In anticipation of Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming new novel, The Heart Goes Last, which will be published on September 29, Fiction Unbound is looking back with awe-filled wonder on the author’s post-apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). Today, Unbound Writers CH Lips and Mark Springer share their appreciation of Oryx and Crake.
WARNING: This appreciation contains spoilers!
Oryx and Crake is speculative fiction at its finest. Part dystopian satire, part post-apocalyptic nightmare, the novel examines the flaws of contemporary society through the lens of an imagined future that could all too easily come to pass. But examines isn’t the right word for what Atwood accomplishes here; eviscerates is more fitting. As in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), her classic takedown of totalitarian theocratic misogyny, the author’s satiric wit is razor-sharp and unsparing. Oryx and Crake isn’t a book for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Potential outrages include a narcissistic, self-pitying protagonist who treats women poorly, unflinching depictions of child pornography and sex slavery, all manner of unfettered consumerist debauchery, and (spoiler alert) the deliberate annihilation of the human race by a brilliant scientist. Oh, and corporations control the world, social and economic inequality are endemic, catastrophic climate change is a given, and science and technology, especially genetic engineering, are exploited purely for profit by said all-powerful corporations without regard for human consequences. If some of these details sound uncomfortably like the present, well, that’s the point. Oryx and Crake isn’t about the future; it’s about the present. The book is about us. Whatever future ultimately comes to pass—dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or otherwise—we are responsible for it. This story is our story.
Oryx and Crake begins a few months after an initially unspecified apocalypse has destroyed human civilization and wiped out the human race. Snowman, known as Jimmy before the apocalypse, believes he is the sole survivor, the last man. Snowman scratches out a meager, starvation-level existence among the ruins, laments the death of his species, and keeps watch over the Crakers, a new species of humanoids engineered to be genetically perfect by Snowman/Jimmy’s one-time best friend, Crake.
Through Snowman’s recollections of his life, we see the world as it was, and we witness the events that lead up to the apocalypse, which, it turns out, was a viral pandemic engineered by Crake. Crake’s reasons for destroying the human race are complicated—revenge against a corrupt and corrupting social order that murdered his father, lack of empathy for the suffering of others, the belief that the earth will be a better place without humanity’s many flaws.
Before the apocalypse, Crake and Jimmy are both obsessed with Oryx, a beautiful woman who was sold into sex slavery as a child. Crake and Jimmy first see her on a child pornography website, then years later Crake finds her working as a prostitute in the United States and hires her to be his lab assistant. (Her responsibilities include taking on the role of a mystical earth goddess/mother nature figure to educate the Crakers, unwittingly distributing the pharmaceutical products that contain Crake’s super-virus all over the world, and being Crake’s lover.) Things get complicated when Oryx starts sleeping with Jimmy too.
When Crake unleashes the apocalypse, he spares Jimmy, with the intention that Jimmy will take care of the Crakers and help them thrive in the post-human world. Jimmy leads the Crakers to safety, assuming his post-apocalypse identity Snowman in the process—a mournful, cryptic demi-god figure in the Crakers’ mythology. He tells them he has been sent by Crake, their creator, and Oryx, their teacher, to protect them.
As Snowman looks back on his pre-apocalypse life as Jimmy, the things he did, but mostly what he failed to do, he tries to make sense of Crake’s choice to use his genius to destroy the world while also coming to terms with his own culpability.
Mark Springer: Oryx and Crake is a warning against a future of technological overreach fueled by soulless capitalism and corporate greed. It is also an indictment. The charges? Lack of compassion, lack of empathy, loss of humanity. The accused? Homo sapiens sapiens, and especially the modern Western incarnation of the species, which continues to perpetrate and/or tolerate all manner of violence, exploitation, and degradation even as it achieves ever more stunning advancements in every field of scientific and intellectual study. Throughout the book, Atwood’s withering satire is aimed squarely at this gap between what we are capable of as a species, as evidenced by our greatest achievements, and how we actually treat each other—a tragic reality which again and again falls short of our potential. Her indictment, uncomfortable as it is to admit, is addressed to all of us—and that means you, too, dear reader.
CH Lips: If we continue to allow the Crakes of this world to operate unchecked we are in dire trouble. Something big has to change, and it’s clear that Atwood thinks social change starts at the individual level. That’s why Jimmy is the protagonist of this story, because he is an Everyman/woman. He is flawed and vulnerable and doing his best—which often isn’t good enough—to succeed in the world into which he was born. We don’t always like him, but we can relate to his struggles, and we can identify with his deepest desires—to be accepted, to be loved. And, when he becomes Snowman in the aftermath of Crake’s pandemic, we identify with his loneliness and feelings of helplessness and despair as he contemplates his role in bringing about the extinction of humanity.
MS: In all her books, and in this one especially, Atwood brilliantly portrays the ways in which people are shaped—often without their knowledge—by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Society and culture are powerful forces, somehow both external and internal at the same time. We see this push-pull/individual-choice-vs.-collective-influence dynamic dramatized through Jimmy as we follow him from childhood to adulthood to Crake’s unwitting accomplice in the annihilation of the human race to lone survivor of the apocalypse.
As a child, Jimmy is emotionally wounded by the failures of his parents, who compromised their own noble ideals of making the world a better place in exchange for wealth and privilege as scientists working for unethical biotech conglomerates. Young Jimmy internalizes these wounds—he is a perpetual disappointment to his father because he’s not a “numbers guy” and therefore not good at math and/or science; his mother suffers a fit of conscience and runs away from the corporate-sponsored luxury Compound where the family lives to join an anti-corporate, anti-government resistance movement—and at the same time internalizes the social expectations that caused them.
The contradictions are crippling. Jimmy grows up with a negative opinion of his father, and of everything his father represents, but the society he belongs to—a society of privilege and technological wonder and corporate hegemony—is literally everything his father represents; it is the world his father, and countless other men and women who think like his father, have created. The world that he, Jimmy, will inherit is ready-made and overabundant with brilliantly engineered and marketed products to meet any demand—NooSkins treatments to refresh your aging skin, ChickieNobs franchises for cheap fried chicken dinners, live-streaming public executions and assisted suicides, child pornography, sex slavery, and on and on. There is no escaping this world, not without giving up the safety, order, and material comforts of the Compounds. There is no alternative, other than running away to the pleeblands where the lower classes live, or joining the resistance like his mother did.
CHL: The disparity between the Compounds and the pleeblands—not to mention the rest of the world—is so extreme, giving up his privileged life is not even a choice. So Jimmy does what we all do: he sticks with what he knows, he goes along, he follows the path of least resistance. For example, when he and Crake are fourteen, they do what all kids their age do—they get high and troll around online:
And afterward, Jimmy would stumble home in a daze, “feeling as if he’d been to an orgy, one at which he’d had no control at all over what had happened to him. What had been done to him.” Helpless in the grip of a narcissistic culture that has done away with empathy and acknowledges no limits on the pursuit of self-gratification.
MS: It is during one of these drug-addled porn binges that Jimmy and Crake first see Oryx, the woman they will both obsess over for the rest of their lives. Except when they see her for the first time, she isn’t a woman; she’s only eight. And she is starring on a porn site called “HottTotts.” For a moment she looks directly into the camera, “right into the eyes of the viewer—right into Jimmy’s eyes, into the secret person inside him.”
CHL: This is the moment when the reality of the world breaks through Jimmy’s desensitized cultural bubble for the first time:
But later—much later, when he and Oryx are adults and lovers—Jimmy only goes so far in owning his own guilt. He downplays it, spins it, rationalizes it: “He remembered himself watching her. How could he have done that to her? And yet, it hadn’t hurt her, had it?”
MS: This must be an effective strategy, because when Jimmy is finally with Oryx, whom he claims to love, he is more jealous than guilty. It’s another emotional contradiction that makes perfect sense for a character raised in a narcissistic society: his own fears, needs and emotions are always the focus of his thoughts. He is furious with the men who did these things to her, while at the same time denying that he was, by virtue of his participation, however passive or remote, one of those men.
CHL: It’s willful ignorance on Jimmy’s part. But alone after the viral pandemic, living Crake’s nightmare vision of a better world, the older, wiser, tormented Snowman can’t ignore all that he did and all that he didn’t do when he was Jimmy, all the injustices he overlooked, all the suffering he ignored, all the signs he failed to see:
Atwood’s choice of the word inchoate in this passage is brilliant for its double meaning. The primary meaning is a repetition of the word before it—not fully formed or developed—but the second meaning is a legal definition: anticipating a further criminal act. Atwood is unequivocal here: Jimmy is culpable.
MS: And if Jimmy is culpable, then so is everyone who gave up empathy for a well-paying job and a comfortable life walled off from the pleeblands—and that means us, too. (Here’s the indictment, signed, sealed, and delivered.) The excesses and injustices of every age arise from ignorance and a lack of empathy. Ignorance is hard to sustain in the modern age, it requires concerted effort, structure. Reality has a way of getting through our walls, no matter how adamantly we try to shut it out. But once you have given up on empathy, the facts don’t matter. The suffering of other people doesn’t matter, because you no longer see other people as fully human.
CHL: So the question at the heart of the book is, what can one person do to change society? How could Jimmy have made a difference?
MS: It’s an unsatisfying answer precisely because it’s so simple: you change the world by changing yourself and your behavior. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, mostly we can’t be bothered, because we can’t get past the belief that big-picture events are beyond our control. So we do what Jimmy does: we stick with what we know, we go along, we follow the path of least resistance. Renewable energy? Sounds expensive. Gas-guzzling SUV? Convenient for road trips. iPhone, house in the suburbs, central air conditioning, Costco membership, frequent air travel? Guilty on all counts. Because the real costs of all these things don’t affect me directly (yet), in the same way that the costs of the injustices in the world of Oryx and Crake didn’t affect Jimmy until he made a connection with someone who was affected by them—Oryx.
CHL: That’s the challenge: finding the motivation to make the changes that matter before it really is too late to affect the big picture.
MS: In Atwood’s eyes we are all Jimmy, goofing our collective way toward extinction. Whether we become Snowman, the guilt-ridden survivors of an apocalypse we could have prevented, remains to be seen.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.