I’d never read any Margaret Atwood before choosing Oryx and Crake for book club. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Campbell Scott. Wow, Atwood is a great writer. But this is one disturbing book.
The book is narrated by Snowman, who seems to be the last remaining original human on earth. There is a new race of genetically engineered people, but they have very little in common with Snowman. Society has collapsed. Cities are in ruins. Over the course of the book, Snowman talks about his present life - sleeping in trees to avoid being eaten by genetically engineered monsters, scrounging for food, water, and supplies, answering questions from the perfect children of the other race - while also telling us about his childhood, about his relationships with his best friend Crake and his one great love Oryx, and what happened to bring the planet to its present state. (Bonus points from me for multiple references to Alex the African Grey Parrot.)
The narrative grabbed me from the third paragraph on page 1: “Out of habit he looks at his watch – stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.”
Published in 2003, Oryx and Crake came out before the current round of dystopian novels. And unlike many of them, we don’t have a hopeful subplot to distract us from the grim reality of what our future as a species could hold if we go down a certain path of genetic engineering. There are relationships, including romantic and sexual relationships, but the unrelenting narrative about how the world was destroyed is not much lightened by those relationships.
Gated compounds and economic divides. Genetic engineering. Too powerful corporations. Every depravity imaginable available on the internet. Climate change. Of all the dystopian novels I've read over the years (at least 20 in the last four years according to my Goodreads list), this is the scariest because it feels the most possible.
The book is filled with statements and passages that made me stop and think, like this one: “Watch out for the leaders, Crake used to say. First the leaders and the led, then the tyrants and the slaves, then the massacres. That’s how it’s always gone.” (p. 155)
At this point I am not sure whether or not I will read the sequels - not because the first isn't good, it is – but because the series depicts such a depressing future. At the very least I'll need a little break first and something lighthearted to read before tackling The Year of the Flood.
If you enjoy beautifully written realistic dystopian fiction that carries true warnings for our species, Oryx and Crake is for you. The Galesburg Public Library has the three books in the series in both print and ebook versions.