Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx & Crake is a brilliant and compelling read. The protagonist, Snowman, tells us the story of our future and its undoing as the attempt to feed everyone, provide healthcare and satisfy an unending desire for sex and youth, takes us beyond a divided society into a new world where Snowman may be the only normal human left.  Whilst the future world of guarded compounds and an intellectual elite busy playing with our DNA to keep humanity limping along on the earth, is one cartoons have long made our children familiar with, Artwood’s telling emphasizes the darker side of these experiments and the uncaring nature of market forces. But Snowman is not elite. He is a wordsman, useful only for his marketing potential. His life is as barren as any salaryman, until his old best friend from school, Crake, takes him to the richest compound and puts him in charge of marketing his latest products aimed at enhancing sexual prowess while secretly containing birth control elements, or so Crake tells him.  Crake is also working on a top-secret project to reinvent the human race.

Crake’s new breed of men are spliced with various animal DNAs to weed out the potential for violence through eliminating sexual disappointment and therefore ownership. Crake keeps them in a false wooded dome and has Oryx, a woman whom both Crake and Snowman have adored from afar since they were teenagers watching her porn, now a lover to both men, teach the Crakers. Both Crake and Oryx make Snowman promise to look after the Crakers should anything happen to them and of course something, a knock-out virus unsurprisingly developing in areas trialing Crake’s latest product, does happen to the whole world. And then Snowman is left to wander this new empty world with the Crakers doing the only thing he has ever been good at, spinning stories.

It is these stories that make Oryx & Crake different to many other speculative visions of the future. Snowman has always loved language, collecting old, unused words. He understands that words can become obsolete in the face of social change, but a resonance of meaning lingers on in modern versions of the language that left them behind. Narrative is written into the very words we speak and in the face of a world without any but Craker humans, all that Snowman has is narrative. Even the Crakers, hard-wired against hierarchy and violence, can’t be stripped of a desire to know who made them and why and in this need to explain their world they use narrative to rework Snowman’s stories turning Crake and Oryx into mythical, godlike beings and giving Snowman a last laugh: their need for narrative will muddle the waters of the evolution Crake imagined for them.

At the end of the novel, Snowman glimpses three old-fashioned humans through the trees and we are left wondering what will happen, eager to reach out for the next book in the trilogy.

Oryx & Crake is a pleasure to read. It turns a barren future into everyday experience, leaving slithers of hope in a future where most of humanity has rotted with disease. At the end, what do we have left? Stories. That is the only art that holds a dying race together, or builds a new one. I’m looking forward to the next book and will read it after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra next week, and The Infatuations by Javier Marias the week after.

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