Title: Oryx and Crake
Rating: 3 Stars
This is set in some not too distant future. A man named Snowman might be the last person alive on Earth. The world is slowly turning back to wildness. There are dangerous genetically engineered animals running about. There is a primitive human-like tribe that looks upon Snowman as a teacher.
Snowman is running low on supplies and decides to make a potentially perilous trip back to the compound that he was previously living at (before the apocalypse) to retrieve supplies. Simultaneously, the story is told of how the world has gotten to this point.
The situation was that the world was dominated by competing corporations specializing in genetics. These corporations were trying to invent new ways, through genetics, to improve the human condition. This includes finding cures for diseases and genetically breeding animals for special purposes (eg pigoons, which were pigs growing organs that could be transplanted to humans).
The competition was so cutthroat that the corporations started building vaccines for diseases that they themselves invented. They would then introduce the viruses into the human population and then make a huge profit selling the vaccines.
The employees at these corporations lived in luxurious, gated, guarded compounds. Those not lucky enough to work for one of them were fated to live in dangerous, wild, squalid areas known as the pleeblands.
Into this world is introduced two young boys, Jimmy and Glenn. They grow up together in one of the gated communities. Glenn is a scientific genius while Jimmy has less socially valuable word skills.
They grow up and ultimately Glenn (now known as Crake) is heading up a large genetics program with dual purposes. One is to develop a pleasure inducing pill while the other is to create a new generation of humans that are optimally designed to avoid the major problems that Crake sees when he looks at the human race.
From there we learn how a virus was globally disseminated, resulting in the death of all humanity (except for Jimmy, who is the aforementioned Snowman, who had been vaccinated). Snowman takes charge of the remaining new humans (now called Crakens) and leads them to a peaceful park, from which the story started from.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t share too much more. The novel was well executed but it just didn’t really move me or inspire me.
Even in 2003 (when it was written), I don’t think that it was saying anything particularly new. Clearly humans playing God is a well trod trope. The pleeblands scenes were probably the most interesting to me, and we barely even saw a glimpse of that (seemed very Bladerunner-y). The corporate compounds seemed uninteresting and sterile (and again derivative). There’s also global warming kind of things going on in the background. There is also a social unrest theme running through it (as Jimmy’s mom and Glenn’s dad both appear to be rebelling against the corporations). It just kind of seemed to be a mish mash of possible end-of-the-world themes.
I’m not sure if this is Atwood’s point or not, but for all of the possible ways that the world could have ended, it all revolves around the love life of basically three people. Is she making the point that within all of these larger social ills that the spark that will light the conflagration will actually be the willful act of one person?
The Crakens are really not interesting at all. I’m guessing that that is the point. They are bred to be compliant and passionless. It is interesting that, by the end of the novel, they are showing early signs of developing a possible proto-religion. Since this was supposedly specifically bred out of them, is Atwood making the point that such beliefs are simply a fundamental aspect of living a human life?
Hence three stars. It was well written and interesting. It just was too scattershot to really engage me and, by the end, I wasn’t sure what the overarching message of the novel was.