Margaret Atwood

"Oryx and Crake"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 28, 2004)

Set sometime in the future, this post-apocalyptic novel takes scientific research in the hands of madmen to its logical and frightening conclusion. Inspiring readers to pay more attention to the world around them, Atwood offers cautionary notes about the environment, bioengineering, the sacrifice of civil liberties, and the possible loss of those human values which make life more than just a physical experience. As the novel opens, some catastrophe has occurred, effectively wiping out human life. Only one lonely survivor and a handful of genetically altered humanoids remain, and they are slowly starving as they try to adjust to their changed circumstances.

Read excerptSnowman, the lone survivor, is an ordinary young man, who "does not know which is worse, a past he can't regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly." Known as Jimmy in his youth, he is the son of a genographer for OrganInc Farms, which has successfully engineered "pigoons," a pig-like host which can grow human tissues needed for transplants. His mother, after expressing her dismay at her husband's "sacrilegious" interference with the building blocks of life, disappears from Jimmy's life one day while he is in school, attacking her husband's and her own computers with a hammer in an effort to keep the CorpSeCorps security agents from tracking her on-line activities. Jimmy's best friend in high school is Glenn, known later (and throughout the book) as Crake, and together they pass their unsupervised afterschool hours playing computer chess, visiting on-line pornographic web sites, and practicing realistic computer games, like "Barbarian Stomp" and "Blood and Roses," in which players fight to the death on-line, the winner sometimes inheriting, not surprisingly, a virtual wasteland.

At one point, while surfing adult web sites, Jimmy observes a child he believes is about eight years old, staring at the camera. He sees her again, years later, when her picture becomes the portal for another web site. And eventually he meets her in person and falls in love with her. This is Oryx, a mysterious character who plays a key role in his life and in the disaster which eventually unfolds.

Life for Jimmy is challenging even before the mysterious catastrophe occurs. People "lucky" enough to be hired by scientific research companies live in company Compounds, which provide for one's every need while controlling one's existence; less fortunate people live in the "pleeblands," devastated cities where survival is the main concern and chaos reigns. Scientists have manufactured new animal species by splicing genes, and rakunks (part raccoon and part skunk), spoat/giders (part spider, part goat) and snats (part snake, part rat) are part of Jimmy's life. Life on earth, both in the Compounds and the pleeblands, has deteriorated over the years. The earth's natural aquifers are salty, the permafrost has melted, methane is oozing from the tundra, and droughts have turned the plains to deserts around the world. A volcano in the Canary Islands has created a tidal wave, devastating the beaches and eastern cities. The Everglades have burned for three weeks, and Lake Okeechobee is now reduced to a mud flat.

However bleak Jimmy's early experiences may have been, these were the "good times," compared to what he is now facing. Now known as Snowman in a post-disaster world, he is living on a platform in a tree to stay clear of wolvogs, dangerous feral carnivores, part wolf, part dog. Wearing a dirty bedsheet as a cape and a one-lensed pair of sunglasses to protect himself from the sun, Snowman scavenges for
food, collects rainwater in old beer bottles and tries to care for the "Children of Crake" and the "Children of Oryx." These are a gentle species of bioengineered hominid children who are herbivores. Previously confined to the laboratory, they are foraging at large after the mysterious disaster, and though they are innocent and vulnerable to predators, they have fewer problems finding food than Snowman does -- all they need is grass, weeds, or seaweed. As they look to him for protection and explanations of the world, Snowman finds himself recreating the Genesis story from the perspective of his current predicament: Crake and Oryx are the gods who have created them, he says. And Oryx and Crake have sacrificed themselves so that their children might live.

Atwood's primary goal here is not only to entertain her audience but to anticipate and describe the global horror of a devastated environment and its implications for mankind. Using current environmental and scientific experimentation as her starting points, she extrapolates into apocalyptic fantasy, creating an eerie world which is still recognizably close to our own. Alternating between the unnamed disaster in which Snowman finds himself at the outset of the novel and his flashbacks to his youth and early adulthood with Crake, she brings a dismal future-world to life, saving the explanation of the catastrophe which wrought this devastation till the end.

This may annoy some readers, who may become impatient waiting to find out what caused the devastation which exists in the opening scene. Conflict and tension are keys to reader involvement, but here the reader involvement is based more on the suspense which arises from information withheld than from any real conflict. We never see Jimmy/Snowman engaging in a human confrontation which could have led such a grand-scale disaster -- any conflict he did have is already over at the outset and is presented in retrospect. And since Snowman is, he thinks, the only man left alive, the conflict we see in Snowman's present is his conflict with the environment in his desire to stay alive. This makes it difficult for Atwood to maintain the dramatic excitement and intense reader involvement for which she has been noted in previous novels. Here the reader stays involved primarily because of the unusual descriptions of a strange world and the suspense associated with Snowman's eventual outcome.

Characters here are not as important as message. We know only as much about Jimmy/Snowman as we need to know in order to empathize with him in his predicament as possibly the last man on earth. Crake is the anti-hero, remote and distanced, both from Jimmy and from us. And Oryx is so mysterious, both in her relationship with Jimmy and in her motivations over time, that it's easy to see how she could assume some sort of religious significance within the story. She is as unknowable at the end of the novel as she was when she first appeared on the computer screen, making Snowman's isolation even more poignant.

Clever and often humorous, Atwood grounds her vision of the end of the world in our own reality, often keeping the details upbeat. At one point, she comments on the fact that Jimmy watches "The Noodie News" at night. In another, she creates a hilarious bit of academic satire as she describes in sociological and anthropological terms the mating rituals of the newly engineered humans, their vibrant blue coloration (borrowed from baboons) a signal of "readiness." Obviously not hard science fiction, the novel is a vividly described cautionary tale of science and scientists run amok in a society which has failed in its guardianship of the environment and of life itself. More light-hearted than terrifying, and more allegorical than heart-stopping, Oryx and Crake carries a powerful environmental message of great relevance, and Atwood's devoted fans should make this novel a big seller.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 327 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Oryx and Crake at

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"The Handmaid's Tale"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 14, 1999)

The first time I read this book I was truly amazed at the versatility of Margaret Atwood's writing.  Essentially this is science fiction.  The language is stark and the story is horrifying.  Set in the future, we read the thoughts of a woman living in the Republic of Gilead.  We see her room, we learn that the previous woman who lived in these quarters committed suicide.  We begin to realize that Offred is a slave to a Commander and his wife. We soon come to the full blown truth that her one purpose is to bear children for this infertile couple. And she is part of an acceptable and necessary class of women.

Amazon readers rating: from 648 reviews

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About the Author:

Margaret AtwoodMargaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Toronto Canada. Her father was a forest etymologist, thus she spent part of her early years in the bush of northern Quebec.  In 1946, her family moved to Toronto. She was 11 when she first attended school full time. Atwood graduated from high school at the age of 20 and then studied at the University of Toronto.  She won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and went on to receive her Masters degree from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1962.  That same year she published her first book of poems. She started her pH.D. in Victorian literature at Harvard, but did not complete it. She worked for a market-research company in Toronto, taught English a the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, held a variety of academic posts and has been writer-in-residence at numerous Canadian and American universities. Margaret Atwood has authored over twenty-five books, including fiction, poetry and essays. Her novel The Blind Assassin won the The Booker Prize in 2000. The Booker Prize is given to the best full-length novel written in English by a citizen of the U.K., the Commonwealth, Eire, Pakistan, or South Africa.

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