Oryx and Crake
(Bloomsbury, £16.99, hardcover, 384 pages, 5 May, 2003.)
Margaret Atwood and her publishers 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.
denied that Atwood's new novel
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
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.