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Oryx and Crake is a dystopian science fictionnovel by the Canadianmarker author Margaret Atwood. Atwood has at times disputed the novel being science fiction, preferring to label it speculative fiction and "adventure romance" because it does not deal with 'things that have not been invented yet' and goes beyond the realism she associates with the novel form. Oryx and Crake was first published by McClelland and Stewart in 2003 and was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction that same year.

Thematic elements

Returning to the dystopic themes of Atwood's earlier novel The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake presents a very different scenario than that novel's theocracy. However, in both novels the collapse of civilization quite noticeably echoes current events. Oryx and Crake critically examines developments in science and technology such as xenotransplantation and genetic engineering, particularly the creation of transgenic animals such as "wolvogs" (hybrids between wolves and dogs), "rakunks" (raccoon and skunk), and "pigoons" (pigs and humans, for organ transplants). This society, which not only tolerates but promotes such extreme commercialization and commodification of life, has also produced an exacerbated gap between rich and poor, as well as the commodification of human life and sexuality in prostitution and online child pornography. Oryx and Crake does not depend on imagining new scientific or technological discoveries; the novel merely extrapolates on the basis of technologies that are, in principle, available today and carries current social and economic developments and their attendant ethical choices to their radical conclusions.

Plot summary

The novel begins after the collapse of civilization by an event that is not immediately identified. The protagonist is Snowman, a post-apocalyptic hermit character. He resides near a group of what he refers to as Crakers—strange human-like creatures. They bring Snowman food and consult him on matters that surpass their understanding. In addition, strange hybrid beasts such as wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks are roaming freely. As the story develops, these assorted lifeforms are revealed to be the products of genetic engineering.

In flashbacks, we learn that Snowman was once a young boy named Jimmy, who grew up in the mid-21st century. His world was dominated by multinational corporations which kept their employees' families in privileged compounds separated from a global lower moiety of pleeblands. Shortly after Jimmy's family moved to the HelthWyzer corporate compound (where his father worked as a genographer) Jimmy met and befriended Glenn (referred to throughout the novel as Crake), a brilliant science student.

Jimmy and Crake spend a lot of their free time playing online computer games such as Kwiktime Osama (a reference to Osama bin Laden) and Blood and Roses, smoking "skunkweed," (in the book it is never specifically called marijuana), or watching live executions, Noodie News, frog squashing, graphic surgery and child pornography.

One of Crake's favourite pastimes is an online game called Extinctathon, a trivia game which requires immense knowledge of extinct animal and plant species. Using the codenames Thickney (Jimmy) and Crake (Glenn), they both play as teenagers. It is not until they are both in university that Jimmy discovers that Crake has worked his way up to become a Grandmaster.

On another trip through the dark underbelly of the Web, they come across an Asian child pornography site, where Jimmy is struck and haunted by the eyes of a young girl. Unknown to Jimmy, Crake is similarly affected by the sight of this young girl. Crake eventually finds this girl (or a woman who could be her) and hires her, as both a prostitute for himself, and a teacher for the Crakers. Her name is Oryx. Jimmy identifies the haunting memory of the young girl with Oryx, though it is never made clear as to whether or not the two are the same person. Oryx eventually becomes intimately involved in the lives of Jimmy and Crake, and both fall in love with her. Oryx, however, views their relationship as strictly professional and only admires Crake as a scientist and "great man". For fun and affection she turns to Jimmy, though her feelings for him are not as clear. The two hide their relationship from Crake, and Jimmy is often plagued with the thought of Crake finding out about his betrayal.

The two male characters pursue different educational paths: Crake attends the highly respected Watson-Crick institute where he studies advanced bioengineering, but Jimmy ends up at the loathed Martha Graham Academy, where students study literature and the humanities, which are not valued fields of study except for their commercial and/or propaganda applications. After finishing school, Jimmy ends up writing ad copy, while Crake becomes a bioengineer.

Crake uses his prominent position at the biotech corporation to launch a project to create the Crakers. His goal is to create a peaceful society that will live harmoniously with each other and nature. These genetically engineered humans are leaf-eating herbivores and they only have sexual intercourse during limited breeding seasons when they are polyandrous. Thus, many of the apparent conflicts in human culture are replaced with a mockery of intelligent design.

At the same time, Crake creates a virulent genetic pandemic that, apparently, killed off all humans except for Jimmy. Jimmy was unknowingly vaccinated with the intention of acting as a guardian for the Crakers. Thus, Crake represents a mad scientist; he is maddened by the troubled society that he lives in. His rationale is that he is heroically saving intelligent life from an inevitably dying society. In the story's climax, Crake's perfected "hot bioform," present in one of his company's products, is activated and spreads throughout the world. When called to account for his actions by Jimmy, Crake kills Oryx by slitting her throat. Jimmy shoots Crake, resulting in his being left to obsess over his vanished world and unanswered questions.

Jimmy contemplates abandoning the Crakers but is constantly haunted by the voice of Oryx, and reminded of his promise to her to watch over them. Though Crake opposed and belittled human religion, Snowman instills the Crakers with his own invented religion revolving around Crake and Oryx. Oryx becomes the guardian of the animals and Crake the creator god.

During Snowman's journey to scavenge supplies, he is uncomfortable wearing shoes now that his feet have become toughened without them. He cuts his foot on a tiny sliver of glass. Infected by some descendant of transgenic experiments, his body cannot fight back, and his leg becomes inflamed.

Returning to the Crakers, he learns that three ragged true humans have camped nearby. He follows the smoke from the fire and watches as they cook a rakunk. Uncertain of how he should approach them (Blast them to bits to protect the Crakers? Approach with open arms?) he checks his now not-working watch and thinks, "Time to go," leaving the reader to speculate as to what his actions and future will be.

Main characters

  • Snowman, whose original name is Jimmy, is the main protagonist; the story is told from his perspective. The name "Snowman" is short for "abominable Snowman," a reference to the Yeti, a mythical ape-like creature of the Himalayamarker. For the online-game Extinctathon, Jimmy temporarily also has the animal code name "Thickney," which Crake chooses for Jimmy from an Australian bird known for inhabiting cemeteries (p. 81).
  • Crake is Jimmy's childhood friend; an excellent student in high school, he becomes a brilliant geneticist and turns into a version of the mad scientist when he devises a plan to rid the earth of homo sapiens and to replace this destructive species with a more peaceful and environmentally friendly human-like creature: the "Crakers." His code-name for Extinctathon is from the Red-necked Crake, a small Australian bird, and this remains his name for the rest of the book, although we do know from Jimmy that his first name is Glenn. In Robin Elliott's essay on Atwood, he explains the parallels between Glenn and the famous pianist Glenn Gould. Not only are their names the same, but also in the novel it is said that he is named after a famous pianist. Furthermore, Atwood has explained that Glenn has Asperger syndrome, just like the genius pianist. His surname is never given. (p. 81).
  • Oryx is a mysterious woman, the third protagonist and symbolically related to the waif-like girl from an online child-pornography site that begins to haunt Jimmy as an adolescent; Crake first hires her for sexual services and as a teacher to the Crakers, but she becomes Crake's (and Jimmy's) lover. After the catastrophe, she remains present to Snowman as a haunting memory. Her name is from the Oryx, an African antelope: "It's not even her real name, which he'd never known anyway; it's only a word. It's a mantra" (110).


Beginnings of Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood started writing the novel much earlier than she expected, while still on a book tour for her previous novel, The Blind Assassin. In March 2001, Atwood found herself in the Northern region of Australia, birdwatching with her partner during time off from meetings about the book. Here, while watching the red-necked crakes in their natural habitat, she was struck with inspiration for the story. However, Atwood explains that the work was also a product of her lingering thoughts on such a scenario throughout her life, as well as spending a great amount of time with scientists throughout her childhood. She explains,
"Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the Universe."
Atwood continued to write the novel through the summer of 2001 while visiting the Arctic North, witnessing global warming's effect on the region. However, shaken by the September 11 attacks, she stopped writing for a few weeks come fall, saying, "It's deeply unsettling when you're writing about a fictional catastrophe and then a real one happens." However, with the looming questions of the end, Atwood finished the novel for release in 2003. These questions in Oryx and Crake, Atwood explains, are "simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?"

Allusions/references to other works

Coral Ann Howells argues that Oryx and Crake is in some ways a sequel to Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in that it carries the national catastrophe in the earlier novel to global level. A major reference seems to be to the "Last Man" topos in science fiction, which was inaugurated by Mary Shelley's The Last Man, also a post-apocalyptic novel, whose main character is the only survivor of a plague that has killed off all other humans.

Joyce Carol Oates sees Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein (from Frankenstein (1818/1831)) in the character of Crake. Howells, too, sees Frankenstein, and also the influence of Jonathan Swift.

Gulliver's Travels is also the source of one of the two epigraphs and puts emphasis on the claim that the speculation about the near future in Oryx and Crake serves to make a point about the present state of the world. Swift's speaker, as quoted by Atwood, says, "my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you" (Oryx and Crake, Epigraph). The second quotation, from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), refers to the absence of safety in the world, pointing to Snowman's existence in the world after Crake's catastrophe.

The novel shares similar plot and philosophical considerations to those found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Book of Genesis, Fall of Man.


The cover of some editions contains a portion of the left panel of Hieronymous Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. On p. 4 Atwood writes:

"It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity"


This is a reference to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five; when the Americans arrive at the work camp the British officer states this line to the new prisoners.

The Crakers were originally born in "Paradice" a hermetically-sealed terrarium, closed off from all humans, but Oryx. After the apocalypse, the Crakers leave Paradice. The Crakers—nude, innocent, and sculpted—might be seen as leaving the Garden of Eden, as in the Book of Genesis. As the book ends it seems that the Crakers—despite Crake's God-like wishes—are beginning to develop symbolism, religion, and other forms of abstract thought. (Crake sees such thoughts as akin to humanity's downfall, a kind of secular Fall of Man.) It seems possible that they might people the earth.

Critical reception

The book received mostly favourable reviews in the press. Helen Brown, for the Daily Telegraph, wrote "The bioengineered apocalypse she imagines is impeccably researched and sickeningly possible: a direct consequence of short-term science outstripping long-term responsibility. And just like the post-nuclear totalitarian vision of The Handmaid's Tale, this story is set in a society readers will recognise as only a few steps ahead of our own."

Joan Smith, writing for The Observer faulted the novel's uneven construction and lack of emotional depth. She concluded: "In the end, Oryx and Crake is a parable, an imaginative text for the anti-globalisation movement that does not quite work as a novel."

Reviews in major Canadian publications were generally very positive. The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and The Toronto Star all glowed about the author's talents and ranked the novel high on Atwood's list.

For The New Yorker, Lorrie Moore called the novel "towering and intrepid." Moore writes, "Tonally, “Oryx and Crake” is a roller-coaster ride. The book proceeds from terrifying grimness, through lonely mournfulness, until, midway, a morbid silliness begins sporadically to assert itself, like someone, exhausted by bad news, hysterically succumbing to giggles at a funeral."

Joyce Carol Oates noted that the novel is "more ambitious and darkly prophetic" than The Handmaid's Tale. Oates calls the work a "ambitiously concerned, skillfully executed performance."

Followup

The events of Atwood's The Year of the Flood (2009) are simultaneous with those of Oryx and Crake and contain some of the same characters.

See also



Footnotes

  1. Atwood, 2004: 513.
  2. Atwood, 2004: 517.
  3. Such transgenic chimeras, including the merging of the parent species names, already exist. The Geep, a genetically engineered cross between a goat and a sheep is an example.
  4. Robin Elliott, "Margaret Atwood and Music." University of Toronto Quarterly 75, no. 3 (summer 2006): 821-32.
  5. Atwood conceived of Oryx and Crake on a birding expedition in Australia (Atwood, 2004: 517).
  6. Howells, 2006: 161
  7. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19495
  8. Howells, 2006: 164.
  9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3594275/Does-it-hurt-if-I-do-this.html
  10. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/11/fiction.margaretatwood
  11. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/05/19/030519crbo_books2


References and further reading

  • Atwood, Margaret. "The Handmaids Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context." PMLA 119 (2004): 513.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. "Survival in Margaret Atwood's Novel Oryx and Crake." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 45.2 (2004): 162-75.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. "Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Visions: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake." The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Ed. Coral Ann Howells. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 161-75. ISBN 978-0-521-83966-2 (hardback) ISBN 0-521-83966-1 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-521-54851-9 (pbk.) ISBN 0-521-54851-9 (pbk.)
  • Mundler, Helen E. "Heritage, Pseudo-Heritage and Survival in a Spurious Wor(L)D: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood." Commonwealth Essays and Studies 27.1 (2004): 89-98.
  • DiMarco, Dannette. "Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: Homo Faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake." 41 (2005). 15 Oct. 2008.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. "Survival in Margaret Atwood's Novel Oryx and Crake." Extrapolation 2 (2004): 162-75. Gale Literary Databases. 11 Oct. 2008.


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