SPOILER ALERT: This book is impossible to discuss without revealing a few key details from the book. I don’t reveal the particulars at any point, but I do discuss things that are not fully made clear until much later in the story. If you are the type of person who likes to be surprised by everything, you may want to skip this review.
My favorite dystopian novel of all time would have to be The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It is a brilliant, visionary piece of fiction. I read it every few years just to remind myself why I am a feminist, what it means to be brave, and who I want to be. Yes. It is that powerful.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the book that put Margaret Atwood on my short list of must-read authors. And I can honestly say that nothing of hers has ever disappointed. That being said, when I finished Oryx and Crake this past summer, I set it down feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Because that is not the norm for an Atwood book, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why and I’ve come up with a few ideas and, consequently, developed a greater appreciation for the book.
Oryx and Crake is written from the perspective of Snowman, who is, as far as he knows, the last surviving human on the planet. Despite being the only known survivor of a catastrophic virus, Snowman isn’t a particularly sympathetic character. In fact, if one person had to survive, I don’t think anyone would have chosen him. Nobody, that is, but Crake.
Living alongside Snowman are a group of green-eyed creatures he calls the Crakers (named so after their creator). These human-like creatures look to Snowman as a sort of tribal priest and intercessor. His interactions with them seem to only intensify his lonely existence. It isn’t hard to see why. While they appear human in their near-perfect physical form, the extensive alterations and modifications introduced by Crake into their very DNA, seem to give these simple creatures more in common with the rakunks and pigoons than with humanity as we (and Snowman) know it.
And yet, they still retain this spark of life that is recognizable as human. Despite Crake’s best efforts, in their search to understand–themselves, their surroundings, their interactions–they begin to create stories. Like early humans, their stories are metaphors and myths. They are simple and crude. And they are distinctly familiar. Crake, Snowman tells us, would be so disappointed.
So how did the Crakers come to be? How was the world unmade? Snowman is here to help us, and the Crakers, understand.
Throughout the book Snowman serves as our tour guide, taking us all they way back to his earliest memories and his time living in the gated corporate community of OrganInc Farms, up through his young adult years, and finally ending with his time working for Crake at the RejoovenEsense compound–the place where the world finally began to unravel.
Through his recollections, he builds an image of a future that is both foreign and frighteningly familiar (all good dystopian futures have enough of the familiar to make us uncomfortable). We learn that Snowman and Crake met as teenagers. On the surface, their differences are such that they made unlikely friends, but what binds them together is much stronger.
Crake, it is clear from the start, is one of those people who is almost too smart for his own good. He is thoughtful, speculative, and above all, a master at playing the game. While he is much more daring, dangerous, and subversive than Snowman, he always appears as the model citizen. Crake is the type of person people are encourage to emulate. And because of that, he is given considerably more freedom–a freedom he eventually uses to his full advantage. You wonder if, given some guidance and attention, and a little less emptiness and tragedy, he might have become something better. I think the answer is probably no.
Oryx enters the picture when she appears as a young girl in a truly disturbing reality show that Crake and Snowman are watching. I am not kidding when I say that reality TV has been taken to its inevitable extreme. The numbing results are hard to take. At one point, Oryx looks directly into the camera. This look reaches out and does something to these two young men that they don’t really know how to classify. It’s as if they are momentarily shaken out of their complacency and neither one is sure what has just happened. Snowman becomes obsessed with her. And later we come to understand, so has Crake.
What happens to and between these characters clearly makes for an interesting read. Even so, it didn’t grab me by the guts and carry me along like The Handmaid’s Tale does. At first I thought I just wasn’t connecting with the male protagonist. He seemed so flat. Shallow. Apathetic. But everybody in this book comes off that way to some extent. None of the characters’ reactions are ones you necessarily want to emulate, but I think they are the modern day archetypes for how we deal with the world.
Oryx adopts a cheerful, naive optimism that eschews analysis and opts instead for getting what you can out of this moment. She is a “free spirit” in that she is entirely disconnected from any pain she might feel. Crake imagines what the world could and should be, and in his hubris, attempts to recreate it in his own image. He is a modern day Dr. Frankenstein, playing god. The Snowman, who interestingly enough is the only survivor, settles for hedonism. He is content to follow his mundane desires, going after whatever brings him pleasure–food, sex, entertainment.
This actually adds to the artificial feel of Atwood’s wholly depressing future, but I wonder if that is also what keeps me feeling a bit removed from it?
The sad part is, the more you read and are exposed to the culture of this world–from the genetically altered frankenfood (ChickieNobs Bucket O’ Nubbins, anyone?) to the ultimate dehumanization of their reality TV programs–the more you see that these characters are not capable of becoming the archetypal heroes we might recognize. They simply lack the basic building blocks for it.
In fact, it doesn’t take long for you to decide that the future Atwood shows us in this book is one that really ought to be done away with. That is the master storyteller at work. She actually sets you up to come to the conclusion that Crake himself reaches. But when it comes down to it and you realize he is unmaking this world and recreating it in his own flawed idea of what humanity ought to be, it is so horrifying you wonder how you could have thought it. Maybe you even try to convince yourself that you would have decided something better. Which again, puts you in the position of playing god. And isn’t this the problem that is highlighted here?
Crake is both a hero and a monster. The Crakers, who were supposed to be designed specifically to do away with all that is wrong with humanity, still will resort to the same things we do, the things Crake could not stand. They will have their own mythology, their own gods. The rhythms of sex and reproduction will map their existence.
In his ultimate creation, it seems Crake essentially hoped to engineer the journey out of man. He tried to genetically remove pain from their existence. And in doing so, he removed the things that make life interesting, even in the bleak and empty landscape we are presented with in this horrible future.
But is the landscape really that bleak and empty? Reading between the lines we get glimpses of life with texture–within the pleeblands (ungated areas where the common people lived), through the revolutionaries words and deeds, through Oryx’s sanitized version of her life story. We met artists and activists and we saw how the corporations used the CorpSeCorps to maintain control.
This is the world through Jimmy’s eyes, and to some extent, Crake’s. I think we are meant to question the accuracy of their vision. I think we are meant to understand it as myopic. Incomplete. And I think we are meant to see that in their arrogance, they didn’t know enough to know that they knew so very little. This is the curse of the ruling class, no? And, I suspect, why Oryx found Snowman “funny” and yet was compelled to believe in Crake.
Obviously this is a book that leaves you with a lot to think about, and I suspect it is one I will revisit again someday in the not too distant future. That being said, if you don’t have room in your life for two dystopian future novels from Margaret Atwood (and why wouldn’t you, for goodness sake?!), I still think The Handmaid’s Tale is your better choice.
Also, I’m going to need to read something from Atwood that has a male protagonist I like before I decide if her choices were as deliberate as I am giving her credit for or if she just writes female characters better. Knowing what I do about Atwood, I think she fully deserves all the credit I am willing to lay at her feet and much, much more.
That’s my two cents. Anybody else care to comment?