This book has an epigraph from Jonathon Swift’s satirical Gulliver’s Travels; he says he wrote it to ‘inform’ rather than to ‘amuse’, to ‘vex the world rather than divert it’. Atwood undoubtedly has a didactic purpose; she wants readers to think hard about the way the world is going. But she doesn’t see informing and amusing as mutually exclusive. (I don’t expect Swift did either.)
The book begins with Snowman (as in Abominable) – who used to be called Jimmy – believing that he may be the last person alive after humans have been wiped out by a global catastrophe. He has for company a group of genetically engineered ‘humans’, and a lot of wild life, much of it genetically modified (like the pigoons and the wolvogs), and nearly all of it hostile. The climate is also hostile, with intense heat and tropical rain storms – though rising sea levels and changing weather patterns predate the catastrophe. Snowman spends a lot of time thinking back over how things got this way, and what it had to do with his relationship with Glenn Crake, a friend from his school days, and Oryx, who they first saw as a nameless little girl on a porno website. At the same time, Snowman is trying to work out how to survive in the new world – shades here of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
The world Atwood describes as existing before the catastrophe includes everything she presumably hates about the world today, taken to what might be its logical conclusion. The elite live in heavily guarded Compounds; everyone else lives in the pleeblands (yes, shades of 1984 – I must stop doing this). The main business of the Compounds is scientific research aimed at creating genetically modified products, most of which endeavour to prolong youth and even life itself for anyone who can pay. A rampant market economy prevails; the only things that matter are those that can be bought or sold. And total hedonism reigns; art and literature are disregarded and language itself is atrophying. Changes in the climate have been largely ignored, or accommodated in ways that favour the privileged. Any dissent among the elite or the pleeblanders is brutally repressed. Did such a society deserve its catastrophe?
The subject matter of this book is almost uniformly grim; even the ‘romance’ between Jimmy and Oryx is an illusion. But such is Atwood’s skill that her satirical voice makes it almost funny at times. Her tone is matter-of-fact, no matter how bad the fact. She makes a lot of use of parenthesis, juxtaposing what Snowman does with what he thinks, or undercutting some certainty with a rhetorical question, or through his own thoughts and the voices from the past he hears in his head. ‘It must have been during the initial mayhem, thinks Snowman, that some genius let out the pigoons and the wolvogs. Oh, thanks a bundle.’
Critics can’t seem to decide whether this is science fiction or speculative fiction. Atwood is clear that it is the latter. The questions in Oryx and Crake, she 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?’ For her, science fiction takes science beyond current knowledge. Her point is that we already have the knowledge to do most of what she is describing in the book, and to label it science fiction would make it an imaginary future, not a possible one.
The problem with informing – or vexing – readers is that characters can become a mechanical part of the lesson. Atwood is far too good a writer to fall completely into this trap. Early in the book, someone misquotes Pope: ‘the proper study of mankind is everything’, but later Jimmy corrects it: ‘the proper study of Mankind is Man’. It is humans, not science, that have brought the world to this pass. Does Atwood’s account of human motivation stand up to scrutiny? I think it does for Jimmy.
At any rate, this is one book I can’t get out of my head, so I guess Atwood did a good job of vexing.
Oryx and Crake was short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize for 2003. You can read more about Margaret Atwood here.