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Brave New Reading List: Oryx and Crake

by Brita Thielen
Oryx and Crake cover

The novel featured this week, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003; McClelland and Stewart), is unique in that it is part of a trilogy: the MaddAddam Trilogy. The sequels are The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). I have not yet had a chance to read these sequels, but Oryx and Crake definitely left me hungry for more, and I can’t wait to devote time to them over the summer. Also, rumor has it that the books are being adapted into an HBO television series by Darren Aronofsky.

In Oryx and Crake we meet Snowman, a lost soul still reeling from the recent collapse of world civilization as we know it. The novel shifts from following Snowman in the present to exploring Snowman’s memories of the time before, when he was a boy named Jimmy who loved a girl named Oryx and admired (envied?) a brilliant friend named Crake. Jimmy was the son of a “genographer” and a microbiologist, living a privileged life in a secure Compound community protected from the “pleeblands” – or all the cities not directly supported by large corporations. Jimmy’s world is largely privatized and protected from the pleebland citizens by the CorpSeCorps (aka the men with guns). Science is definitely King in Jimmy’s society, and genetic splicing and modification has developed everything from “pigoons,” extra-large pig-like creatures used to grow human organs for transplants, to various animal hybrids like “rakunks” (raccoon-skunks) and “snats” (rattlesnake-rats), to new diseases and their cures.

Jimmy does not have the desired aptitude for the sciences like his parents, or his best friend Crake. While Crake goes on to a top-notch college and becomes the head of an “immortality project” at one of the world’s most powerful companies, Jimmy goes to a second-rate school for fine arts and humanities and falls into an unfulfilling job in advertising. Fortunately for Jimmy, Crake intervenes and gets Jimmy a job on his team helping to care for the “Crakers” – GM pseudo-humans designed by Crake to survive on the overly-polluted planet Earth in a far more peaceful way than homo sapiens ever have. And it is at this point that Jimmy finally meets Oryx.

Jimmy/Snowman is besotted with Oryx, and her character haunts the pages of the novel. She is a young, beautiful, resilient woman of uncertain origins – she was sold into the sex industry as a young girl in another part of the world and eventually winds up working for Crake. Jimmy obsesses over Oryx’s past, as if knowing every detail of her history will allow him to save her from some hurt she’s never really felt. Though of the two, Oryx definitely has a more troubled past, it’s easy to see that she is the one holding Jimmy together. Of course, Oryx and Jimmy have no idea what Crake is really up to, and of course it is this secret that threatens the entire human race.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, the other Atwood novel in this blog series, Oryx and Crake dwells primarily on the damaging effect humans have had on the planet. Earth has become nearly uninhabitable without technological assistance like air purifiers and ultra-processed food (let’s just say, McDonald’s chicken nuggets have nothing on ChickieNobs), and endless inoculations against disease. The environmental damage spurs the drive for scientific and technological developments, and these developments in turn play a role in the story’s apocalypse. While I wouldn’t say that Atwood is making a comment about humans “playing God,” there does seem to be a critique of human nature’s tendency towards short-term solutions.

 Atwood also gives a painful, but fascinating, depiction of Snowman’s mental and emotional deterioration as the “last true human.” Not only does Snowman feel completely isolated, but all of the intangible things that he once valued – literature, art, any sort of culture, really – no longer serve any purpose, especially as he has no one to share them with. It’s like he’s in solitary confinement, but his prison cell is the entire planet. The absence of other humans means Snowman has lost any chance of real communication or of getting out of his own head. As Snowman bleakly puts it, “. . . he couldn’t stand to be nothing, to know himself to be nothing. He needs to be listened to, he needs to be heard. He needs at least the illusion of being understood.” In some ways, I think Snowman/Jimmy has always been searching for someone who understands him, and his despair is now all the greater because he finds himself totally and completely alone.

Recommended if: You are interested in dystopian novels dealing with environmental disaster (see The Ice People) and bioengineering. You also might want to check out this novel if you have strong feelings (pro or con) about vaccines and/or the pharmaceutical industry. There are also population management and control aspects of this novel that are reminiscent of Brave New World. And finally, recommended if you’ve read anything else by Margaret Atwood and are hungry for more.