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Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Science fiction is generally served to the public in either one of two delicious flavors. One is of the Star Trek variety--this is a critique or mirror of contemporary society via a comparison to a future, technologically-advanced and therefore improved humanity. The second and far more prevalent kind of sci-fi, is that of the neophobe, anti-capitalist Terminator ilk--these yarns of dystopia play off the fear of humanity's inevitable campaign into the future and away from what is familiar. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is an unapologetic member of this second variety--a species of literature whose blank check negativity and cynicism I find more than a little bit boring. However, beyond the politics, Atwood's work succeeds on a variety of more immediate levels.

The story centers on a lonely and miserable middle-aged man wandering through a post-apocalyptic North American wasteland. He is perhaps the last human on the face of the Earth and prefers to be known as "Snowman." The story is spliced with vignettes from his pre-apocalypse incarnation as "Jimmy," which lead the reader up to and through the destruction of society at the hands of a deadly virus.
The only other living things are genetically-altered pigs, skunks, and wolves and a tribe of child-like modified humans Snowman calls "Crakers." As the story unravels, we learn about Snowman/Jimmy's former life growing up in a corporate compound which functions to keep its employee-residents safe and separated from the dangerous and dirty common-folk who inhabit "the pleeblands." It is here where, in his early adolescence, Jimmy meets a young genius with a god complex whose real name we are never privy to, but is only known to us by his video game moniker, "Crake."
With Oryx and Crake, Atwood has painted a joyless vision of a future where genetic-engineering is a lucrative and pervasive facet of human existence and in which individuals are depersonified (is that a word?--I choose to think that it is) as best exemplified by young Jimmy and Crake's obsession with web sites offering access to child pornography, real-time video suicides, and executions. Now, here is a perfect example of where the politics of science fiction lose me -- there is little exposition given to the benefits these new technologies have surely given to humanity, and the whole of this future society is damned by the author on the basis of a base voyeurism expressed by a futuristic bourgeois Beavis and Butthead. And now that I've properly (and may I add, brilliantly) included a pop-culture reference to illuminate a flaw in the novel's logic, I would like to present you, my rapt reader, with my paragraph on the shortcomings of science fiction politics:
I'll offer no argument that there is need for caution as new technologies and societal evolutions arise, but I'll offer no support for the notion that anything new is inherently destructive. Since the invention of the steam engine, rates of murder and rape have risen and fallen as have social trends towards compassion and the percentage of literacy in the third world. There is no proof that any of these wobbling trends (which have wobbled up and down since the beginning of time) have had any connection with a faster method of traveling the Mississippi. There are no components of human existence that have continually worsened due to the march of technology (outside of environmental pollution, which admittedly is a problem to be solved, but certainly not the denouement of mankind). But all the while, diseases have been cured, pains have been alleviated, and new frontiers have been discovered and conquered. For the past century or so, science fiction writers (and later, their film maker kin) have sought to frighten their audiences with fantastic tales of technology-born horrors, much of which has (as fictional futures have morphed into actual pasts) proven to be little more than iliterary exaggeration, puppets, and CGI.

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