Tuesday, 20 January 2004

Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake (2003)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2003
Review number: 1213

After fifteen years, Margaret Atwood has returned not only to science fiction, but also to post apocalyptic science fiction (The Blind Assassin has in the meantime included some science fiction elements. Like Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, the narrator of Oryx and Crake (The Snowman) contrasts life after a catastrophe with life before it. But in this case the change is much more apocalyptic than the fundamentalist revolution in Atwood's earlier novel - genetically manipulated plagues have destroyed the human race except for the Snowman and a tribe of innocents, post-humans engineered to live in closer harmony with the natural world (itself now home to escaped genetic experiments - enhanced pets, watchdogs and the pigoons designed as living organ banks for use in transplants).

The world before the catastrophe is not particularly pleasant, either; it is an exaggeratedly sordid version of the present day, rather like the backgrounds to John Brunner's wonderful dystopias, though not to my mind as well done. (It is an example of how much a ghetto a genre can be that Oryx and Crake is short listed for major literary awards while Brunner received no real recognition outside the genre for his major novels.) The pre-apocalyptic stuff is more interesting than the contaminated Eden that comes after it, and there is a lot more of it in the novel.

In The Handmaid's Tale part of the impact was due to the contrast between the normal life of Offred before the fundamentalist coup and the slavery she endures afterwards. By using both of The Snowman's futures (before and after the catastrophe) here as commentaries on the trends apparent in current society, the impact of both is diminished. The isolation of the Snowman and his exclusion from the utopian society of the Children of Crake (the bio-engineered noble savages - the implication being that the only way to achieve Rousseau's influential ideal is by making major changes to human biology) also diminishes the impact of the novel, though it makes possible a connection between the character and the role of the snake in the Eden story. The allusiveness of Oryx and Crake, or at least the way its allusions are handled, reduces its power as a science fiction novel. The Handmaid's Tale also benefits in comparison by having a scenario which remains rare in the genre; that of Oryx and Crake is much more a mirror of fairly obvious current concerns about issues of genetic engineering.

The ending - the description of the catastrophe itself - works well, though the main surprise will have been worked out long before by anyone who has wondered why the Snowman has turned out to be immune to the plague. The character of the Snowman is the key one in the novel, as that of Offred is to The Handmaid's Tale; but he is really too passive for the reader to identify with him. All in all, not as good as her earlier science fiction, but still of interest.

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