Oryx and Crake

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Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake (2003)

Contributed by Lars Schmeink

Oryx and Crake is a near-future dystopian novel with strong satiric undertones that revolves around the innovations of gene splicing and their consequences. The novel follows Snowman, the survivor of a global and apocalyptic gene plague, in his every day struggle for survival and in his caretaking of a new race of bioengineered posthumans called the Crakers. In order to hunt for supplies Snowman returns to the bioengineering facility where he used to work, and in flashbacks reveals his pre-apocalypse life as Jimmy, best friend and unwitting accomplice to Crake, the genius behind both the plague and Crakers.

Author

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada, on 18 November 1939. She studied English under such famous teachers as Northrop Frye at the University of Toronto, Canada, earning her B.A. in 1961. She obtained an M.A. from Radcliffe College, Massachussetts, before going on to Harvard for a PhD, which she never completed. Instead she began a teaching career at several Canadian institutions before gaining worldwide renown for her 1969 debut novel The Edible Woman. She has since published a wealth of novels, collections of poetry, short fiction, and literary criticism, as well as children's books. She has, among many others, been awarded with the Governor General's literary award for poetry in 1966 and for fiction in 1986, with the Booker prize for fiction in 2000 and the Prince of Asturias Award in 2008. She has also been the recipient of 16 honorary degrees, the Order of Ontario and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Selected Publications

Poetry

The Circle Game (1964), The Animals in That Country (1968), You Are Happy (1974), Two-Headed Poems (1978), True Stories (1981), The Door (2007)

Novels

The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Cat's Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Penelopiad (2005), The Year of the Flood (2009)

Short Fiction

Dancing Girls (1977), Murder in the Dark (1983), Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994), The Tent (2006), Moral Disorder (2006)

Criticism

Survial: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Moving Targets: Writing with Intent', 1982-2004 (2004), Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

Creative Reception

Sequel

The Year of the Flood (2009)

Atwood herself acknowledges both a possible film version and the idea of transforming the novel into an opera , but so far neither has been confirmed to be produced.

Main Characters

Jimmy / Snowman: the central character whose development from child/teenager (Jimmy) to adult (Snowman) is portrayed in the novel; Jimmy is obsessed with video games, porn and violence; is unable to commit, selfish and ignorant, after his education he works for Crake's Paradice project; since his teenage years in love with Oryx; Snowman believes himself to be the last man alive and the keeper and guardian of the Crakers; lives in a tree, derelict, dirty and on the verge of going crazy; establishes a semi-religious cult among the Crakers and becomes their prophet

Glenn / Crake: Jimmy's best friend; scientific genius and genetic engineer; guided only by his rationality, void of emotions; develops both the genetic plague that kills all human life and the posthuman replacements that are named after him; socially inapt; lover of Oryx; stylized by Snowman to be the father 'God' who created the Crakers

Oryx: the novel provides only unreliable information on her, but Jimmy believes her to be a South Asian child porn actress; Jimmy and Crake both develop an obsession with her; she was hired by Crake for his project as a teacher for the Crakers; lover of both Crake and Jimmy; stylized by Snowman to be the 'Goddess' of animal and plant creation in the Craker mythology

The Crakers: blue-skinned posthuman creation; developed by Crake as the better race, without all human flaws; non-aggressive herd animals with polygamous mating cycles, simple and good natured; the flock that Snowman feels responsible to shepherd

Setting

Oryx and Crake is set in a near-future New England after the outbreak of an apocalyptic plague with large parts told in flashbacks that take place before the outbreak. The flashbacks take place in the gated communities of the economic elite called "compounds" which are sealed from the rest of the country referred to as "pleeblands". Geographically though, the continent has changed in so far as sea levels have risen due to climatic changes. The post-apocalypse part of the story takes place somewhere along the new, further inland shoreline of New England.

Summary

The story of the novel unfolds on two distinct time levels and presents both the events that lead up to and those that occur after a bioengineered plague has killed nearly all of humanity. It follows the life of protagonist Jimmy who, after the plague, has named himself Snowman, alternating between pre- and post-apocalypse times.

Before the plague Snowman used to be Jimmy, a child living a protected life in one of the corporate compounds devoted to bioengineering the future. His parents' marriage is dysfunctional; his father works as a genetic engineer, creating spliced animal species, such as the pigoons: pigs enhanced with human brain tissue. Jimmy's mother rejects this work, is strongly depressed and finally leaves husband and child. Jimmy retreats into clownery and fails in school where he meets his new best friend Glenn. Both begin spending their time surfing the net for porn and violence and playing online games, such as EXTINCTATHON, a contest of knowledge about extinct animal species. For this game Glenn adopts the name Crake, after an extinct bird, the red-necked crake.

By the time they graduate, Jimmy and Crake get separated due to their unequal skill sets, and Jimmy goes on to Martha Graham, a liberal arts college, to become an ad writer, still focusing his life rather on sexual encounters, game play and a general indifference towards his surroundings. When visiting Crake at Watson Crick Institute, his highly prestigious bioengineering school, Jimmy feels inadequate, surrounded by the emotionally distant scientific geniuses. Here he learns about the students' projects in genetic engineering and Crake's theory of corporations manufacturing diseases in order to sell a cure. The two friends part again and Jimmy graduates, going on to become a writer for AnooYoo, a cosmetics company, where he continues his bored and aimless life.

When Jimmy gets a job offer from Crake he immediately quits AnooYoo and moves to work on Crake's Paradice project. There, Crake shows Jimmy his work on the BlyssPluss pill, which enhances the human sex drive, eliminating all sexually transmitted diseases while at the same time, unbeknownst to the user, making him or her sterile. Crake argues that the human species needs to be cut off from reproduction and offers a better alternative. The Crakers, his genetically engineered posthuman creation, are custom designed floor models, which Crake has endowed with all the features he feels the human race is lacking. In effect though, the Crakers are just docile and simple-minded children that need to be educated, which is the job that Oryx has at Paradice.

Oryx is a South Asian woman, that Jimmy believes to have seen as a teenager on a child porn internet site and developed an obsession with. Later, Oryx tells him about leaving South Asia where she was used in blackmail schemes, and about heading for the US, only to become a sex slave and prostitute. In this capacity Crake meets her at Watson Crick and offers her a job at Paradice, where Jimmy falls in love with her. Oryx maintains a relationship with both of Jimmy and Crake at the same time, while teaching the Crakers biology and behavior.

While Crake is away from Paradice, several outbreaks of a deadly disease occur all over the world and spread fast. Because he is second in command, Jimmy takes charge and locks himself in with the Crakers. Via a phone call, Oryx reveals that she has been unwittingly used by Crake to supply the disease through the BlyssPluss pills, and that she and Crake are responsible for the outbreaks. When both finally arrive at Paradice, Crake reveals to Jimmy that he has made him immune to the disease and then kills Oryx in front of him, which triggers Jimmy to kill Crake and leaves him in charge of the posthuman floor models within Paradice, whom he leads towards the ocean in order to better take care of them.

Months after the plague, Snowman believes himself to be the last survivor of the human race. He lives in a tree and ekes out an existence on the bare essentials he can forage from what remains of civilization. He has escaped Crake's genetic plague and now cares for the Crakers, who are ideally adapted to living in the ecologically harsh environment. Snowman on the other hand is not and his months alone with the Crakers make him regress physically and psychologically. He is talking to himself, trying to keep alive the memory of what happened before the plague, ritualizing his role as protector and educator of the Crakers.

Driven by vanishing supplies and his growing frustration, Snowman decides to return to Paradice, in order to salvage food and other necessities for his survival. He has to fight off aggressive animals, seek shelter and face some of his darkest memories, but in the end he returns, wounded, to the Crakers, whom he finds in front of a huge idol of himself, praying for his safe return. While he was gone, the Crakers tell him, visitors, others like him, have come and left in the direction of the sea. Afraid and excited, Snowman follows the visitors to the beach, finds their footprints and at the end of the novel needs to make a decision on whether he will confront them and if so how…

Interest Areas

Bioengineering

The dominant theme of the novel, bioengineering, especially gene splicing, takes place in all aspects of life. The creation of new species such as the pigoons (designed to harvest organs), the wolvogs (a cross between wolves and dogs, designed for security) or the rakunks (a cross between skunk and raccoon, designed as a pet, without the drawbacks of both species), as well as commodities such as the ChickieNobs (artificially grown chicken without brain that continuously produce chicken wings as long as nutrients are introduced) are the main drive of the economy in Oryx and Crake.

Posthumanism

Crake, the mad scientist of the novel, creates his "floor models" (367) as a better version of the human race. He holds the view that humanity is deeply flawed and needs to be bioengineered in order to save the planet. His solution is a race of docile and simple creatures that have no need for ageing, jealousy, religion, war and death. They are adapted to harsh conditions, can heal communally, have mating cycles, are polygamous, vegetarian and can even recycle their own feces.

Internet

Jimmy is a typical teenager, and later young adult, and his main pastime is surfing the net. The novel delivers a sharp social commentary on the consequences of the ubiquity of sex and violence through its depiction of Jimmy's lethargy and utter lack of compassion. Sites on the internet provide vicarious experiences of death, rape, torture, violence and all manners of sex continuously and Jimmy seems to take them in as if they were soap-operas. His commentary is indifferent, sometimes even joking. The same holds true for video games, which are also played online and seem to favor violent and extreme situations, such as playing through war atrocities, the extinction of species, or barbaric raids. An emotional response is lacking, except for the moment that Jimmy watches an eight-year old Oryx on a porn site and has the feeling to connect with her via her look at the camera.

Education

In Oryx and Crake, education is corporately owned and follows the simple rule of economic necessity. While "numbers people" (31) excel in scientific experiments, get sponsored and encouraged because of profits to be made, especially in bioengineering, the so-called "word people" (31) like Jimmy are a dying race, belittled for their unprofitable talents, except when their word play is needed to market the products that "numbers people" have created. The two-tier system of education is shown in direct comparison of both Jimmy's and Crake's colleges. On the one hand, there is Jimmy's liberal arts college Martha Graham Academy, where slackers bide their time waiting either for artistic inspiration or for a job offer in marketing after graduating with "Employable Skills". On the other hand, Watson Crick Institute is a highly efficient breeding ground for corporate creative scientists, where students are encouraged to explore their research interests, where funds are of no concern and where students have high paying job contracts in their pockets long before they graduate.

Critical Commentary

Even though Atwood herself insists that her novels are "speculative fiction" and not "science fiction proper," a distinction she makes "to avoid false advertising" ("Context" 513), many critics have read Oryx and Crake as Atwood's second exploration into the genre of science fiction. A near-future dystopia that explores the consequences of scientific progress, the novel seems even more suitable to the genre definition than Atwood's first dystopia The Handmaid's Tale (1985). The critical commentary of Oryx and Crake therefore often focuses on a comparison with The Handmaid's Tale because, as Coral Ann Howells points out, "both of them are an imaginative writer's response to contemporary situations of cultural crisis" (161). Both novels have been placed in the tradition of the classic dystopias of the 20th century, The Handmaid's Tale rather being a reference to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it reflects Atwood's take on national fundamentalism, while Oryx and Crake stronger reflects on aspects of consumer society, capitalist economy and bioengineering, thus openly referring to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (cf. Ingersoll).

Atwood's commentary focuses on bioengineering as the main field of future change in economical, ecological and scientific terms, introducing a wide range of applications of the technology: from pharmaceutical, medical, cosmetical or agricultural to being simply commodities of posthuman life. Crake's experiment in bioengineering, creating his posthuman Crakers while at the same time eliminating the 'faulty' humans, puts him in the literary tradition of other mad scientists such as Victor Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau. Atwood's commentary is satiric though, transforming the monsters of such creation into docile herd-animals and the motivation of the scientist from egocentric hybris into supposed green-activism to save the world, all the while leaving his madness in doubt and rather transferring it onto the capitalist society Crake lives in. As both Chung-Hao Ku and Danette DiMarco point out, Oryx and Crake negotiates the concept of homo faber from the viewpoint of a technocultural society, leaving Crake as "a product of the capitalist machinery" (Ku 119) who 'works his tools' not to better life for all humanity but to create marketable commodities that only serve to "fulfill emotional desires" (DiMarco 176) however whimsical. It is against this commodification of human creativity and science that Crake's cynical or mad rebellion battles and against which he unleashes the disease that wipes out humanity for the benefit of posthumanity. A view that Atwood stresses herself – in a bold move of authorial commentary on the novel – on the website (under: "Interview") that accompanies the book: "Science is a way of knowing, and a tool. Like all ways of knowing and tools, it can be turned to bad uses. And it can be bought and sold, and it often is."

Just as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been discussed in Oryx and Crake criticism (cf. Mohr, Ku, Smith), so have other intertextual references that the novel makes. Apart from its dystopian predecessors, the novel reinterprets and references myths such as homo faber, Prometheus or Pandora, as well as literary classics ranging from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Especially the satirical tone of the latter seems to be reflected in Oryx and Crake, when Atwood uses tongue-in-cheek descriptions of Jimmy's favored pastime, the indifference with which he regards his virtual life, and especially the education he receives. In both textual as well as intertextual commentary the novel makes clear the importance of a relation to the past, mediated through language and literature, that gets lost in what Veronica Hollinger calls our "future-present", the "lived experience of technoculture" (452f.). Jimmy's groping for words, his helplessness at archiving and remembering a culture that no longer exists, permeates the novel and reminds us of the fact that the human is informed by "our entry into culture and all that this entails", that we, as humans, no longer exist, once "language … as a storage system for the repetition and, crucially, reanimation of material and semiotic artifacts" (Cooke 122) vanishes.

Critical Bibliography

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