“Oryx And Crake” Might Make You More Anxious About the Real World

“Oryx & Crake” by Margaret Atwood, cover design by David Pearson [Virago Press 2009, 2020]

There’s a lot going on in “Oryx And Crake”. Sci-fi stalwart Margaret Atwood crafts a prescient apocalypse adventure, capitalist takedown, and slice-of-life drama all at once, injecting everything with a smarmy wit that (thankfully) dulls the impact of how believable this dystopia is. Seriously if the state of the real world is stressing you out, maybe knock this one down a few spots on the TBR.

But definitely keep it on your list. “Oryx And Crake” is a parallel narrative, following Snowman, the last man on Earth in the far(ish) future, and Jimmy – the man Snowman once was – in the near(ish) future, from his childhood up to the days when the world fell apart.

I should say completely fell apart. The world is already crumbling when Jimmy is born, corporations ruling in place of governments. People who can afford it live in ‘compounds’ separated from the outside world where climate change and pollution has made life inhospitable – but not totally unlivable. So-called ‘Pleeblanders’ still live in places like New New York (not a typo, New York’s long gone & Texas ‘dried up and blew away’), cities that are overpopulated, under resourced and under constant threat of natural disaster.

Snowman recalls Jimmy’s life growing up in the compounds while in his present he shepherds the ‘Crakers’, the next step in human evolution created by the titular Crake, a neurodivergent genius and Jimmy’s best friend. In his absence, Crake has become a sort of deity to his creations, Snowman their scruffy, half-starved Mohammad.

Snowman/Jimmy is the main character of the story, but as the title suggests he plays a Forrest Gump role as he re-tells the fall of humanity – always around the important stuff but never really directly involved. Just there for the ride.

It’s a fitting role. Jimmy is a ‘words person’ in a world filled more and more with ‘numbers people’ as his father puts it. Science & technology dominate all corners of society. Gene splicing animals to make commercialized hybrids or sex-pills or weapons or food is the norm, often to disturbing results. Jimmy likes books and telling jokes. He spends his whole life seen as a sort of sideshow.

Lisa Appignanesi described Jimmy as ‘…part buffoon, part Orpheus’ writing about “Oryx And Crake” in the Independent. I can’t think of a description more apt. At times he’s as empty headed as his Snowman alias would suggest, especially when juxtaposed against the super-genius Crake.

But there’s a quiet sadness underneath Jimmy, occasionally dropping poignant gems about loneliness, love, loss, and the general human condition both before and after he becomes the last man on Earth. Instead of peeling back the layers of Snowman, we get to see who Jimmy is at his innocent core and then watch the layers pile up until he becomes Snowman. It’s a small spin on typical character development that Atwood employs perfectly.

So perfectly that “Oryx And Crake” unfortunately suffers from the classic dual-narrative curse: one perspective is much more interesting than the other. Jimmy’s story and the vivid, cynical civilization of the future that Atwood builds is so much more interesting & entertaining than Snowman scrounging around with the Crakers in the ruins left behind.

The ‘how?’ of this dystopia is a lot more interesting than the ‘what?’ left behind. I was rushing through Snowman sections to get back to Jimmy from very early on.  Luckily, there’s a lot more of the earlier narrative than the later narrative in the book.

Snowman’s hijinks aren’t all boring. If you’re a fan of survival books like “Hatchet”, you’ll enjoy how much thought Atwood puts into Snowman’s various tactics and strategies he’s developed to survive on his own. His interactions with the naïve Crakers are mostly funny, shining an interesting light on just how much information we take for granted as universally understood.

I haven’t mentioned her at all, but this is not Oryx erasure. Any meaningful discussion of her demands spoilers. She’s important, but felt underutilized. That’s all I’ll say.

All in all, I really enjoyed “Oryx And Crake”. It’s incredibly well thought out to the point of eerie accuracy, witty enough to get real laughs out of me on the regular, and has just enough heart underneath the cynicism to make you care about the character drama strung through the sci-fi. I’m not sure I’ll commit to the full MaddAddam trilogy, but even if I don’t “Oryx And Crake” tells a satisfying enough self-contained story.

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