by Margaret Atwood
When I was fifteen, I dropped out of high school. I did it for a number of reasons; high school sucks, everyone knows that. But the biggest reason, the crucible factor, was methamphetamine. I had begun to hang around The Ex, who had used his characteristic mixture of charm, threat, and manipulation to get me to try meth.
Meth wasn’t my favorite drug in terms of effects, but let me tell you: the comedown is harsh. I mean, once that drug leaves your system for the first time, you feel like you’ve been thrown into a garbage truck and run through the masher. I don’t know what the “normal” response is to that feeling, but the addict-mentality response is to take more of the drug. Which is what I did, and I became hooked. I’d get clean within two years; like I said, it wasn’t really my thing. But it did cause me to drop out of high school.
As a result, my basic scientific knowledge is lacking. Of course, I took the requisite science class in college, but my lab science was a study abroad in Costa Rica where I basically counted twigs while sunbathing and flirting with the Ticos. My MFA had no science requirements. I’m a smart person, but fundamentally uneducated on certain topics. So, when I hear about the marvels and dangers of genetic engineering, I’m kind of in the dark. I get it, I get the basic concept, but not the details. I certainly could not have written this weeks’ choice book, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
Book of the Weeks 5/22-6/4/2017: “Oryx and Crake”
I am always jealous and impressed of writers who are able to write incredibly well about complex sciences. Margaret Atwood does just that in Oryx and Crake. If you’re into speculative fiction, or even if you’re not, you have probably heard of Margaret Atwood. She is famous for writing dystopias about futures that feel pretty near and familiar to our own, except maybe one lateral jump over on the dimensional line.
Oryx and Crake explores one possible future embedded in our current genetic engineering craze. Genetic engineering has its uses, I’m not saying it doesn’t, but it also has its dangers. Oryx and Crake explores a world obsessed with the virtues of genetic engineering, and unchecked by its dangers.
Of course, in the world of this book, the dangers are present everywhere. Those lucky enough to live within production compounds are-usually-shielded from the biological terrorism rampant in the “pleebands,” the outside world. Until nobody is safe.
Oryx and Crake is a memory narrative. It weaves between the present day reality, in which Snowman is possibly the last homo sapien sapien alive on Earth, and also the de facto caretaker for a new designer race of intelligent humanoids called the Crakers; then back into the world before. The world of engineering Compounds, disease-riddled pleebands; the world of sex, intrigue, and Snowman’s friendship with the genius who despised it all.
In its most basic sense, Oryx and Crake is a mad genius story about a man intent upon destroying and re-building the world in his own design. But it also explores the complexities of the human mind and heart. We see Snowman, in the aftermath of his best friend’s terrorism enacted, tilting from extreme loneliness and heatbreak into outright psychosis. He shows signs of PTSD, and while I don’t want to brand this book a “trauma narrative,” there are certainly elements of one woven throughout. Besides the heartrending violence Snowman witnesses and commits, and the haunting psychosis which results, we also see glimpses of the story of a woman who escaped child sex trafficking.
Oryx is dead in the present of the book. We learn as much almost from the start of the story, so this is hardly a spoiler, but she was Snowman’s lover, and the woman he claimed as the love of his life. This love is marred, though Snowman seems incapable of seeing it, by Snowman’s savior complex, which becomes mutated in the present day of the narrative. It is also an uncomfortable, obsessive love, borne initially from a voyeuristic snapshot of child pornography that Snowman watched when he was just a boy himself.
We never get insight into Oryx’s inner world. She is always only something viewed on the outside; something idolated. So we are able to see objectification in play. As readers we see the trajectory of abuse and grooming, and how this becomes perpetuated even by those who truly believe they love her. We never see Oryx’s anger, though Snowman intentionally pries for it; we never learn what really happened to her, or how she felt about it. Her character is always only viewed.
The book is at once entertaining and rife with intrigue, the way a work of fiction should be, while also serving as a uniquely creative exploration of human consciousness. What human features are innate to our DNA? What can be bred? What can be spliced and altered beyond recognition? What happens when evolution takes place out of turn, and how does it affect those of the last species left behind to watch it?
This book is the first in the MaddAddam trilogy. I am excited and interested to learn how the clifhanger ending develops. I’m sure the rest of the books will make their appearances here sometime.
I recommend Orxy and Crake to anyone who likes dystopias, or anyone who is intrigued by stories that depict trauma in new and compelling ways. This is a unique exploration of both the dystopia and trauma genres.
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