Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – A Book Review

My intention of reading and reviewing a book a week has fallen by the wayside. I am still reading though in a less forced manner and am consequently enjoying it more. I have just finished reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood which was first published in 2003. This is the first in her MaddAddam series, a post apocalyptic series set after humanity has screwed up the world through using science to play God. Atwood herself describes the book as speculative fiction and adventure romance rather than sci-fi as all the science described already exists to a certain degree.

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I had heard of Margaret Atwood before, and always in a positive manner. I firmly believed she was a good writer even though I had never read any of her work, such is the effect of reviews. Having now read Oryx and Crake, I still believe this to be true, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I was completely satisfied by the novel.

The novel focuses on Jimmy, a.k.a. Snowman. You follow his life as he struggles to exist in this new destroyed world and learn of the cause of the current state through his musings on his past. Even the earliest point of Jimmy’s memory is set in our future, science has developed to the stage of creating new creatures, growing organs, and generally playing God. The elite are those that are scientifically intelligent, all other skills are no longer valued. Those who are of use in the fast evolving world of microbiology and genetic engineering live in little cocoons of apparent safety and normality called Compounds and Modules (I imagine it a bit like the Truman Show), while the unwashed masses live outside the walls, in the Pleeblands, where disease and crime run free.I would explain the plot but there isn’t really one as such, or if there is it’s a bit like Columbo, where your shown the ending at the start and then spend the rest of your time trying to figure out how you got there.

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I am still convince Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, however her book was not what I expected; true to my usual rule, I refused to find out anything about the book before reading and reviewing which leaves me quite vulnerable to this particular fate. The author throws you straight in to the middle of everything with little to know information, in much the same way you can learn a language through immersion I think Atwood tries to get you to understand her world through immersion also. Words and names like OrganInc and Pigoons, Wolvogs and Rakunks are thrown at you with no explanation, echoes of spoken words come from the past without a known speaker and rules without obvious reasons are stated; gradually as memories are shared and the story evolves most ideas come into focus and a clearer picture forms. Over all I think I quite liked the approach, it was hard at first but the more you read the more it makes sense. I imagine it is a book that will have even more to it reading a second time.

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Another unexpected side to this book was the language and some of the topics. I don’t know whether to call it coarse, crude, base or gritty, but it certainly isn’t family friendly. It rarely if ever seems to be thrown in pointlessly but over all it had a much coarser feel to it than I had imagined. Sex, porn, snuff, human trafficking and others are mentioned, not in a sexy, explicit sort of way, but in a ‘this is how far humanity has sunk’ kind of way. It’s all written in quite a blunt manner, never glorifying or reveling in any of it, simply as part of the narrative.

The main characters themselves are all very flawed and damaged, when you have gone through and apocalypse that is understandable, but even the early times, when they are children there are may characteristics and manners that are hard to find acceptable. Again I think that maybe Atwood commenting on the state of man at that point. Going back to Atwood’s description of the novel as ‘speculative fiction and adventure romance’, ‘speculative fiction’ is a good name for it. It is quite clearly a vivid picture of how Atwood can see the world getting lost in humanities self importance. ‘Adventure romance’ however I struggle to see. If there is any relationship that could be considered romantic then it is a deeply unhealthy one. The word adventure also seems miss-applied, adventure has such a positive spin to it, there is little if anything positive about the lives revealed in Oryx and Crake.

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So overall I would say that Oryx and Crake is well written. It is gripping, it is clever, it is well researched and developed. The world is fully created, the history well incorporated into the novel and the language is descriptive and emotive. As negatives I must say there seems very little plot, and the ending wasn’t everything I’d hoped it would be, however there are two other books so it may be redeemed yet. The fact that I fully intend to read the other two books may be all you need to know about this one. I will also hunt out the TV series that is being developed when that is available as well.

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