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Ninebelow
ninebelow
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February 2013
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Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx And Crake isn't about Oryx or Crake, or even their Children: it's about Jimmy.

When we first meet him Jimmy is known as Snowman and he may well be the last human alive, though he is not alone in the world. The human race has been purged and replaced by the Children of Crake, genetically engineered to thrive in a pre-agricultural state. Just as importantly they have been designed to stay in this state: the slate has been wiped clean and will remain so.

Very much in the manner of Ballard, in this post-catastrophe landscape nothing happens. Slowly. The prose is well written and, of course, somethings do happen (Snowman searches for food, hallucinates, injuries himself, flees hostile wildlife, etc.) but, whilst there is much to admire, it never rises above being a frame. What it frames, the majority and by far the best part of the book, is a recounting of Jimmy's life story. And the reason it succeeds so well is because, as in several of her other books, Atwood shows complete mastery of her central character.

The future that Jimmy is born into is what we might call the standard mild dystopia of unfettered capitalism. Here, libertarianism means that the rich are free to live trapped in secure corporate Compounds and the poor are free to starve. Jimmy is fortunate enough to fall into the former category; the child of two biotechnologists he is raised in the OrganInc Compound where his father works on pigoons, trying to create the perfect host for human organs. It is a privileged life, but not everyone in the family is happy about the situation:

Jimmy's mother said it was all artificial, it was just a theme park and you could never bring the old ways back, but Jimmy's father said why knock it? You could walk around without fear, couldn't you? Go for a bike ride, sit at a sidewalk cafe, buy an ice-cream cone? Jimmy knew his father was right, because he himself had done all these things.
It does not come as much of a surprise then that before too long Jimmy's mother leaves for a more radical existence. By this time they have moved to the larger, richer HealthWyzer Compound and Jimmy is more upset by the fact she has also decided to "liberate" his pet rakunk. He never meets her again but her ghost follows him throughout the novel.

Just before this, Crake appears in the Compound, though like Jimmy he still has a real name at this point. He takes his alias from an online game, one that will later play an integral part in the end of the world. He's Jimmy's age and already showing signs of the mad scientist he will become; his genius resides in a brain riddled with hubris. The pair become friends and do normal teenage stuff; video games and soft drugs.

Jimmy first sees Oryx whilst browsing child pornography on the internet and instantly falls in love. Crake (all seeing, all knowing) notices this. He prints off a screengrab of her for Jimmy and essentially an image is all she remains for the rest of the novel. Whatever the world throws at her - abduction, slavery, rape - it makes no ripple on the surface and we are forced to conclude that this is because there is nothing underneath. Though they do eventually meet she has achieved such Zen-like poise of mind and body that she is utterly isolated from the world, Jimmy and the reader.

The pair of them, Oryx and Crake, exert a poisonous influence on Jimmy, forever robbing him of adulthood. Both Jimmy and the reader have some respite after he leaves school and the HealthWyzer Compound behind. Crake is instantly snapped by the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute whilst Jimmy has to make do with Martha Graham Academy, a run-down arts college. When Jimmy arrives the security is so poor that it "could have been scaled by a one-legged dwarf."

As you might guess this is a marked contrast in style to that on display in Snowman's sections. It is in these college sections with their humorous trawl through campus life that, as if she was there, Atwood really loosens up. This is the strength of her telling of Jimmy's story: his tone is perfectly capture throughout, from child to adolescent to the brink of adulthood. When he enters the big, bad world of work - grinding out an empty living as an adman - so Atwood's style evolves.

Elsewhere, Crake is in much demand, his skills so sought-after that money and resources are simply thrown at him. This means that he can bring Jimmy over to work in his own personal fiefdom where he is free do indulge his own projects. This is unfortunate because an ideologue with unconstrained access to cutting edge biotechnology is far more potent than one armed with, say, a jumbo jet. And so Crake, with Oryx as his handmaiden, ushers in a new age and creates Snowman.

When Oryx And Crake was published, Atwood made several remarks whose intent seemed to be to stress as loudly as possible that "this is not science fiction". Those within the SF community reacted in one of two ways, depending on their pre-existing opinions of Atwood (and what she was taken to embody) either with wounded dismay or smug validation. In fact the totality of Atwood's remarks, as well as her previous comments on science fiction, represent a rather different, more complicated position than that which was initially reported. Regardless of this she was still guilty of loose language in the service of self-promotion. In this context it is interesting to ponder on the novel's epigram from Gulliver's Travels:
I could perhaps like others have astonished you with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style; because my principal design was to inform you, and to amuse you.
However, Oryx And Crake clearly is a science fiction novel and despite carping from within the genre it is not an old fashioned or obsolete one; it is true, though, that it is not the sort of book a contemporary SF writer would write. There is no sense in which this is cutting-edge but these are not the areas in which the book wishes to operate. Nor is this reinventing the wheel. Instead there is a serious backbone of extrapolation that supports a rather different sort of story.

If there is one serious mis-step in the future Atwood depicts it is in the ugly portmanteau brand names and neologisms that litter the book. They are clearly purposefully crude, but this is at odds with the rest of the book and suggests that a contempt of marketing and big business has damagingly bled into the text. To take an example, the only reason to contract Corporate Security Corp to CorpSeCorp rather than abbreviate it to CSC is to make a pun of 'Corpse Corp'; worse, the unwieldily title of this privatised police force is chosen seemingly expressly to facilitate this pun. This is particularly puzzling because elsewhere Atwood seems more savvy about marketing, noticeably, as we have already said, with regard to her own work. She is careless in similar ways elsewhere: calling a city New New York is very weak and belongs, along with the brand names, in a broader work than Oryx And Crake. Despite this, and whatever her intentions, Atwood has written an extremely impressive character study that makes a compelling SF novel.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online April 2004.

Comments

The shortened/portmanteau is a Canadian literary tradition - I remember it being discussed in high school English literature classes. There's a famous (?) poem that references it, "Can.Lit.".
http://www.tru.ca/ae/e_birney/english/level3/level4/doc02901.htm refers to the problem - apparently, we are sufficiently insignificant and dwarved by English and American literature to not even deserve a fully-spelled-out category.

(applause)