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Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood

Imprint / Publisher: Bloomsbury

UK Hardback First

ISBN: 0747562598

Pages: 384; Price: £16.99

Date Reviewed: 17th February 2004

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004



Science Fiction, General Fiction

Oryx and Crake was one of the hotly debated short-list novels for the 2003 Booker Prize, which featured both new novelists and old hands. Margaret Atwood was one of the old hands on the list, having won the Booker in 2000 with The Blind Assassin. Oryx and Crake didn't win the Booker, but it was also shortlisted for the 2003 Governor General's Literary Awards and The Giller Prize 2003. With all these accolades, it's almost daunting to begin reading. It's well worth it, though. The novel opens with Snowman (named, mysteriously but appropriately, after the Abominable Snowman, a shadowy figure of myth that scares children, as does Snowman) asleep in a tree. The chapters are named ambiguously (the first three are Mango, Flotsam and Voice), but Atwood does not leave the reader adrift; quickly it begins to take shape and the narrative falls into place.

"Margaret Atwood's classic novel, 'The Handmaid's Tale', is about the future. Now, in 'Oryx and Crake', the future has changed. It's much worse. And we're well on the road to it now. Once read, nothing will look the same again." This is the publisher's "blurb", and it's true. The bleak, joyless scenario of The Handmaid's Tale is nothing compared to this: a future where few survive, and those who do slowly starve to death. Snowman tries to hang on to his sanity, but realizes that his past achievements - and failures - mean nothing now; he used to be erudite, he tells himself, but that couldn't protect him, because the survival skills he now needs are the things he never bothered to learn. So he puts his energies into two journeys. One is into the past, when he was a child called Jimmy, with a depressed mother who hated the way the world was deteriorating, both physically and morally, and a father who took advantage of what the scientific world had to offer a man of talent. Slowly we learn how and why the world became the bleak wasteland in which Snowman now lives. The other journey is in Snowman's present, a laborious journey to try to find food and shelter to help him to survive. There is no question of why he tries to survive, for he has reached a state where human instinct is all that he has left.

What is scariest about this vision of the future is that, while remembering the world's decline, Snowman recalls vicious executions, child abuse, misuse of science and other crimes against humanity; but as the reader is shocked, one cannot help but realize that these things are already present in the world today. Atwood has stated that science is a considerable influence on her work, particularly since she grew up surrounded by scientists; but she declares that what she writes is speculative fiction rather than sci-fi, since she "invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent." This basis in reality is what makes this such a chilling novel; the remnants of our civilization are all around, in the objects Snowman finds - hub caps, piano keys - and in his language ("In view of the mitigating," he says, unable to recall the word which completes the sentence), and in the landscape, but mostly our world as we know it is obliterated, and the causes are things we already have started.

There is a feeling of the world regenerating, however. It is not a hopeful sense, but Atwood seems to have generated a new creation myth, where a world obsessed with physical perfection and longevity has burnt itself out and been replaced by engineered, perfect automaton-like creatures in a state of Eden-like innocence. How long this can last is one of the questions the reader is left with, and Atwood has a certain gift for inspiring reflection with her highly literary take on speculative fiction. The Random House website states that "She has an uncanny knack for writing books that anticipate the popular preoccupations of her public." To a certain extent this is true, but I think it would be truer to say that she has a way of ensuring that her subject matter becomes a part of her readers' consciousness.


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