is seamless.

This brilliant, dark novel would not appeal to everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s one of those books that I am anxious to discuss with others, and I believe that someone’s thoughts on this novel would reveal a great deal about that person’s personal philosophy and view of the world. And scientists and writers may be in unique positions to shape the future, a daunting responsibility. Oryx and Crake can serve as a powerful springboard for discussion on that topic.

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