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Fortysomething, photographer slacker, working in IT, living in Greenwich; failed polymath; drinks and eats too much, reads too little...

Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake  - Margaret Atwood

A birthday present in 2012, it's taken me a while to get around to reading this. I've been enjoying the Atwood Positron series of short stories instead and figured I'd leave this one on the shelf for a while, but eventually all books must come down off the shelf and be read. Seeing the third book in this trilogy, MaddAdam, in the books shops convinced me to try and see if I could handle two Atwood series at a time.


Reading Oryx and Crake straight after Ballard's The Drowned World was a slightly disorienting experience: both are powerful human disaster dystopias; both feature narrator's whose mental health makes them slightly less than reliable; and both have quite limited casts otherwise. While The Drowned World was an environmental disaster, a lagoon in a flooded London; Oryx and Crake's is a biological disaster, an engineered virus wipes out the majority of the population, leaving a solitary human – Snowman, our narrator – and a group of engineered hybrid-humans who have been designed with immunity built in. The back-story and world building is provided through a series of flashbacks throughout the story, explaining how everybody came to be who they are and what happened to Oryx and Crake, as well as the rest of us. Obviously, this is Atwood, so the detail is excellently thought out. We understand the progression from nowish, through the rise of the biotech companies, the gated communities, the employer controlling the social existence of the employees; to the whole thing falling apart and the world, as we'd know it, ending.


Snowman narrates both the present time and the flashbacks, and his narration is built around his relationship with the hybrid-humans and we can clearly see that he lies to them as a matter of course. He's built an entire mythology around their origins. Every time they approach him to ask him a question about something he layers more on to that mythology. Oryx and Crake are the gods he has created to satisfy their curiosity. Crake was their creator, a genetic scientist and friend of Snowman, but now he's gone Snowman has built him up to be their god with himself as the intermediary, or prophet. Oryx has become the goddess of the animals in his mythology, rather than her previous role which was the original intermediary between Crake and his hybrid-humans before the viral disaster.


The nature of the novel feels slightly awkward having already read Atwood's In Other Worlds: it's a science based dystopia, it's set in the future, and it's fiction. In fact, the overreaching of science is pretty much the entire premise for the novel. But we all know that Atwood is a bit snooty about the term science-fiction and instead favours the term speculative fiction. Ultimately, it doesn't matter either way. It's not quite perfect, maybe a little too long, but Atwood remains the queen of speculative (or science-fiction) dystopias.