Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain. It was like a giant slug eating its way relentlessly through all the other bioforms on the planet, grinding up life on earth and shitting it out the backside in the form of pieces of manufactured and soon-to-be-obsolete plastic junk. (p. 243)

Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy, lives in relative solitude, sleeping in a lean-to and scavenging for food and water in a city destroyed by a disaster.  He wears a watch, although it no longer functions, and covers himself with a bed sheet as protection from the sun’s harsh rays.  Snowman also watches over the “Children of Crake,” a group of … what are they?  People? Aliens?  And how did all this come to pass?

Snowman’s entire life is set sometime in a near future, that bears some resemblance to the world we know today.  The story takes us back to Snowman’s childhood, when his father worked for one of many corporations using science to “improve” the world.  Through genetic engineering, they seek to evolve human and animal life to advanced forms, free from perceived weaknesses.  But of course that comes with a price to people and society.  Snowman and his best friend Crake spend their days in typical boy/teen pursuits, like videogames, but even these have a somewhat sinister aspect.  As they grow up, their paths diverge — Crake is more scientifically minded, and is recruited by a renowned university — but they meet up again in their 20s, along with Oryx, a beautiful woman they have both admired for years.

Along the way, Margaret Atwood leaves tiny clues, so the reader begins to envision what will happen, and how Snowman ends up as possibly the last remaining human on earth.  It’s both gripping and highly disturbing.  Atwood considers her work “speculative fiction,” not science fiction.  And Oryx and Crake has the requisite dystopian and apocalyptic elements.  It’s not my usual fare, but she is so good at it, I could easily imagine Snowman’s world, and see the path to it from the world I know today.  In writing Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said she intended to give one answer to the question, “What if we continue down the road we’re already on?  How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?”  And frankly, her answer is bleak.  It could be a wake-up call.  Or we could all just continue down the road we’re already on …