Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake. London: Bloomsbury (UK); Doubleday (USA), 2003. Pp. 433. ISBN 1844080285, £7.99 (UK); ISBN 0385721676, $14.00 (USA).

Reviewed by Djibril

Atwood is one of only a few 'mainstream' authors who are able to write works of speculative fiction that both win literary acclaim and please genre audiences. Her earlier novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) was a poignant feminist take on an old story—an almost Orwellian totalitarian future in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over and use biblical precedent and plummeting fertility as an excuse to socially engineer families, massacre 'heretics', and basically treat women worse than the Taliban; both The Handmaid's Tale and O&C were nominated for the Booker Prize (which A. won a few years ago with The Blind Assassin, not on a speculative theme). This novel is again a respectable, literary take on a well-tried SF topos--namely, the lone human survivor on a post-apocalyptic earth; O&C has won acclaim not only from literary pundits and juries, but also from genre fans and awarding bodies.

Elements in this story which will appeal to an audience weaned on speculative fiction include: the weird, distancing features that show the world of the story is not just our world with a fancy dress; good science, well-researched rather than fantastic elements as and where the author's whim takes them; strong characters and social observation, a feasible near-future world which comments on our own cultural trends without preaching. 'Weird' elements in O&C include the main character, who seems to be named 'Snowman'; the strange, innocent, green-eyed 'Crakers' who inhabit this new earth and treat Snowman like a minor deity or prophet; persistent hints of supernatural voices and entities, such as 'Oryx', the departed teacher. Some of these elements are explained, but other references are left to the reader's imagination; like a good SF author, A. manages to avoid the clumsy use of 'info-dump' at any point. Likewise the futuristic science in this book—mainly genetic engineering and media/surveillance technology—is convincingly well-researched but not over-explained: pigoons bred with organs that can be used for human transplantation; chickienobs that provide chicken meat but no wasted organs or limbs; internet television with countless channels both legal and illegal (but even child-porn shows seemingly immune to suppression). The near-future earth of this novel is a believable free-market nightmare, with the elite penned into their industrial 'compounds', and the rest of the population kept out in the 'pleeblands' where poverty, crime, and disease are rife.

Snowman takes a trip away from the safety of the Craker village to forage in the ruins of a former compound, where he is in constant danger from packs of pigoons and wolvogs who were freed from their labs when the world ended. During this journey, we also learn about the run-up to the holocaust via flashbacks to Snowman's previous life, when he was known as Jimmy, and knew the genius genetic scientist Crake and the beautiful former child porn star Oryx. The doomed world we see in these flashbacks is such a convincing dystopia that the destruction of humanity is almost welcome (although the tension and sense of foreboding is no less for all that). We have barely-futuristic levels of amorality with regard to GM; an Orwellian security apparatus, and betrayals within family; media control and rampant power to the wealthy. The cliche that genetic engineers are 'playing God' is given expression in the fact that the scientist Crake literally becomes a god to the newly spawned Crakers.

As is usual in A.'s novels, the narrator does not pass explicit judgement on the atrocities described here; even the tales of Oryx's abused childhood are only condemned by the furious and defensive Jimmy, and he is laughed at, shown to be both partisan and hypocritical; Oryx herself refuses to think of it as sexual abuse at all. A reader will perhaps side with Jimmy, but ultimately this abuse is but one of many atrocities committed by his amoral society. Lack of explicit judgement does not of course equate to an amoral narrative, and none of the horrors in A.'s work are gratuitous or titillating. The dystopic caricature of our brave, free world is its own brutal denunciation of the worst excesses of the commercialisation of science and media, of the double standards of 'liberal' society, and the lengths to which oppression of dissidence will go. Above all A. provides to answers and does not preach; she shows the horrors, and if all you want from this is an exceedingly entertaining story, then you can have that too.

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