So, back when The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake’s contemporaneous sequel, came out, the great Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Guardian that she must honour Margaret Atwood’s wish not to have her novels labelled science fiction. She claims this restricts her ability to praise the book in the way she wants:
I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
Le Guin is an amazing writer, one of my favourite of all time. But I disagree. Atwood can draw lines in the sand all she likes to make distinctions between science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. Her opinions of these things are definitely relevant as we analyze and critique her work … but they are not, perhaps, the last word.
I don’t want to get into a long, complicated dissertation on my personal stance about speculative versus science. Suffice it to say, Oryx and Crake is set in a near-future, one in which corporations dominate even more than they do now. Science, education, and secrecy have all converged in the name of the ever-relentless march of profits and progress, prompting a final, apocalyptic disaster as a result of humanity’s hubris and folly to think it can remake the world. Atwood calls upon technologies that are plausible but not yet entirely possible. For me, this combination of setting and futuristic technology makes the book science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Half of Oryx and Crake is post-apocalyptic. Snowman is, as far as he knows, the last human alive. He survives—barely—in an environment now much more dangerous for humans, one populated by deadly hybrid species—pigoons and wolvogs—manufactured in corporate labs. Co-existing with him are the Children of Crake, genetically-engineered humanoids designed to be humanity’s superior successors. The other half of the novel tells the story of the end of humanity from the point of view of a younger Snowman, then Jimmy, protégé of the one-and-only Crake.
As a narrative device this set-up is tried-and-true and works well. Darting constantly between these two stories, Atwood creates tension in each. What new danger will Snowman face in the present? How did he personally contribute to the apocalypse he has managed to survive? More importantly, the two stories complement one another. Snowman is dealing with a world’s worth of survivor’s guilt for his role in the apocalypse, his unwitting complicity, and of course, for Crake’s death. In part, he deals with this through his strange relationship with the Children of Crake.
The Crakers were raised in isolation. Until Jimmy releases them from their habitat into the real world following the apocalypse, the only other human they had met was Oryx, their patient teacher. Crake was obsessed with correcting the “flaws” of humanity: our hierarchical structure, our need to compete for prestige and honour and sex, our pride and jealousy and shortsighted ill-treatment of the environment. The Children of Crake are an odd, sometimes creepy mixture between children and highly-developed primates.
Having never met Crake himself, the Children only have Snowman’s words to go by. So Snowman inadvertently transforms himself into a kind of “Prophet of Crake”, and it’s very interesting to see how he uses this position to influence and manipulate the Crakers. There’s nothing malicious about this influence—indeed, at times he seems positively weary of it. Snowman feels responsible for the Crakers—and despite his weariness, it’s perhaps this responsibility that has kept him grounded and sane all this time.
Snowman must live with the fact that, in the end, he knew the reason humanity was dying. Only Crake had the full picture; Jimmy, like so many others, was merely a pawn. Yet this galls him the most, for it is a final affirmation of what his entire life seemed to be telling him: he is a minor character in his own story. He is angry more at himself than at Crake—at one point, he wonders if he should have killed Crake sooner, implying that, at least in hindsight, he should have anticipated Crake’s unintended genocide. In other words, Snowman is seriously fucked up by his role in the apocalypse. Wouldn’t you be?
I’m teaching Player One to my sixth form literature class. Like Oryx and Crake, it is a story of apocalypse set on the edge of tomorrow. Coupland and Atwood share, aside from being Canadian, a particularly keen sense of postmodern fatigue when it comes to the end of the world. Coupland’s characters become introspective, reflecting on the accelerating pace of life in a digital society. For them, the apocalypse is an interruption that prompts them to acknowledge the ways in which they have been living on autopilot. Living through the end of the world is transformative. Similarly, Snowman is highly critical of his society. He is openly disdainful of the CorpSeCorps, the security goons who enforce the strict corporate policies with which all employees must comply. He despairs that there doesn’t seem to be much for him beyond an empty life of composing meaningless ads and watching government-funded snuff films and child porn. (Oryx and Crake is deliciously bleak in Atwood’s own, wry way.)
Moreover, both Coupland and Atwood examine the apocalypse through the eyes of ordinary, everyday people. Jimmy is just some guy, you know? This is the punchline of the story: he exists forever in Crake’s shadow, first as Crake’s high school buddy, then as his employee, and finally as his prophet. Jimmy is not incompetent, but he seems doomed to being a middleman, an implementer of other people’s grand designs. Hell, he doesn’t even figure in the title of the book: this isn’t his story; he just plays a part in it!
And so Atwood brings to Oryx and Crake an unmistakable sense of humanity even as she lays waste to our species, our civilization. Though the story is pessimistic when it comes to the direction of our society, Snowman’s personal story of survival is a potent reminder that there is always hope. Set against a speculative setting, the story contains a healthy dose of realism: there are no easy solutions to Snowman’s problems, no Postman-like post-apocalyptic society just around the corner (well, not quite). With the Crakers, he is not necessarily alone, but he is definitely an outsider. As the years have toiled on, he feels distinct layers of humanity sloughing off: he discards clothing, resigns himself to wearing a scraggly beard and subsisting mostly on vegetation with the occasional tithe of a fish. Snowman is very much cast in the mould of castaway—but in his case, there is no hope of rescue or reprieve.
Longtime fans of Atwood should be used to her forays into the speculative side, and so find Oryx and Crake interesting, if not comfortable. I hope it even convinces some holdouts of the illusion of literary fiction that science fiction is not purely a pulp matter. Likewise, this is a fine entry point to Atwood’s works, showcasing her careful characterization and deep perception of all our flaws and foibles. Though perhaps less moving than The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is a post-apocalyptic tale for the twenty-first century, in the tradition of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick.