Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Oryx and Crake cover art Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese - copyright 2003
374 pages

Book read in May 2003

Rating: 1/10  (Yecch!)

Review by Aaron Hughes

       In a recent profile in The Guardian, Margaret Atwood explained that her new novel Oryx and Crake is not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”

       This is absurd.  Oryx and Crake is science fiction by any reasonable definition.  It is set well in the future, after advanced gene splicing and other technological developments have completely altered human society, and is told from the point of view of a survivor of a man-made biological catastrophe.  You can also call Oryx and Crake speculative fiction if you like, since to most of us the two terms are interchangeable, but you cannot accurately say that it is not science fiction.

       What Atwood really means is that she is a good writer, and should not be lumped together with all those bad writers in the science fiction section of the bookstore.  Perhaps Atwood has not read any genre science fiction in the past forty years, and speaks from sheer ignorance.  She may simply be unfamiliar, for example, with Ursula K. LeGuin, who addresses themes similar to Atwood’s in an elegant, literary style, and the quality of whose work certainly does not suffer in comparison to Atwood’s.

       Let us be charitable, however, and assume that Atwood actually has some passing knowledge of genre science fiction, yet still wishes to distinguish her work from that field.  Now that I have read Oryx and Crake, I think I can explain why.

       Over the past fifty or sixty years, mainstream fiction and genre science fiction have developed distinct literary traditions, to the point that there is a qualitative difference in what most authors in the two fields are striving to accomplish.  For example, mainstream writers are generally less obsessed with plot development and more concerned with descriptions of setting and character.  (To see what I mean, go into a bookstore, pick up some volumes at random from the science fiction and fantasy section and from the general fiction section, and read the back cover and inside the front cover of each.  The science fiction covers will always tell you what the story is about.  The mainstream covers will always tell you what a great writer the author is, but often will say nothing of the story, although they may tell you where the book takes place or who the main characters are.)

       By the standards that have arisen in mainstream fiction in the past half-century, Oryx and Crake is indeed superior in literary merit to anything one is likely to find in the science fiction genre.  One can easily identify Oryx and Crake as great literature by its self-indulgent writing style, its utter lack of an engaging story, and its total failure to say anything of relevance to the modern reader.

       In the past half-century, many mainstream authors and critics have finally come to understand literature’s fundamental purpose: to demonstrate how clever the writer is. Oryx and Crake is a triumph of modern literature, for there is never a moment when the reader is not conscious of Margaret Atwood straining to show us just how clever she is.  She indulges herself in this endeavor throughout, filling her book to capacity with precious dialogue that no real person would ever say and her protagonist’s introspective musings that no real person would ever think.

       Most of the novel is told through the flashbacks of our protagonist, Jimmy a/k/a Snowman.  The first flashback begins, “Jimmy’s earliest complete memory was of a huge bonfire.” He describes the bonfire, in which he smelled burning hair.  We are told that Jimmy knew the scent of burning hair because he had previously set fire to some of his own hair (after first cutting it off).  This experiment and the resulting argument between Jimmy’s parents are then related to us in infinite detail, right down to the puff of wind when his mother slammed her door, the flavor of ice cream Jimmy proceeded to eat with his father, and the pattern on the bowls.

       Would a real person stop to describe the puff of air from a door slamming on an occasion that preceded his supposed earliest memory? Of course not; that’s the beauty of it.  The reader cannot possibly mistake this for a true flashback by an actual person.  This is plainly nothing but Margaret Atwood self-consciously striving to impress us with her wordcraft.

       On several occasions, Atwood tires of even this transparent an illusion that her wordplay ties somehow into the story, and she instead simply rattles off lists of some of her favorite words: “He wishes he had something to read.  To read, to view, to hear, to study, to compile.  Rag ends of language are floating in his head: mephitic, metronome, mastitis, metatarsal, maudlin.” Think of the dissertations we can write about the layered meanings of the juxtaposition of these words! (And what a lucky thing that they all appear on the same page of Atwood’s Canadian Heritage dictionary!) The fact that they are unrelated to anything happening in the novel allows us delightfully free rein in identifying their significance, sort of like a verbal Rorschach test.

       Atwood is a true master of prose, able to take an observation that would be obvious even to a child and dress it up as something profound.  (“But probably it was just an act.  It was Crake preserving his dignity, because the alternative would have been losing it.” ; “He looks around for a stick to use as a crutch, finds one.  Good thing about sticks, they grow on trees.”) It is a testament to Atwood’s weighty presence that there was never a moment in this book when Jimmy/Snowman felt to me like a real person.  And if by chance he turns out to be a real person, I can now say with confidence that I will have no interest in speaking with him even once he is the last man on earth.

       Even prose as wonderfully self-indulgent as Atwood’s may go to waste if the reader becomes distracted by the story.  This was the mistake Atwood made with her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.  Readers were too concerned for the plight of the main character Offred, and too interested in the future society portrayed through her story, to remain properly focused on Atwood’s self-conscious writing.

       Thankfully, Atwood has since improved her skills, to the point that she is quite right to distinguish herself from mere science fiction writers.  Even the best science fiction writers are strangely preoccupied with telling an engaging story.  A truly great writer like Atwood knows better.

       Atwood prefaces Oryx and Crake with a quotation from Gulliver’s Travels, stating “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you.” Unlike Jonathan Swift, Atwood really means it.  She knows that literature with a capital L is only for readers so intellectual and masochistic as to seek out glacially slow books with no plot that studiously avoid entertaining them in any way.  If you are so base as to read for entertainment, then you are no better than Atwood’s main characters in this novel, who fill their time with hyper-violent computer games and child pornography on the internet.

       Oryx and Crake is ostensibly the story of how runaway gene splicing technology causes society to collapse.  The narrative begins after nearly all human beings have died in a man-made plague, and Jimmy/Snowman’s only company is a group of genetically engineered quasi-human survivors.  We are given to suspect from the outset that Crake, Jimmy/Snowman’s best friend, designed these beings and wiped out the previous version of mankind.

       None of this, however, is what the book is about.  The book is about Jimmy/Snowman contemplating his life, describing at random and in unfettered detail how (i) his parents did not love him enough, (ii) his teachers failed to engage him intellectually, (iii) his love life as a young man was unsatisfying, and (iv) he felt badly that his girlfriend Oryx was abused as a child, forced to perform in the kiddie porn that he used to watch.  If Jimmy had caused the earth’s destruction, this all might help explain his motives.  Since he was only a bystander, it is all marvelously irrelevant to the end-of-the-world catastrophe, which Jimmy’s flashbacks don’t take us to until nearly the end of the book.

       The backdrop of a ruined future society is an inspired literary device.  Many a mainstream novel leaves the unsophisticated reader believing that the book is dull simply because the author failed to think of an interesting story.  Atwood lets us know that her novel is dull by design.  By foreshadowing her end-of-the-world scenario early on, Atwood makes it clear that she thought of an interesting story to tell, then intentionally avoided that story for three-fourths of the book, in favor of a series of slow and pointless pre-catastrophe flashbacks.  Without the end-of-the-world context, the story of Jimmy’s life would be merely boring.  By first leading the reader to expect a drama of a terrible holocaust, Atwood renders Jimmy’s tale truly excruciating.  The reader can have no doubt that Atwood deliberately chose to make this book tedious enough to drive a Tibetan monk to suicide, because she knows that great literature must always be boring as hell.  Brilliant!

       Atwood allows a story to slip through only in the last four chapters, in which we watch Crake destroy the world.1  We may forgive Atwood this brief lapse into storytelling, because she is careful not to do it well.  Crake seems a mildly interesting character at first, but soon devolves into a James Bond villain, hatching bizarre evil schemes, with the backing of a biotech megacorporation inexplicably bent on eradicating the market for its products.

       Jimmy watches in horror as Crake’s fabricated disease begins to wipe out the populace, despite other scientists’ best efforts to control it.  It seems never to occur to Jimmy that he holds the crucial information that might give the scientists a fighting chance: he has been injected with a vaccine that they might be able to reproduce if Jimmy gave them a tissue sample.  Instead, Jimmy watches the world die on television and gets drunk.  No danger of any reader getting enthralled in that story.

       The world was dramatically transformed in the Twentieth century by rapid advances in technology, and the next century promises much more to come.  Science fiction directly addresses the issues these new technologies create.  It is this relevance to the lives of contemporary readers that prevents science fiction from ever being an important branch of literature.  Milton and Dostoevsky never wrote about the implications of genetic engineering, so it plainly follows that such concerns can have no place in great literature.

       Atwood daringly flirts with such issues in Oryx and Crake, but manages to avoid the trap of relevance.  Her central message that powerful biological technologies in the hands of a deranged madman could be dangerous is undeniably true, and entirely and perfectly useless to Twenty-first century readers seeking to come to grips with these new technologies.  Advanced biotechnology and genetic engineering will be an important and inevitable part of our future.  How will they change our lives? What issues will they present? How can we address those issues? Atwood grapples with none of these questions.

       In fairness, hidden under some obligatory biblical symbolism (with Oryx and Crake standing in for Adam and Eve), there are some messages in this novel that may be relevant to you, if by chance you happen to be a mad scientist genetically engineering a new species of human.  If so, Oryx and Crake teaches you that you must be sure to completely eliminate the current version of mankind, lest your new creations be contaminated by all of man’s evil ideas.  Atwood does not, unfortunately, specify the optimal mechanism for eliminating your own creations as the evil ideas occur to them independently.

       I commend Margaret Atwood on her effort to distinguish Oryx and Crake from science fiction.  No distance placed between this novel and the science fiction genre can be great enough to satisfy me.
1 If you are a student who has been assigned to read Oryx and Crake (a book this painfully dull must surely become required reading for millions of hapless high school students) and feel you have better uses for your time (and I weep for any high school student who does not), these last four chapters are all you need to read to pick up the entire story of the novel.  Feel free to skip over the first 280 pages.  Of course, you will miss the pleasure of feeling Atwood’s droning prose numb your brain until she can deposit her clever little nuggets of wisdom, like a dentist filling a decayed tooth.
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Copyright 2003 Aaron Hughes

Other Margaret Atwood book reviews on Fantastic Reviews:
The Blind Assassin
The Penelopiad (and Weight by Jeanette Winterson)

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Our book club's web pages for Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Links to webpages about Margaret Atwood, and related topics:
Margaret Atwood - Wikipedia - Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
january magazine: Review | Oryx and Crake: A Novel by Margaret Atwood
Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer: Oryx and Crake - review

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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