'Oryx and Crake' by Margaret Atwood

Warning - possible spoilers!

My first contact with the work of Margaret Atwood was in school. Among the many poems in the anthology we were reading, Atwood’s 'Song of the Worms' hooked me, particularly with the last few lines:

When we say Attack
you will hear nothing
at first.

It’s stayed with me, that poem, and I still feel a chill when I read those lines. I’m pretty sure that, if the worms made good their promise to topple the world, I’d be an observer, watching everything around me fall apart. The same, I recently discovered, is true of Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake (Virago).

In fact, it seems to be a feeling I share with the protagonist. Snowman - formerly named Jimmy - is seemingly the last real human alive, shepherd to a flock of genetically engineered people created by the mysterious Crake. Clad only in a salvaged bedsheet and drinking rainwater, he’s a kind of prophet to the ‘Crakers’, weaving derivative fables and half-truths into a mythology about their creator and the equally mysterious Oryx. Once they’re out of earshot he’s cursing Crake’s name and mourning the loss of Oryx, and in a series of reminiscences - masterfully woven throughout the story - we discover how Jimmy came to know Crake, and became an unwitting accomplice to the end of human civilisation.

Atwood has taken pains to point out that this is a speculative future, and faced the scorn of the Sci-fi community when she argued against the labelling of her books as Science Fiction. Having read it, I understand the debate, and her verdict. Yes, there is science in her fiction, but it is not the star of the show; humanity itself is under scrutiny here, and Atwood tears us apart - metaphorically and, at the climax, literally. Throughout the book we’re presented with dark, extreme renderings of the world, but ones which almost seem plausible or just around the corner for today’s society. Pharmaceutical companies invent pills that cure - but distribute new diseases at random amongst the population so they can keep turning a profit. As young men, Crake and Jimmy watch legal live executions and extreme pornography through the Internet. The people in the bubble-dome ‘Compounds’ of various research corporations - HelthWyzer, RejoovenEsense, OrganInc - live seemingly sheltered lives, but their world is fragile and always seems at risk from the savages and hedonists who live elsewhere.

Atwood engineers it to be vile, and somehow pathetic; even the cringeworthy buzz-word pun names of the corporations give the impression they’re trying too hard to be clever, but this is no fault of the author’s - it’s a masterstroke. Snowman, too, cuts a pathetic figure in his ragged bedsheet, counting off words in the English language that may never be used again, listing his regrets to any imaginary figure who’ll listen. Chief among them is that he didn’t see what Crake was doing all along: playing God. We are given hints to pick up on throughout the book. The characters play a game called ‘Extinctathon’, in which players name departed species: Crake longs to be a grandmaster. He muses on how to improve humanity, and Jimmy listens to what he thinks is just idle speculation - then becomes entangled in Crake’s scheme and doesn’t see the end coming. We know what’s coming, so by this point we are accomplices, just like Jimmy - and the fact that Crake is seen as god by the only people left behind is richly, fiercely ironic.

Oryx and Crake is dystopia at its finest: distorted but at the same time hauntingly realistic. You dismiss it, because you’re not a monster, but on reflection you can’t deny that it would never happen. Then you shiver, as if someone is walking over your grave, and you turn the page.

Year of the Flood, the successor to Oryx and Crake, is out now. Atwood plans to complete the trilogy with a third book, MaddAddam, due in 2013.