Thursday, October 18, 2012

Oryx and Crake: A Review

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a somewhat near-future dystopian apocalypse-in-progress story set near New York City.  The dystopia comes from a world of over population and dwindling resources, where weak governments have lost all control over the wheels of commerce.  Margaret Atwood is Canadian.  An underrepresented group within a field dominated by American-British apocalyptian authors, this is the last novel in this round of our international reviews.

One of many covers: This shows a mirror-imaged traditional Adam and Eve (implying cloning gene-splicing).  Others show the portions of the left panel of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights

Margaret Atwood, is a very well known novelist.  At the time of writing this novel, she was already know for having written the earlier dystopian novel The Handmaiden's Tale.  The novel written prior to this one, The Blind Assassin won the 2000 Booker Price.  So there were a lot of expectations when this novel came out.  In general, I would say people were not disappointed.  Many years after this novel came out, she wrote a parallel story (The Year of the Flood) that clarifies some of the events at the end of this story, and their is a planned sequel.

Many of the reviews state that the novel is about genetic engineering run amok.  A few say that it is about a pandemic plague causing a collapse.  A fairly typical sample:

Lorrie Moore, The New Yorker, 19 May 2003
Atwood, who is the daughter of a biologist, vividly imagines a late-twenty-first-century world ravaged by innovations in biological science. Like most literary imaginings of the future, her vision is mournful, bleak, and infernal, and is punctuated, in Atwood style, with the occasional macabre joke—perhaps not unlike Dante’s own literary vision. Atwood’s pilgrim in Hell is Snowman, who, following a genetically engineered viral cataclysm, is, as far as he knows, the only human being who has survived. Snowman (formerly Jimmy) has become arboreal, living in trees and in shelters of junk, roaming the beaches and picnic grounds of a former park—where fungi sprout from rotting picnic tables and barbecues are festooned with bindweed—scavenging for food. His only companions are a dozen or so humanoids, the Crakers—gentle, naked, beautiful creations of Jimmy’s old, half-mad scientist friend Crake.
This is not the story.  This is the epilogue.  We see the effects of the problem first, so the reviewers latch onto the effects. 

The primary story is of Jimmy, who eventually becomes the self-named Snowman, growing up in a series of commercial corporate run enclaves that are the upscale version of the old company towns.  Except these are company towns with walls, perks, and authority comes through the corporate police.

What is stated clearly in a number of locations in the novel is that over population is the primary cause of all (or at least most) of the problems.  Because there is not enough resources to go around the wealthy locked themselves into enclaves.  Because there is a shortage of food,  genetic engineering (the pigoons illustrated below) is pushed as a way to alleviate that problem.  If people were not so desperate, the corporations would not be able to push them around so easily.  If you argue with the corporations they kick you off of the bus, and your on your own in the wilderness of the pleblands (plebian lands). 

So as we see, the story has two plot threads.  One is the aftermath of the disaster.  What has happened, has happened.  The events in this aftermath take place over a very short time line, and it primarily acts as the engine through which "The Snowman" tells the second story:  the story of how the world got to be in this mess.

The interplay of the plot lines adds a lot of dramatic tension to the novel as the older Snowman tells of his earlier life, and his association with Crake and Oryx, two people very responsible for how the dystopia came to collapse.  After the collapse, Jimmy named himself after the Abdominal Snowman:  A big hairy monster.  However, it seems rather likely that this is intend to show that he has been "snowed" (fooled):  Certainly by Crake, and in my estimation by Oryx as well.  Since Jimmy is rather representative of the clueless middle class "everyman" going along with the flow (in a cynical fashion) of events, the "snowing" is also likely meant to be indicative of much of the novel's audience.

The novel does drop through a number of subtle, and not so subtle prods at the audience.  The artists, the writers of this world are pretty much given short shrift unless they can use their talents within the the world of marketing or mass communication.  Jimmy buys in and works as a wordsmith in the advertising world.  At one point, Jimmy is roommates with a number of bohemian-style artists.  They complain about his corporate sellout.  They state that mankind would never learn, that it would keep creating until it died vomiting on the waste from its own corporate produced junk. "Jimmy asks : Like your computers?  The ones you do your art on?" (p243).  That there is truth in some of the artists statements is beside the point.  They don't really intend to separate themselves, or others wise do anything serious about societies self destructive nature.  Like reading (or writing) a novel about humans driving over the cliff of self inflicted extinction: it's all very entertaining.

There is most certainly a lot of bio creations running loose in this novel, they are one of the more aggressive parts of both plot lines.  Other plot lines include the falling away of the common people, as resources shrink and the few available are grabbed up by the small number of scientists who can wring out marketable benefits.

Jimmy and the Pigoons (thumbnail: original here)
Although told in much different way, the novel reminds me of M.J. Engh's Arslan, where a conquering Asian general comes out of nowhere to not only take over the planet, but also to put an end to humanity through birth control.  Oddly enough, in Arslan, everyone got the point about overpopulation and birth control, and missed the author's primary point about environmental degradation. 

The tone of the novel has elements of the slightly surreal to them, which is probably a good, because if you were to really connect with the potential of the horrors on offer, it would arguably make  Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem almost cheerful: less people are suffering.  The predatory bio engineered pigs of course bring up Animal Farm, but also take out a little of the sting.
By the end of the story, we discover what has happened to bring about the world noted in our first quote above.  Crake, Jimmy's childhood friend, and Oryx, a woman that the two of them first saw as a young girl in a pornographic movie, are both involved.  The role that Snowman has had thrust upon him, is to become the caretaker of the innocent bio engineered humanoids, The Crakers.

Crake, is the obvious driving force behind the plot.  That is fairly clear early on.  After all, the Crakers are named after him.
Oryx is much more subtle.  She had at least some level of buy in with Crake's mission.   When defending Crake she says:
Oh, you are wrong Jimmy. He has found the problem, I think he is right. There are too many people and that makes the people bad. I know this from my own life, Jimmy. Crake is a very smart man! (p322).
Although she is given part of the classic victim through much of the story, she tends to do a very good job of moving her way through each setting and getting to a place she would rather be.  Where other woman find Crake to be creepy, she does not.  Jimmy, who does not always understand what he hears asks her at one point what she was thinking as a girl in that first porno movie they say, at the moment she was looking at them: "
I was thinking, that if I ever got the chance, it would not be me down on my knees" (p92).
Crake is the destroyer, and creator.  Oryx is the mother.  The activities of both them combine perfectly toward prodding Jimmy to become the Snowman, and protect their children.

The edge of the pleblands with the dome in the left center. (Thumbnail, original here and color)

Did I enjoy the story.  Yes I did.  There are a few moments that it moves along relatively slowly, but the author has done an excellent job of creating a mystery of the process of the collapse.  A collapse that we can see some of the results of, but not fully understand.  There are many subtle undertones; I have only touched on a fraction of them.  This is a novel that can withstand at least a couple of readings.  The only off note to my mind is the somewhat clownish nature of many of the bioengineered animals.  That tends to give a little more lightness to the proceedings than I think is warranted.
For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings: Realism and Readability:  1 to 7 with 7 being high.
Realism is a bit of a mix.  Recall that Realism is meant to be an assessment of how possible/likely the books setting is to our current predicament.  Could we see this happening to us, or maybe to someone we know?  Both the somewhat futuristic setting, and the clownish nature of many of the bioengineered animals tends toward the surreal.   The dystopian setting on balance is a fairly reasonable projection of current trends: not necessarily the correct prognostication, but not entirely impossible.  Some of the immediacy is lost by the fact that much of the novel is clearly retrospective, only a few portions that deal with the Snowman have an actual element of realtime danger.  The Snowman, in realtime, is worried about food and supplies in the degraded world.  I am going to punt and put it at the midpoint:  a 4.
Readability is fairly straightforward.  Outside of the fact that it is set up a little bit like a mystery- not so much a whodunit as a howdunit- it is a fairly straightforward tale.  There are a lot of subtle social points and allusions, but the major threads of the plot line, if not always resolved, are easy enough to follow.  There is a lot of thinking and discussing.  The use of the language is very well done, and it is an excellent example of keeping the dialog moving.   I wouldn't call it a page turner, but  for 374 pages, it moves along fairly quickly.  An above average literary 5.


kymber said...

bin waiting for this review, ordering from Amazon right now. thanks buddy - you NEVER disappoint!

your friend,

russell1200 said...

Kymber: I will probably read the sequel at some point. I am sort of tempted to wait for the third book to come out. I did pick up a book she wrote recently "In Ohter Worlds".