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Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood

(Bloomsbury, £16.99, hardcover, 384 pages, 5 May, 2003.)

Margaret Atwood and her publishers cover scanhave denied that Atwood's new novel Oryx and Crake is science fiction. This is, of course, a matter of marketing and not literary precision. In fact, Oryx and Crake stands directly in a lineage that began with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Representative of a literary mode that could not exist outside of science fiction, it is a type of novel that seeks to prevent a certain future by describing it.

Let's call it Cassandraism, after the daughter of Troy whose prophecies were not to be believed. Satirical, dystopian, and nearly always apocalyptic, Cassandraism remains the most socially acceptable branch on the family tree of science fiction, embracing such respectably literary figures as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and, of course, Margaret Atwood, who with her 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale became its foremost contemporary practitioner.

The Cassandraist novel is not a prediction of the future, but a nightmare of the present. Like the Bible's book of Revelation, novels like Brave New World and 1984 are vaticinia ex eventu: history disguised as prophecy. When John of Patmos composed Revelation, Caesar Nero reigned and threw Christians to the lions. John's apocalypse is not simply a nightmarish prediction, but also a fantasy of revenge against non-believers and deliverance from persecution. For readers of science fiction, it's a familiar pattern.

In the day-after-tomorrow time of Oryx and Crake, Jimmy and his best friend Crake live on a corporate compound dedicated to creating artificial animals - such as the rakunk (rat + skunk) or the wolvog (wolf + dog) - that echo the hallucinatory hybrids of the book of Revelation ("And thus I saw horses in the vision... and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions").

Neglected by their scientist parents, the boys spend their free time playing electronic games with names like Extinctathon, which is sponsored by an entity called MaddAddam. "Adam named the living animals," says Extinctathon's introduction. "MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play?" When they aren't playing games, Jimmy and Crake surf the Net - now the sole surviving medium, having swallowed all other media - watching website shows like hedsoff.com (live executions in Asia); nitee-nite.com (assisted suicide); and HottTotts (child pornography), where they first encounter the anonymously Third World prostitute Oryx.

One night on At Home With Anna K. ("a self-styled installation artist with big boobs who'd wired up her apartment so that every moment of her life was sent out live to millions of voyeurs"), Anna reads aloud from Macbeth as she sits on the toilet, pants around her ankles. Shakespeare, it seems, is no longer taught in the corporate high school that the boys attend. Jimmy is transfixed: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time." Something seizes Jimmy when he hears these lines, but he is not able to hold the feeling. Like Montag in Ray Bradbury's Cassandraist classic Fahrenheit 451, Jimmy has never been taught how to understand what he reads. Unlike Montag, Jimmy has no tribe of book-memorizing hobos to run to.

Instead he has only Crake. As the boys grow into what passes for adulthood, Crake emerges as a genius in genetics and is given the best his nightmare 21st century has to offer. Jimmy, an incipient writer, attends an arts college - impoverished like all the rest of the arts colleges - but afterward becomes an advertising hack. In quiet moments he recites to himself litanies of words that his culture's forgotten - "Purblind. Quarto. Frass." - while at work making up new ones - "tensicity, fibracionous, pheromonimal" - that his bosses either don't catch or like "because they sounded scientific and had a convincing effect."

Throughout the novel Atwood deliberately mutilates words or combines them in grotesquely commercial ways, symptoms of a deeper disease, a metaphor for the cutting and pasting of genetic material. Books are not literally burned in Oryx and Crake but digital convergence produces all the same effects described in Fahrenheit 451. For Atwood, the conversion of the word into the digitized image disarms her characters in the face of technological change, rendering them unable to construct ethical or imaginative systems that might help them to survive the contradictions created by genetic engineering. Because they cannot remember, the future does not exist for Jimmy and Crake: Vaticinia ex eventu. As in Fahrenheit 451, this is the road to apocalypse.

Years pass. Crake - who is a rather tepid and self-conscious updating of the mad scientist as sorcerer - recruits Jimmy to run the ad campaign for his line of designer humanoids. The "floor models" Crake shows Jimmy are physically beautiful beings purged of "the features responsible for the world's current illnesses." The "Crakers" eat grass, berries, and their own excrement, and contain natural defenses - such as predator-repelling piss and a self-healing purr - that make them "perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing." Animals with consciousness but not culture, shades of The Island of Doctor Moreau, the crèche in which they live is an Edenic utopia. There they are taught to survive by Oryx, the child prostitute from HottTotts whom Crake has sifted the world to find. To the boys, Oryx represents a purity that is outside of culture, a bridge to life outside the corporate compounds where they grew up.

It's a bridge that Crake burns at the story's climax, although the flames are much cooler than the reader would expect. Oryx and Crake is a curiously anemic book, savage without being passionate. Atwood filters the rage at the heart of the story through prose as cold as the one and zeroes that mediate Jimmy's 21st century. When the apocalypse arrives, Jimmy watches it unfold on the Net: "The whole thing seemed like a movie...The worst of it was that those people out there - the fear, the suffering, the wholesale death - did not really touch him." In the aftermath, Jimmy leads the Crakers out of the compound and into a world that Crake has cleansed for them. In one of Atwood's slyest jokes, Jimmy finds the new landscape peppered with glow-in-dark bunnies - the actual result, achieved in the year 2000 under the direction of "transgenic" artist Eduardo Kac, of splicing rabbit and jellyfish DNA.

Crake's motivation is a hatred of the world as it is, combined with a drive to perfect it. Behind the veil of all literary apocalypses, lies the rage of an idealist and impatience with the incremental process of social change. The difference between Atwood and someone like Ray Bradbury is that Atwood is conscious of this dynamic and uses Oryx and Crake to comment upon it. Her pallid book is not itself wish fulfillment - as is the incandescently written Fahrenheit 451 - but rather the portrait of a wish fulfilled, with all its dreadful consequences. Atwood's apocalypse does not save anyone.

Instead of God there is only Crake, the mad scientist, a pathetic, immature figure but also one of immense honesty, will, and intelligence. "Had he been a lunatic," Jimmy asks himself, "or an intellectually honourable man who'd thought things through to their logical conclusion?" The truth for Atwood, I suspect, is that there is little difference. Frankenstein's monster - his highest achievement, the embodiment of his arrogance - destroys everything that is beautiful in the life of the good, doomed doctor, who wants only to bring light to the world. If the imaginative success of a Cassandraist novel as a warning must be measured in direct proportion to its empirical failure as a prediction, then it remains to be seen whether Oryx and Crake will be a success. Whether the novel will succeed in preventing the future it describes is now entirely up to its audience.


Review by Jeremy Smith.


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