Anchor, 2003, 374 pages
Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey-with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake-through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer and this story moved along with its tragi-comic vision of a hyper-capitalistic dystopian future in which people drink HappiCuppa "coffee" and ChickieNob "chicken," but it's very much still a "literary" novel slumming as science fiction. This is not a bad thing — Oryx and Crake is not a difficult read at all and I'd love for a few more dystopian YA fans to get a taste of Margaret Atwood and see what a real writer capable of complex characterization and truly thought-provoking ideas can do with the premise.
That said, as science fiction, this novel is very much been there, done that. Corporate serfs living in privileged enclaves surrounded by the rowdy, partying proles, genetic and ecological catastrophe, a genocidal virus, and a race of naive, childlike innocents left in the ruins of mankind's folly.
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake has compelling characters in a depressing setting that exists to make (sometimes satirical) points rather than actually exercise Atwood's prognostication abilities or mastery of science fiction.
The narrative structure of the book is one of the things that makes it more of a page-turner than the story would be on its own. Snowman, once known as Jimmy, is the last man on Earth, or so it seems. The "Crakers," or Children of Crake, do not seem to be entirely human, though like the events leading up to the apocalypse that left Snowman living by himself with the Crakers, the whole story is doled out to us a little at a time in flashback sequences that alternate with Snowman's decision to trek back to where the end began. It's a relatively short but perilous journey, since wild hybrid monstrosities, like feral "pigoons" with near-human intelligence and adorable, tail-wagging "wolvogs" who will rip your throat out if you let their big puppy dog eyes lure you close, all got loose when their creators died.
Jimmy was once a mediocre student with a brilliant best friend named Crake. Crake, after the two of them graduated, was recruited by a big bioengineering corporation, and was working on a pill to grant perfect birth control, immortality, and eternal bliss. Seriously. He eventually brought his old friend Jimmy on board, and Jimmy learned about all the things Crake was creating, like the Children of Crake, who are a perfect, peaceful race to replace humans with all their testosterone and violence and competitiveness. Crake also recruited Oryx, a beautiful ex-prostitute who happened to be Jimmy's childhood fantasy after he saw her starring in child porn. (Yeah. Think The Windup Girl but written by a woman, and you won't be far wrong.)
Oryx and Crake eventually answers the question "What the hell happened?" but leaves many more unanswered. What is the future of the Crakers? What will Jimmy do when he encounters other survivors? Did Crake know about Jimmy and Oryx?
This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I like Atwood's writing, I just didn't find the world that compelling. Imaginative, yes, but not really believable or scary. She's a great writer dabbling in a genre she's only visiting, so you can expect a vivid, well-written environmental post-apocalyptic novel, heavy on characterization, light on plot.
Verdict: Margaret Atwood is a superior author, but science fiction is not really her game. Oryx and Crake is a book that would be mediocre written by a less talented writer. 7/10.
Also by Margaret Atwood: My review of The Handmaid's Tale.
My complete list of book reviews.