If you’re an English student, it is guaranteed that at some point during your degree, you will have the arts-vs.-sciences argument. It’s a stupid argument for many reasons, not least of which is that it presupposes a sort of irremediable divide between the two disciplines, as though people who love poetry cannot possibly appreciate physics, or a mathematician is constitutionally incapable of understanding metaphor. By and large, that kind of assertion is just not true. It should be obvious from looking at the life’s work of people like Barbara Kingsolver, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and, among others, Margaret Atwood.
Oryx and Crake is set in the future, but not a terribly distant one. We never know what year it is because time has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. As the novel opens, we know only that our protagonist–a man who calls himself Snowman but was once called Jimmy–believes himself to be the only human left alive on earth. He lives by the sea, but the landscape is ravaged; some sort of concrete barricades stand just offshore, and discarded rubbish litters the sand. To anyone who has watched Wall-E (a film which may have been indebted in some measure to Atwood’s novel, standing as it does in the proud tradition of apocalyptic fiction), the scene is recognizable: evidence of humanity’s self-induced last days.
Snowman’s only company are the Crakers, green-eyed humanoids who are, nevertheless, distinctly not human. Their skins are all different shades; they wear no clothes; they are perfectly physically beautiful; they have no religion, no sex (well, sort of, but I won’t spoil that for you), no conflict. They refer to themselves as the Children of Crake; animals are the Children of Oryx. The question of who Oryx and Crake are or were, and how Snowman knew them, drives the novel.
Much of the plot is told in flashback, in the form of Snowman’s memories (in which, of course, he is named and referred to as Jimmy). Crake, we soon learn, was a childhood friend. His talents for science, particularly genetic modification, catch the attention of the world’s most prestigious “institution”, Watson-Crick (being a graduate of which is as impressive as going to Harvard was, “before it drowned.” The world which Jimmy and everyone else inhabited before its destruction, apparently, still wasn’t all that great. Atwood drops a lot of this sort of thing–casual mentions of East Coast cities sinking, etc.–and it’s not what anyone would call subtle, but then again neither is climate change. It works.) Crake’s efforts at Watson-Crick, and later at a compound called RejoovenEsense, are, as you can probably guess, intimately connected with the burned-out shell of a planet which Snowman now inhabits. Oryx, too, is involved–a woman, obviously, for whose love and loyalty Crake and Jimmy develop a mutual rivalry, also obviously.
I have my doubts about Oryx, actually. Atwood does a first-class job of portraying a woman who is not destroyed by her function as sexual commodity, but rather does what she does because she’s good at it. In a sense it’s a much-needed portrait of a female character who rejects the prevailing idea that women must be either victimized and sad, or massive thumping whores. In another sense it makes her completely inscrutable, and therefore, problematically, boring. Any attempt to analyze Oryx slides off like water, and not because she’s hugely complex; it’s because there’s nothing in her character that you can hold on to. She might be hugely complex, but she never really says much about it, one way or the other. It’s not that I can’t decide how I feel about her, but more that I can’t decide whether to bother. This is probably an indicator of my foolishness. Perhaps if I read the book in a few years, it will change–that’s usually the case.
Oryx and Crake is, despite its few flaws, very good. It is an example of addictive storytelling, without frills and without self-pity. The imagination at work is boundless; just as the geneticists played around with endless combinations for a while, producing creatures like rakunks (adorable skunk-raccoon creatures without the smell or the bad temper, perfect as house pets) and snats (a rat with the fangs and guile of a snake; terrifyingly capable of entering homes through the plumbing system), Atwood plays around with ideas and creates some brilliant fiction while she’s at it. Not a perfect book, but it might as well be.