Review of Oryx and Crake

There are utopias and distopias in literature, the former more often than not turning out to be more like the latter than we would like. Margaret Atwood hates having her work categorized as either one. Neither does she approve of science fiction despite the largely technological and, lately, environmental themes that pervade her work. She chooses to operate under the term eistopia, a term that underlines a projected future with, according to Atwood, no apparent meliorative or pejorative leanings. That being said, I am not wholly certain I agree. Perhaps Atwood was simply avoiding a direct interpretation of her own work, begging readers to determine the underpinnings of her literature.

Oryx and Crake is quite a fantastic story–we follow a disheveled character nicknamed “Snowman” who lives with genetically engineered humanoids on the beach. These humanoids, called the Children of Crake after their inventor, Crake, are, along with Snowman, the sole survivors of an epidemic that has killed off the rest of the human race. A majority of the story is told in flashback–Snowman recalls his childhood, first meeting and befriending Crake, first seeing Oryx in a pornographic movie, going to college, falling in love with Oryx, etc… The novel is left with a heavy sense of fatalism: we know from the beginning that Snowman is the only human left alive. It is this sense of fatalism that leaves the reader wanting more than finding out what happens next. Certainly, there is a degree of suspense: how did Snowman end up where he is when the novel starts? Although Atwood does an excellent job of drawing us into that mystery, there is an incredible depth of meaning to the piece that not only attests to Atwood’s ingenuity but also brings us into a contemplation of purpose and identity beyond social constructs and forces us to contemplate the nature of our own mortality.

Burdened by this heavy fatalism, we embark on a voyage of doubt through the thick and under-explored wilderness of morality. Is it right to tamper with genes? If we can eliminate disease by means of eugenics, is it morally acceptable to make all individuals smarter (an issue addressed more directly in the case of humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) or to make animals more benign or livestock more productive (an issue addressed in the recent documentary Food Inc.)? And what of the environment? If we can genetically alter plants to use more carbon dioxide in their photosynthetic processes but sacrifice other species in the process, is this a moral solution to the overproduction of greenhouse gasses?

Beyond the realm of bioengineering, though, Atwood explores two specific paradigms of moral principle that some would consider black and white and other more like the rainbow. For instance, Oryx is sold by her family into slavery and eventually becomes a porn star. Snowman and Crake grow up watching porn and are thereby introduced to Oryx. They are extremely insensitive towards the objectification of women. As a reader, I found myself needing to fill in the emotional gaps left by their lack of concern for women like Oryx who were forced into such a lifestyle. I felt a considerable sense of outrage against the subtle misogyny present in these scenes, but Atwood leaves room for interpretation as she demonstrates an apparent lack of harm due to the influence of pornography on Snowman and Crake. What we are forced to consider is the impact of pornography. Snowman always treats women as objects, even the incredible Oryx with whom he falls in love. Is this simply Snowman’s nature, or is the rampant pornography a key contributor to his value of women? Crake is completely opposite–he never has a sex partner, never seeks out women. But could this be the result of an objectified view of women? Atwood leaves the answer up to us.

Beyond the nearly benign insensitivity of pornography, Atwood brings into play a more poignant subject: killing. The two boys spend some of their time watching shows about assisted suicide, a topic containing a great deal of socio-political charge today but in the context of her world considered a typical happening. This culminates later with Crake’s actions regarding the super virus that destroys humanity and ultimately the confrontation between Snowman and Crake after Oryx dies. When does killing become acceptable? When is killing just, and when is it blatant murder? Atwood blurs the lines between these areas and forces us to consider the implications thereof.

Rich with questions about morality, environmentalism, and the future, and full of suspense weighted by a distinct fatalism, Oryx and Crake is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Atwood’s beautiful yet simplistic language tops off this delectable piece of literature with compelling images:

“They seem close, the stars, but they’re far away. Their light is millions, billions of years out of date. Messages with no sender.”

Or more contemplative and sometimes religious depictions that border on theological commentary:

“Before he reconnoitres, before he sets out on what — he now sees — is a mission, he should make a speech of some kind to the Crakers. A sort of sermon. Lay down a few commandments, Crake’s parting words to them. Except that they don’t need commandments: no thou shalt nots would be any good to them.”

Overall, the novel is a compelling read and will leave you wanting to dive into its sequel: The Year of the Flood.

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Posted on January 7, 2012, in Books, Reviews, Stuart. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. James K. Hagenbuch

    It will be a sad and dangerous future if the value of life continues to decrease. Genetic engineering, although promising great benefits for humanity, will also make it less valuable. It is the rarity, and resistance to change that makes things valuable. The video game “Bioshock” deals with this, once again leading to the downfall of the supposed “perfect society” this time created by a man named Andrew Ryan. Dissatisfied with religion, communism, and governments in general, he constructs a undersea city in 1946 named Rapture where “…the great will not be constrained by the weak, where the artist will not fear the sensor, and where the scientist will not be bound by petty morality.” The results are gory madness, to say the least. The mystical substance known as “Adam” found in a rare type of sea slugs allows people to rewrite their genetic codes, leading to superpowers of sorts and the ultimate dream of the plastic surgeon: the ability to mold one’s body like a piece of clay, so that “nobody needs to be ugly anymore”. Of course nothing is solved, people become greedy, wanting more and more, deranged scientists are allowed to enact their sick and perverse wills upon their subjects, deeming themselves as gods, slowly beginning to question everything for the sake of questioning. But change for the sake of change is not necessarily a good thing. We need boundaries, we need laws, we need meaning and common decency, sense, and morality. “A man chooses, a slave obeys”, says Andrew Ryan, moments before his death, dying in the city, the idea he so believed in with all his sole that he would not allow himself even to succumb to the obvious doubts he had with his ambitions. I am currently playing through “Bioshock 2: Sea of Dreams”. This time the main story deals with the idea of the self with a very bizarre twist, which follows the philosophy of what I believe to be Hinduism. Not to rant on a video-game but I am impressed with how though-provoking this series is. By the way, have you read the sequel yet? And what is the significance of the flower on the cover?

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