Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury (May 2003) 374 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 6259 8

reviewed by Ann Skea

Outside the OrganInc walls and gates and searchlights, things were unpredictable. Inside, they were the way they used to be when Jimmy's father was a kid, before things got so serious, or that's what Jimmy's father said. Jimmy's mother said it was all artificial, it was just a theme park and you could never bring the old ways back, but Jimmy's father said why knock it?

OrganInc is OrganInc Farms, the bioengineering firm famous for its "pigoon" project. And the pigoon is a disease-resistant, fast-growing, transgenic creature, designed to produce multiple organs (livers, kidneys, hearts, etc.), which can be harvested for human transplant. You can even customize the organs for particular individuals in order to avoid rejection.

What a brilliant idea! And no doubt our scientists are working on it right now. As for the self-cleaning gym-suit with its sweat-eating bacteria, wasn't there an item in a recent New Scientist about bacteria-eating socks for athlete's foot sufferers? And a T-shirt with built-in e-mail display, that nudges you when you have a new message? Surely that's got to be the next "must have" for teenagers.

The days when Jimmy's father was a kid are gone into our recent past, and Jimmy's childhood world is probably with us right now. But Jimmy, in Oryx and Crake, has grown up. He is no longer Jimmy, but Snowman (he dropped the "Abominable"), a survivor in a world that has changed disastrously, and the saviour of the Crakers: the meek, likeable beings who, it seems, are going to inherit the Earth.

Oryx and Crake, however, is not science fiction. It is "Fact in Fiction," a genre which Margaret Atwood defined in a recent interview in the New Scientist magazine (10th May 2003) and which is akin to Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. For her, Atwood said, science fiction is fantasy, and it was at its best in the 1930s when bug-eyed monsters proliferated. Oryx and Crake, however, is based on fact and in it Atwood proposes outcomes for some of the things which already exist in our world: the increasing salination of the land, genetic engineering, bioterrorism, industrial spying, the desire to live in secure compounds, the proliferation of Internet pornography.

Oryx and Crake is a deeply pessimistic book, but it is also very funny. Atwood has a wonderfully wry, black sense of humour. And she clearly had fun inventing advertising slogans and brand names. In fact, she could well have an alternative career mapped out for herself if her brave new world comes to pass. But let's hope not.

Juggling past and present in the Snowman's mind, Atwood lets him tell his story. And he tells it well. He is just and ordinary, amiable, funny fellow, bright but not too bright, disturbed but not overly scarred by his mother's desertion of the family when he was a child, and he's a suitable foil for Crake, his long-time, brilliant, manipulative friend. You may not like their taste in entertainment (TV: Noodie news and "open-heart surgery live time"; Internet: "animal snuff sites," executions in Asia at "headsoff.com," assisted suicides at "nitee-nite.com," for example) or their appetite for pornography, but that's just an everyday part of their ordinary world. You may like even less Crake's personal research and its results, the power he manages to accrue, and the plan he eventually implements. But you are never sure what he intends or intended. And I wished Atwood had not dwelt so much on the Snowman's obsession with Oryx's abused and sordid past. But the world Atwood proposes is disturbed and disturbing in every way, and it is so much like our own world that it all seems horribly possible.

At the front of the book, Atwood quotes from Swift's Gulliver's Travels: "I could perhaps like others have astonished you with strange improbable tales, but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style." But this was Swift being ironical. What, then, are we to make of Atwood's "factual" tale? Is this what happens, as one blurb for the book suggests, when progress gets out of hand? Are we really too clever for our own good?

Perhaps not. We live in a technologically brilliant age, and in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Atwood directs us to the oryxandcrake.com website for a full list of fridge magnet quotes, parables and media sources of some of her ideas, but the site is so slow and clunky that I lost patience with it. There is, however, a long extract from the book, which will give you a good idea of whether you want to read it or not. It struck me that if more and more publishers adopt this practice, then book reviewers might soon join the list of species which have "kakked it in the past fifty years." Then, some "Extinctathon Grandmaster" gamesplayer could adopt his/her name as a codename, just as Crake, Oryx and Snowman (Abominable) were chosen before the "JUVE killer virus" ended everyone's game. There's a bit more "fact in fiction" for you!


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