Thursday, October 7, 2010

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I find it unlikely that I'll ever meet Margaret Atwood or that she'll read this review of one of her older books, but if so, I apologize that I cannot go along with her desire not to call this a work of science fiction, because it is clearly dealing with a dystopian future that contains plenty of "things that aren't invented yet," Ms. Atwood's own definition.

I admit that I bristle a bit at the idea of an author denying a perfectly fine genre label, but since Atwood (and this book) are both so good, I'll give it a pass.

Oryx and Crake is the story of what happens when one man has the vision to remake the earth in his own twisted ideas and uses a society that's too obsessed with techo-corporate progress to notice that something might be going horribly wrong. Humanity, which was set on surviving no matter who or what got hurt in the process, suddenly finds itself cut off at the knees.

The human race's only hope? A deranged, defeated semi-alcoholic that calls himself Snowman. He wanders what's left of the "paradise" created by tramping over human rights and scientific ethics and, as the book progresses, reflects on what went wrong. He is left with the ruins of society, dangerous hybrid creatures (perhaps most horrifying being the one that combined snakes with rats), a race of creatures that are almost human--and plenty of time to think.

They look to him for their philosophy and theology, and Snowman obliges, knowing that everything he does will impact on their future. Not wanting to die but perhaps never really wanting to live, Snowman does what comes naturally to him: He continues to live.

As we progress through the book in a series of splits between the present day and prior events, it's clear that Snowman (formerly Jimmy) never had a handle on his life. He was content, like most people, to just inhabit the world around him. Sure, he had questions, but those questions were better left unanswered. If he saw signs, he ignored them, preferring to do what was easiest, from letting Crake run his life to having a series of unsuccessful romantic relationships, often with married or spoken for women. It's obvious that Jimmy's world is a mess--his mom even leaves because of it--but Jimmy/Snowman fears the truth more than anything, and his ability to question nothing overwhelms his occasional exposure to the bare facts.

This approach is perfect for giving us a character who can see his world without judging it, allowing the reader to form their own thoughts. The problem is that for most sections of the book, even when Snowman is all alone, he is reacting rather than acting. There's only a few precious moments where Snowman must show some backbone, and they mostly end up in the back of the book, by which point we've already passed judgment on this man whose penalty for ignoring life is to spend the rest of it mentally chronicling the end of the human race.

Normally, having such a cipher as a main character would bother me, but Atwood's work of world-building is so strong that I'm willing to overlook it. She's really outdone herself here, coming up with a future where technology does anything it wants, aided any abetted by a security force working only to protect the haves against the masses of have-nots (and those amongst the haves who get doubts about this reality). We see all sorts of twisted versions of familiar themes, from the internet to pharmaceutical companies, all taken to the extreme. Scientists work feverishly to "improve" the work of nature, binding raccoons and skunks or creating pigs that provide more food. There's even a twisted thing that provides nothing but chicken legs. They're the horror stories we only dream of right now, but Atwood makes them only real but plausible.

Because of this, Oryx and Crake's world is more of a character than Snowman. We want to know what makes this world tick, where the arts are shoved away from higher learning in a nod to the Cartesian philosophies at work today. There may be a few variations along the way, but the world Atwood creates is more compelling that most dystopias because let's face it--this is world that could easily happen, and might even be happening now.

I think that's the thing that makes me enjoy Oryx and Crake, despite my usual dislike of dystopias as a plot device. We did not arrive here by some dramatic act that's implausible. We got here because man's arrogance kept taking the next logical leaps, and the fall was one just as great as that given in the Book of Genesis. It's even for the same reason--a quest for knowledge without any checks and balances. As we watch technology go further and further, there seems to be no stopping to see not only if we can do something, but if we should. Atwood clearly sees this future and is scared by it. I'm a bit scared, too.

There are a few things that readers should be aware of before diving in. First of all is Atwood's leisurely pacing style, common to her writing. Fans of her work know that sharp, fast-moving stories are not her forte, and this book, despite its dramatic theme, is no exception. I like Atwood a lot, but sometimes I do wish she'd cut a bit here and there and move the story along faster. Snowman's life as a young adult particularly drags, in my opinion,but not enough to kill my enjoyment of the book. If you've never read Atwood before, just be ready to take awhile to get to the punchline.

The second problem is related to the first. I copped pretty quickly to what was going to happen, and I think overall the foreshadowing is just a bit too heavy. The extra pages mean it takes awhile to find out if you're right. I was, and I have a feeling you will be, too.

The third problem is a bit odd in an Atwood book. I felt like she was very neglectful to her female characters. Oryx is literally objectified, and Jimmy/Snowman's mother is the only other strong female in the book. It seems odd that she'd write a book that wouldn't pass the Bechdel test, and it just felt like women got short shrift in this one.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed the book, even if it ends on one heck of a cliffhanger. Atwood's prose is as sharp-witted as ever, from the names she gives futuristic creatures and technology to the acid sarcasm of her characters. There are plenty of secrets left unrevealed, giving the reader plenty of room to explore this world in his/her own mind. Atwood knows that any good writer shows as much as possible, while also giving the reader room to expand on what they've been given. The biggest question--how did the disaster happen--is revealed, but so much more is waiting, either for future books or as fodder for book clubs.

I always enjoy Atwood books, and this one was no exception. Fans of her other fiction books will find lots to like and should not be turned off by the science fiction within the pages. At the same time, those who like near science fiction definitely need to check this one out. Just don't tell Ms. Atwood that I sent you.

1 comment:

  1. Great review Rob, I love how thorough youa re! I just wrote a quick review on this book, but I really enjoyed delving back into the book through your review. I will be featuring Atwood in a couple more reviews over the next few weeks, so be sure to check them out when I post (usually on mondays!). Thanks for stopping by!