Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake is a potent and macabre vision of the not-so-distant future, and is another example of Atwood’s ability to turn up the dial on humanity’s worst aspects just enough to scare the bejeesus out her readers.
The story begins with a man named Snowman. He sleeps in a tree on a shore after a large-scale catastrophe has wiped the earth (almost) clean of humanity. Nearby Snowman’s small haunt are the Crakers, a new species of humanoid gene-spliced in a lab by Snowman’s oldest friend, Crake. The Crakers are genetically designed to be physically hardier and less hypocritical than Homo sapiens sapiens, and their ways are too different from Snowman for them to be able to connect meaningfully.
Snowman, whose name used to be Jimmy, is slowly starving and must pull himself together enough to leave his tree hideout and journey back to the lab where Crake created the Crakers, where the plague began, and where Snowman can’t bear to go. Haunted by his past, his actions, his addictions, and by genetically-altered animals with too many organs and not enough fear, Snowman delves into his memory, retracing his steps back to the lab where it all began.
The story is constructed inside-out; Snowman has survived the catastrophe that mostly killed off his species and through his memories, guesses and clues the details of the end of humanity are slowly revealed. Atwood has an uncanny ability to detachedly describe everything from dangerous gene-splicing to child sex slavery, rendering the story more readable than if those macabre actions were delved into in gut-wrenching detail. But Oryx’s tale, Crake’s work, and Snowman’s reflection on it all are relayed almost matter-of-factly; Snowman as Jimmy is at first unaffected by the cruelty, injustice and indifference of humanity around him; as a teen and then young man he exploits aspects of it for his own gain and pleasure. But the weight of the world, and his isolation within it, begins to bear down on him, and soon Crake appears back in his life after years of separation to offer what seems to be a gesture of connection and reconciliation. But in the end Jimmy, as Snowman, is left alone in a ravaged world with only the Crakers for company. Or is he?
Although it is the first in a trilogy, Oryx and Crake is a standalone novel. But, as I read it, this book felt as though it was mainly intended to set the scene for the world Snowman now lives in; the first three quarters of it were setting up the plot, then the main events happened in rapid succession in the last quarter. After so much build-up and scene-setting I thought that the final gruesome end to the human race would be more detailed, but perhaps the build-up was more about providing clues to what was about to happen. Ultimately the story felt complete, although it was left on a small question-mark, and I look forward to Snowman’s story crossing that of the characters in The Year of the Flood, the second book in Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy.
I highly recommend this work for those who enjoy macabre, dystopic fiction that will give them weird dreams but ultimately make them appreciate the relative safety and comfort of the lives they’re currently living.