Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker Prize for her last novel, The Blind Assassin, is a triple threat as a fiction writer. She is equally adept at setting her books in the past, the present or the future and, no matter which, manages to create wholly imagined, utterly compelling worlds. It is the not-so-distant future that provides the stark setting for her newest novel, Oryx and Crake, an absorbing and disturbing cautionary vision of a post-apocalyptic earth.
Civilization as we know it has vanished in the wake of an ecological disaster brought about by a bioengineering project gone terribly wrong. Perhaps the only human survivor is Snowman, who lives among a group of child-like humanoids called Crakers. Snowman is a kind of paternalistic leader for these pure-minded, physiologically superior creatures, and they view him as a priestly link to their creator Crake. Snowman is uncomfortable in this Kurtz-like role, though, and battles the psychological isolation and terror of the not-so-brave new world he inhabits.
How did all this come to pass? "Once upon a time," Atwood tells us with a wry nod to childhood bedtime fables, "Snowman wasn't Snowman. Instead he was Jimmy. He'd been a good boy then." The narrative rewinds to the years leading up to the world's present state, to a time when the elite live in guarded Compounds and the rest live in decaying cities called pleeblands. Young Jimmy lives with his parents in the Compound of OrganInc Farms, the bioengineering firm where his father is part of the company's greatest undertaking—the pigoon project. Pigoons are pig-like animals with human tissue organs harvested for transplants. No one can foresee that these genetically superior creatures will turn renegade and, ultimately, survive their creators.
Jimmy's mother has become a stay-at-home mom, largely because she abhors the implications of the research in which she was involved. She slowly descends into a clinical depression, then simply disappears one day, releasing little Jimmy's pet rakunk (a cross between a racoon and a skunk) into the wild before she goes. The back-to-back loss of mother and beloved pet has a deep emotional effect on Jimmy, who buries himself in the world of Internet porn and an interactive web game called Extinctathon. His partner in these desultory pursuits is his brilliant classmate, Crake, who will be one of two defining figures in Jimmy's—and the world's—fate.
The other figure is Oryx, whom Jimmy first spots as a young girl on a child pornography website. She is a preternatural beauty of vaguely Asian origin, and young Jimmy prints out her image and carries it with him, even when he moves from the Compound to attend a second-rate college, the Martha Graham Academy. Crake, steady on the path to becoming a top-flight genetic engineer, heads off to the prestigious Watson-Crick. After graduation, Jimmy drifts into a job as a hack promotional writer, hawking the bogus wares of a minor Compound called AnooYoo by day and engaging in meaningless sex by night.
He remains obsessed with Oryx, and when Crake resurfaces and hires him to work on the Paradice Project, Jimmy is stunned to find Oryx there, in the flesh. She is now Crake's girl, but that doesn't preclude a secret coupling with Jimmy. Oryx is also the teacher of the Crakers, part of Crake's attempt to create perfect humans, immune to diseases and free from sexual aggression and instincts for domination and war. The Crakers are the one part of Crake's megalomaniacal gene-altering project that will endure when things go awry and an uncontrollable virus is unleashed on the world.
Life before the disaster is so relentlessly creepy precisely because it is so believable, just a few steps away from our own reality. Yet, despite the underlying message of man's doom, Oryx and Crake is compulsively entertaining, in part because Atwood is a gifted storyteller who supplies mythic underpinnings to what is essentially an anti-creation parable. She cleverly invents a new lexicon for the newly engineered species and products—wolvog, ChickieNob, pigoons—that is both amusing on the surface and chilling in its implications.
Beyond her inventiveness as a writer, though, what truly sets Atwood's novel apart from so much speculative fiction are her elegant prose and her sharp insights into the human character. In spite of the prescient message about a world where science has gone mad, it is the humanity—the humanness—of Oryx and Crake that leaves the deepest impression, inviting us to consider what future mankind is capable of inflicting on itself.
Robert Weibezahl has worked in the book publishing industry for 20 years as a writer and publicist. He lives in Los Angeles. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2003 March #2
Environmental unconcern, genetic engineering, and bioterrorism have created the hollowed-out, haunted future world of Atwood's ingenious and disturbing 11th novel, bearing several resemblances to The Handmaid's Tale (1985).Protagonist Jimmy, a.k.a. "Snowman," is perhaps the only living "remnant" (i.e., human unaltered by science) in a devastated lunar landscape where he lives by his remaining wits, scavenges for flotsam surviving from past civilizations, dodges man-eating mutant predators, and remembers. In an equally dark parallel narrative, Atwood traces Jimmy's personal history, beginning with a bonfire in which diseased livestock are incinerated, observed by five-year-old Jimmy and his father, a "genographer" employed by, first, OrganInc Farms, then, the sinister Helthwyzer Corporation. One staggering invention follows another, as Jimmy mourns the departure of his mother (a former microbiologist who clearly foresaw the Armageddon her colleagues were building), goes through intensive schooling with his brilliant best friend Glenn (who renames himself Crake), and enjoys such lurid titillations as computer games that simulate catastrophe and global conflict (e.g., "Extinctathon," "Kwiktime Osama") and Web sites featuring popular atrocities (e.g., "hedsoff.com"). Surfing a kiddie-porn site, Jimmy encounters the poignant figure of Oryx, a Southeast Asian girl apprenticed (i.e., sold) to a con-man, then a sex-seller (in sequences as scary and revolting as anything in contemporary fiction). Oryx will inhabit Jimmy's imagination forever, as will the perverse genius Crake, who rises from the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute to a position of literally awesome power at the RejoovenEsense Compound, where he works on a formula for immortality, creates artificial humans (the "Children of Crake"), and helps produce the virus that's pirated and used to start a plague that effectively decimates the world's population. And Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000, etc.) brings it all together in a stunning surprise climax.A landmark work of speculative fiction, comparable to A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Russian revolutionary Zamyatin's We. Atwood has surpassed herself.Agents: Phoebe Larmore, Diana Mackay, Vivienne Schuster/Curtis Brown London Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2003 January #1
As in The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood has seen the future, and it isn't good: get ready for ecological devastation. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2003 May #1
The doyenne of Canadian literature (she's won both a Booker and a Giller Prize), the versatile Atwood has an uncanny ability to write in a number of literary genres. Like The Handmaid's Tale, her latest work is set in a near future that is all too realistic and almost too terrifying to contemplate. Having once led a life of comfort and self-indulgence, Jimmy, now known as Snowman, has survived an ecological disaster that has destroyed the world as we know it. As he struggles to function without everything he once knew, including time, Snowman reflects on the past, on his relationships with two characters named Oryx and Crake, and on the role of each individual in the destruction of the natural world. From its opening scene, in which the children of Crake scavenge through debris, to its horrifying conclusion, this novel challenges the reader, cleverly pairing familiar aspects of the world with parts that have been irrevocably changed. A powerful and perturbing glimpse into a dark future, this is Atwood's impassioned plea for responsible management of our human, scientific, and natural resources and a novel that will cast long and lingering shadows in the reader's mind, well after the book is closed. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Caroline Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 April #1
Atwood has visited the future before, in her dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale. In her latest, the future is even bleaker. The triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event. As Jimmy, apparently the last human being on earth, makes his way back to the RejoovenEsencecompound for supplies, the reader is transported backwards toward that cataclysmic event, its full dimensions gradually revealed. Jimmy grew up in a world split between corporate compounds (gated communities metastasized into city-states) and pleeblands (unsafe, populous and polluted urban centers). His best friend was "Crake," the name originally his handle in an interactive Net game, Extinctathon. Even Jimmy's mother-who ran off and joined an ecology guerrilla group when Jimmy was an adolescent-respected Crake, already a budding genius. The two friends first encountered Oryx on the Net; she was the eight-year-old star of a pedophilic film on a site called HottTotts. Oryx's story is a counterpoint to Jimmy and Crake's affluent adolescence. She was sold by her Southeast Asian parents, taken to the city and eventually made into a sex "pixie" in some distant country. Jimmy meets Oryx much later-after college, after Crake gets Jimmy a job with ReJoovenEsence. Crake is designing the Crakers-a new, multicolored placid race of human beings, smelling vaguely of citron. He's procured Oryx to be his personal assistant. She teaches the Crakers how to cope in the world and goes out on secret missions. The mystery on which this riveting, disturbing tale hinges is how Crake and Oryx and civilization vanished, and how Jimmy-who also calls himself "the Snowman," after that other rare, hunted specimen, the Abominable Snowman-survived. Chesterton once wrote of the "thousand romances that lie secreted in The Origin of Species." Atwood has extracted one of the most hair-raising of them, and one of the most brilliant. (May 6) Forecast: Readers who know Atwood primarily as the author of The Handmaid's Tale will be thrilled by this return to the future; those who follow her work more closely will be even more impressed. This is a potential dystopian classic and should sell accordingly. Author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.