Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake. A strange title, right? It sounds like it’s from a made up language, originating on some distant planet in the far reaches of the galaxy. The sense of oddness only intensifies when you open the book and start reading about a strange being named Snowman, seemingly marooned on a desert island in some far off post-apocalyptic wasteland, surrounded by non-human beings that are as alien to him as they are to us.

However, the crake, specifically the red-necked crake, is a large bird, red-grey-brown in colouring that can be found in the rainforests of Australia and New Guinea among other places (according to Wikipedia). The oryx is a genus consisting of four species of antelope mostly native to Africa, considered to be on the edge of extinction. The crake, on the other hand, is fairly common.

The point of this zoological tangent is to highlight one of the key themes of the book; that we are well on the way to completely alienating ourselves from nature and stuck in an irreversible process of irreparably damaging the environment. Oryx and Crake may as well be alien names, as a large proportion of us have as much familiarity and knowledge of the natural world as we do of extra-terrestrial planets. In fact, both animals are completely extinct in the world of Oryx and Crake, an imagined world set not as far into the future as you might hope.

The book follows two parallel stories: the life of a boy named Jimmy from his childhood, growing up in one of the Compounds which houses the scientists that develop new genetic modifications and pharmaceuticals for commercial purposes, and the struggling of what seems to be the last man on earth, Snowman, to survive in the bizarre world he finds himself in. I use the word bizarre to refer to this post-apocalyptic world, but it could equally apply to Jimmy’s childhood and the mind-twisting genetic modifications he is witness to- the ChickieNobs still haunt me- a strangeness all the more intensified by its element of familiarity with our own world. There is an intense debate around genetically modified food and the amount of meat substitute products has risen greatly in the past few years, a parallel to the world in Oryx and Crake where real meat is a rare luxury and genetic modifications are taken to the extreme.

The title is significant for another more obvious reason- who are Oryx and Crake? Our protagonist is clearly Jimmy; it is through his eyes that we experience the novel. But Jimmy is also clearly the everyman, the ordinary guy who somehow ended up connected with these extraordinary people and events. He’s a genetic throwback, mainly concerned with sex and food, in contrast to the purely intellectual Crake. He’s also a red herring, to continue the animal theme, as his first person narration misleads the reader into thinking of the book as a classic bildungsroman or even a love story, when in fact he is- and by extension we are- missing the real point by a hilariously huge margin.

I use ‘everyman’ rather than ‘everyperson’ deliberately as the narrative perspective has overtly male overtones, in the culturally constructed definition of masculinity; namely a fascination with the idea of having ownership over women and their identities, a trait which is exhibited primarily through Jimmy’s desperate desire to get to the ‘truth’ about the titular Oryx. Oryx is an elusive character throughout the novel with a constantly shifting identity as we receive snippets of her story through Jimmy’s flashbacks, yet also take on his ever-present suspicion that she is concealing her real story from him.

Crake is also a fascinating and enigmatic character, as well as being completely terrifying and quite irritating by turns. His scientific genius is commented on throughout, yet we don’t see much evidence of it apart from his terrible final achievement. He appears for the most part as a thoughtful and methodical figure, an image that later takes on new resonance for both Jimmy and the reader once the extent of his machinations are revealed. The lone insight into Crake’s head is an instance of night-terrors overheard and immediately forgotten by Jimmy, for the most part we remain on the outside and can only speculate on his desires and reasons, long after the end of the novel.

And at the end, we are left with the most important question of all- do the ends ever justify the means? Of course not, when the means are as horrifying as the ones in the novel, is the overwhelming and understandable response of the reader and Jimmy himself. And yet, the novel ends with him struggling with a dilemma, whether to make the final step to preserve the work of Crake, or to give in to his own personal desires. The world of Oryx and Crake is an ugly place, with a massive disparity between the wealthy who live in artificially perfect sealed off bubbles and the poor who suffer famine and disease and social hardship, scientific advancement being wholly exploited for capital gain and ever mounting ecological destruction. In other words, it’s an uncomfortable mirror of our own world and you can’t help but think that it may be beyond repair.

But through portraying this world so similar to what ours could be in the not too distant future, the novel is giving us a warning, and exhorting us to try.

 

Image Credits: Winfried Bruenken via Wikipedia

 

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