For November, the WEN book club turned to a new genre – science fiction. Though it must be said that famously Margaret Atwood doesn’t refer to her books as science fiction, but speculative fiction. Oryx and Crake, our book for November, certainly fit into this category, with Atwood taking modern themes such as genetic engineering and projecting them forward into the near future.
The novel introduces us to a post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited solely by the main character, Snowman, and a group of genetically advanced not-quite-humans, the Crakers. Departing with the traditional idea of the post apocalyptic hero, as in Mad Max and similar, Snowman is feckless, often drunk, and is in constant fear of his environment, fending off genetically engineered wolvogs and pigoons. We are immediately left with questions – who are the Crakers? What has happened to society? Why is Snowman the only human left?
Atwood’s narrative weaves in Snowman’s somewhat Quixotic journey back to the ‘Compounds’ where the rich used to live to find supplies, with the story of how society came to collapse. It turns out Snowman once lived in the Compounds and climbed his way up through the corporate world. As he works his way through school, then university, and then into his career, he encounters the title characters Oryx and Crake; tellingly both are named after extinct animals.
Through Snowman’s eyes we are shown a vision of the current world gone just that little bit more mad. Segregation of rich and poor (the poor live in relative squalor in the ‘pleeblands’), rampant use of genetic engineering and life-enhancing drugs with dubious side effects , and the pervasiveness of corporations in all aspects of society. By creating an alternate world of her own with ubiquitous brand names such as ‘Happicuppa’, ‘Helthwyzer’, and ‘Anooyoo’, Oryx and Crake makes for frighteningly realistic reading. It is this story that is the most engaging, but Atwood’s way of switching between the two narratives can be quite jarring – the book could have been written in a straight chronological fashion and would not have lost a great deal.
Both of the parallel stories in this book build towards what become rather obvious denouements, and Atwood often includes too much detail that seems to be padding. Characters too are thinly drawn, with Snowman being the best fleshed out. It may be that she has done this to draw attention to the emptiness of the characters’ lives (they are near owned by corporations), but this makes the book harder to like at times.
As Atwood attests, Oryx and Crake and is certainly not science fiction – it is far too grounded in the real world to be that, and it’s for that reason potential readers shouldn’t be put off. It’s an engaging read that keeps you interested, hoping that your questions will be answered – and they are for the most part. The issues the book raises about how we use science and technology are certainly thought provoking and will stay with you for some time.
Review by Chris Gilson