For me, there are two indicators of a good book. One is that as soon as I finish it, I want to go back and reread the first few chapters. Two is that I find myself thinking about the book days after I’ve put it down.
Oryx and Crake was that kind of book.
The novel tells the story of Jimmy, who lives in a post-global warming future, where there are no other humans, only a strange group of human-like creatures called the Children of Crake (or “Crakers”). This population is childlike but also physically stronger and more beautiful than humans. As the only human, Jimmy is a misfit, an outcast; but also in some ways a god-like figure.
Atwood unfolds Jimmy’s story slowly, beginning with his childhood, in which modern-day scientists are developing new ways to genetically engineer animals. For example, pigoons are pigs that can grow and harvest human organs; wolvogs are guard dogs crossed with wolves; and rakunks are a modified raccoon/skunk combination (these are just pets; they serve no purpose but were fun to create).
Also in this world are the CorpSeCorps – as science develops, America becomes increasingly more militant to guard the security of these developments. Those who work in genetics are watched and controlled; but they are also more prosperous. Those who are not in the upper class live in the “pleeblands” – in other words they face the biologically hazardous outside world with little or no help from the government.
As Jimmy tells his story, we learn who Crake and Oryx are, and why these “enhanced humans” are called the Children of Crake. Crake is Jimmy’s brilliant childhood friend. Oryx remains a mystery for much of the book. We know she is a woman that Jimmy reveres, but otherwise we don’t know who she is or where she comes from, whether she even exists or is a fragment of Jimmy’s imagination as he struggles to survive in this strange new world.
The book is certainly a warning about what we are capable of in the field of genetic engineering. No doubt we can do many of the things described in this book; the question for us is what are the consequences. Not all of the inventions are bad; arguably developing a way to grow organs has greater benefits consequences. A more interesting invention is the ChickieNob, a modified chicken that grows multiple breasts faster and feels no pain (all non-essential brain functions have been removed).
What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing… “But there aren’t any heads,” said Jimmy. “That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”
Jimmy is horrified when he first sees this; but throughout the rest of the book he eats ChickieNobs casually and without concern.
The creation of a modified animal solely for the purpose of creating food faster seems wrong, especially as described in the book – but at the same time, is that worse than what we do to chicken and cattle today? At least these chickens do not suffer.
I think Atwood is not saying that scientific development is inherently bad; only that there are consequences attached to it. I think she makes the stronger point that humanity itself is flawed. Oryx first enters the book as a young Asian girl who is coerced into child pornography. Later we hear much more about how children in her village were routinely sold into sex trades. While Oryx seems numb to the trauma of her childhood, having never developed healthy emotional relationships, everyone else seems fairly numb as well. Atwood describes a game that Jimmy and Crake play called Blood and Roses, a strategy game that weighs the value of human accomplishments against the horror of human atrocities. Then when the kids get bored, they go off to watch porn, animal snuff films, and live executions.
So is this book anti-science, or is it anti-human? Atwood gives us very little to cheer about in terms of human nature. There’s Jimmy’s mother, who deserts her family and rebels against the system. There is Oryx who is ethereal and unemotional. Crake seems wholly consumed by his scientific developments, and Jimmy is just concentrating on surviving. As a whole it seems that human nature in this book is generally bad – greedy, ignorant, fearful, uncaring.
If there are weaknesses in the book, they lie in character development. I wanted to understand Crake a lot more than I did, and I wanted Jimmy to be a more caring person than he was (for example, he uses the Crakers for his own survival, rather than caring what happens to them). Also, and this is surprising in an Atwood novel, I wanted Oryx to be much more three-dimensional.
The strength of the book is in how the story develops – you have to read to the end to find out how and why humanity has destroyed itself. Another question is whether the Crakers represent some idealized form of humanity, or an abomination that shouldn’t have existed, or a population that will ultimately come to be like humans.
This was a compelling and entertaining read (though a bit slow to start). Atwood isn’t subtle but raises a lot of current-day issues we should be thinking about. Nothing that happens in the book seems impossible; in fact it seems pretty likely.