Book: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Reviewer: Jeriann and Bethany
Age/Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction/Science Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: Outside, maybe on a camping trip, so you can experience what it’s like to live at the end of the world.
Reading Accoutrements: Your favorite overly processed foods, like Cheese Whiz or SPAM…Or, if processed food isn’t your bag, a nice organic snack…like a mango! Or an apple!
Content Notes: Child Slavery, Child Porn, Child Prostitution
We fucked up. We read an open-ended dystopian novel that leaves a TON of things open to interpretation, and it turns out… It’s the first in a trilogy.
Jeriann: My husband, Michael, read Oryx and Crake several months ago, and he wanted me to read it immediately because he enjoyed it so much. Unfortunately, he told me A LOT of details as he was reading it, so I had to wait. I didn’t want my reading to be tainted by everything he’d already told me. Once I only remembered vague details, I decided it was time to add it to my growing list of dystopian reads. Since it deals heavily with genetic modification, I wanted Bethany to read it too, because I figured we’d have fun discussions.
Bethany: So, here I am…reading this book about genetic modification in a dystopian society because Jeriann wanted us to do a review. And I need you all to know that I had to work REALLY HARD to enjoy this book because I kept catching myself arguing every little world-developing point: “That would never happen!” “People were just okay with that happening?” “NO! That’s not how that works!!!”
Oryx and Crake opens up by introducing us to Snowman, a solitary man navigating a post-apocalyptic world. We see him go through his daily routines, which consist of survival activities and remembering his life. The book bounces back and forth between Snowman’s present and his past as Jimmy. Through his recollections, we eventually learn how the current situation, in which very little of humanity is left, came to be.
Bethany: Atwood introduces the world through Jimmy as he grows from a five-year-old dependent on his mother, to a horny prepubescent dumbass, and finally to an overgrown manchild incapable of taking care of himself. And it. Is. So……. SLOOOOOWWWWWWW.
Jeriann: To be fair, I didn’t think it was that slow. I thought it was *building.” Anyway, we see everything through the lens of Snowman’s experiences and memories. He is obviously affected by malnutrition and exhaustion, as well as being a biased human, so his recollection of events is imperfect, narrow, and skewed. This made figuring out what actually happened a little difficult at points, which I believe was 100% Atwood’s intention.
Bethany: I read this book in two bursts and I seriously have regrets about stopping in the middle, because I would’ve finished it a lot faster had I just read through to the end. Every time I thought about picking it up again, I really really really didn’t want to – to the point where I chose to do dishes over reading. I HATE DOING DISHES!!! But once I started back up again, I flew through the last 150 pages or so. Things seriously pick up the pace toward the end.
Jeriann: Yeah, I can see how this book could be a bit of a chore, but I really enjoyed it. It does take a long time to build up, particularly long because I was expecting it to go more into detail about specific events that it didn’t end up going into detail about. But I thought it was an engaging read, and the fact the chapters are really short (many are only 3-5 pages) really helped move things along.
We see Jimmy’s life growing up in the secured compounds of “scientific” companies away from the “Pleeblands,” which are the unwashed cities. Pharmaceutical companies have basically created their own sequestered communities where genetic experimentation runs amok, unchecked by any sort of ethics boards or regulation.
Bethany: This is where my suspension of disbelief was challenged. The words, “How would anyone let them get away with that?” went through my head on numerous occasions.
Meanwhile, Snowman forages for food, copes with the elements, and occasionally interacts with the strange lab-grown humanoids who have colonized nearby. They see him as almost a divine being, and he encourages this, feeding them legends about Oryx and Crake, their supposed creators. Through Snowman’s memories, we slowly learn how the “Crakers,” as Snowman calls them, came to exist, and how society collapsed.
Jeriann: I loved the world-building in Oryx and Crake. The world before the collapse was already a post-late-capitalism dystopia. People’s lives are almost completely determined by the companies they work for. We don’t see a lot of life outside the compounds, but the privatized pseudo-police obviously wield a lot of power, and any perceived rebellion is met with extreme violence.
Bethany: The invisible bureaucracy running this dystopia uses fear to manipulate the public – fear of terrorism in the form of violence or biological warfare, fear of corporate espionage that could cost you your job or your life, and fear of becoming one of the manipulated populace living in the pleeblands.
Jeriann: Snowman’s existence is filled with the abandoned structures of the former society. His immediate habitat is a secluded forested area, but he regularly visits other areas to forage for supplies. We see a lot of the genetically modified animals from when the compounds were thriving, now wreaking havoc on the outside world. Many of the chapters involve Snowman seeing something in the present, then recalling a memory related to that item or creature that provides useful context to the reader. These short scenes allow for a lot of information to be revealed without large, overwhelming exposition-dumps.
Bethany: The characters themselves were a major challenge for me. Jimmy’s parents are scientists, complicit in this society that is taking everything one step too far…and then going even farther. When Jimmy’s mom begins to realize that their work is toxic, she acts on it in a self-important way that ends up minimizing her potential impact on the problem at hand.
Jimmy is so focused on his father’s disdain for his son’s intellectual pursuits that he ends up digging into his perceived ineptitude and making himself a slave to the system.
Jeriann: I feel like Jimmy’s mom is an example of a well-meaning but short-sighted environmental activist. Jimmy, who takes his mother’s abandonment understandably hard, seems to flounder around in the world, being pulled along by stronger personalities than his own. First, this is mainly his father, but then, a wild Crake appears.
Crake (actual name Glenn), is an extremely intelligent, focused classmate of Jimmy’s. They become friends, playing strategic war and extinction games together. Crake and Jimmy have a lot of philosophical differences, but they maintain a friendship into adulthood, mainly because Jimmy doesn’t push too hard against Crake’s ideals.
Bethany: Whereas Jimmy is the “artist” who finds beauty in some of the creations of humanity, Crake completely abhors what humans have accomplished. He is disdainful of religion and art, saying that those things are the root cause of war. He is actively opposed to the “advancements” of the human race because, in Crake’s mind, the human race at its core is flawed – therefore nothing good can grow from it.
Jeriann: Atwood uses Crake and Jimmy’s different views to draw parallels between science and religion that are more nuanced than a lot of science fiction. Neither Jimmy or Crake is completely wrong. Jimmy sees the benefits of art and creativity, while Crake sees how religion and emotions are used to manipulate people. These views can exist simultaneously, which, of course, they do in reality. There are a lot of religious references or commentary that are only apparent on a deeper dive, such as the fact that the covers chosen are both religious paintings (NSFW, by the way).
Bethany: Meanwhile, Jimmy is also a womanizing asshole who, to be perfectly honest, reminds me a lot of several English Lit majors we went to school with: “I’m so broody and deep. If you sleep with me, I’ll tell you all my darkest thoughts and let you try to fix me until I’m bored of sleeping with you.”
Jeriann: Yeah, Jimmy doesn’t really see women in any other light than whether he wants to have sex with. He comes across women scientists, comments on their unattractiveness; meets female students, grouses about how they’d never sleep with him. He admits he mostly uses women for emotional support, and he semi-knowingly manipulates women into breaking up with him once he’s done with them.
Crake, on the other hand, seems to lack respect for most of humanity, regardless of gender. He sees humanity’s flaws as aberrations to be fixed. Crake engages in experiments to eliminate what he sees as flaws, which range from physical to emotional weaknesses. Jimmy disapproves of a lot of genetic manipulation, seeing it as “fake” (and is particularly disgusted by fake boobs) but doesn’t have any clear moral reasoning – just a generic dislike of the inauthenticity.
Bethany: Jimmy is NOT a scientist – which is a huge disappointment to his father. Instead, he chooses to go into a study of language and arts, for which his only career options end up being marketing (Ouch…so REAL). Throughout the book, Jimmy lists old words that have become obsolete – much like Crake would list the names of animals that had gone extinct (hence the nicknames Oryx and Crake). This new society tends toward forgetfulness in favor of advancement – they forget the ugly side-effects of whatever they are creating in order to make room for “new and improved” lifestyles.
“New and Improved” exists mainly in the form of genetic modification. Each compound has their specialties, and in these compounds, all sorts of modifications are being made to living organisms. Existing animal DNA is combined to make new creatures, some for military applications, others seemingly without purpose other than to see what’s possible (though rakunks sound like they’d be cute pets!). Other experiments involve creating new life forms to be efficiently harvested for meat and meat by-products.
Of course, this modification isn’t only for animals. Cosmetic alterations are taken to a whole new level. Pharmaceutical compounds like “ANOOYOU,” “RejoovenEssence,” “HelthWyzer,” and “OrganInc” really capitalize off of people’s insecurities, offering services from superficial improvements to choosing the genetic markers in future offspring. And the cleverly-named companies don’t end there. There’s “Happicuppa” coffee, “SoYummi” soy ice cream, and more.
Jeriann: Atwood built a really expansive world here, with lots of commentary on society, religion, capitalism, and all that good stuff. The end did leave both of us feeling a bit unsatisfied, mainly due to unanswered questions, so when Bethany told me it was the first in a trilogy, it didn’t take me long to get over my shock. That made so much sense! I doubt the rest of the series will answer every question that was raised (speculative fiction can’t spell everything out, after all), but I for one am definitely looking forward to the next two books.
Bethany: I’m not. But I might read them anyway because I really want to explore this religion tie-in between Oryx and Crake and the next two books – The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. One thing’s for sure: I’m going to read A TON of romance novels before I start the next book. Gotta recoup my store of mushy-happiness so I don’t get all “let’s push people off of overpasses” during the next read.
Have you ever read a book without realizing it was part of a series? Let us know if it was worth the commitment!