Nobody can write dystopia like Atwood. Depending on your preference, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. For me, it’s a very good thing.
If we think of The Handmaid’s Tale as a religious dystopia, then this book is a scientific dystopia. I’m afraid to describe the plot in too much detail, because I’m afraid to give anything away, but here’s the basic outline – the story is narrated by a man who calls himself Snowman. He appears to be the only human survivor of a huge disaster, although there is another group of people living near him, whom he calls the Children of Crake. Snowman is their prophet, their connection to their mysterious creator Crake and his counterpart, Oryx, who Snowman says created the animals. He tells the Children of Crake stories about their creator, and answers their questions about life and death with made-up stories that would be funny if they weren’t so creepily similar to real religious stories and mythology. In between Snowman’s interactions with the Crakers, we get flashbacks to his childhood, when he was known as Jimmy and lived on a compound sealed off from the disease-ridden “pleeblands” beyond. He went to school with Crake, and we follow the two of them through high school and into college, while Crake is quietly working on his own plan to change the world.
I made sort of a mess of the plot there, so don’t worry if you’re confused. Atwood explains it much better, believe me.
The little details of the world Atwood created were the best part of this book for me. She spends the better part of a chapter describing the types of computer games Crake and Jimmy played when they were teenagers, and it’s kind of amazing:
“Blood and Roses was a trading game, along the lines of Monopoly. The Blood side played with human atrocities for the counters, atrocities on a large scale: individual rapes and murders didn’t count, there had to have been a large number of people wiped out. Massacres, genocides, that sort of thing. The Roses side played with human achievements. Artworks, scientific breakthroughs, stellar works of architecture, helpful inventions. Monuments to the soul’s magnificence, they were called in the game. There were sidebar buttons, so that if you didn’t know what Crime and Punishment was, or the Theory of Relativity, or the Trail of Tears, or Madame Bovary, or the Hundred Years’ War, or the Flight into Egypt, you could double-click and get an illustrated rundown, in two choices: R for children, PON for Profanity, Obscenity, and Nudity. That was the thing about history, said Crake: it had lots of all three.”
I’ll give the last word to Atwood herself, who writes in an addendum at the back of the book, “Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, it invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we’re already one? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?”
Verdict: four out of five stars