Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman: an old man living in a forest by the sea. The forest is full of savage genetically-engineered monstrosities; Snowman, starving, might be the only human left on the earth following a deadly plague. He’s not exactly alone, though – by the shores of the sea live the Crakers, a group of posthumans who have also been genetically engineered to, among other things, digest grass and other raw plants, have sexual urges only at specific times, and heal each other by humming at a certain frequency.
The Crakers see Snowman as a kind of god, and press him for stories about their creator, Crake. As Snowman tells them sanitised fables designed to consolidate his own position, we learn through flashback the true story of their genesis and of the apocalyptic plague. We hear about Snowman’s childhood friend Crake, who grows up to be a top geneticist with dangerous ideas, and about his crush Oryx, a sexual fantasy made suddenly real.
There’s a lot to unpack in this text. I want to think first about Atwood’s oft-quoted claim that her books are not science fiction: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” This is not only a bad take, it’s a weird one, rooted as it is in the assumption that what happens in a book, its plot, is the most important or indeed only element doing any work. And, really, it’s hard to imagine that Atwood really, truly thinks of the events of Oryx and Crake as something that “could really happen”. Its SFnal parts – by which I mean mainly the parts involving Crake – are brightly painted and shallow, peppered with capitalised neologisms (RejoovenEssense, HelthWyzer, BlyssPluss) and references to a hyperviolent society gone far, far off the rails, with freely available child pornography, televised executions and general brutality as entertainment. A complex and skilful portrait of a realistic future it surely ain’t; in fact it’s in the grand old tradition of the cautionary tale, as exemplified by George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451.
These parts of the novel are, in other words, satire; satire of corporate power, of our obsession with shiny new tech, of our ever-more-toxic relationship with the internet. And in their satire they’re as – hmm – referentially unrealistic as the talking squids, intergalactic space travel and Martians Atwood repudiates so vehemently. They’re using a type of fantasy to talk about present culture, present obsessions.
But then there’s the other half of the novel: the parts about Oryx and Snowman. And these are in their own way as chilling as anything Crake gets up to, despite their lower stakes. See, Snowman first sees Oryx, as a child, in a porn video. As her story unfolds it becomes clear that she was trafficked away from her village in an unspecified non-Western country. It also becomes clear that Snowman is more attracted to her as a victim than as a person, constantly nagging her for details about her childhood which she is unwilling to give. (Snowman, of course, thinks he loves her.) Oryx’s strategies of evasion remind me a little of Grace Marks, the heroine of Atwood’s earlier novel Alias Grace: like Oryx, she’s surrounded by men who want to solve the riddle of her, and manages to preserve her humanity by remaining elusive, mysterious. These sections of the novel are more conventionally “realistic” than those featuring Crake, focusing on things that could and do “really happen” and on Snowman’s and Oryx’s reactions to them – in other words, they’re much more character-based, in a way that literary fiction tends to prize. So it’s true, in a way, that Oryx and Crake transcends science fiction: SF is just one of the modes it’s deploying, but it’s not all SF.
But what’s Atwood hoping to achieve by folding these two modes, SF and litfic, together? To answer that, I want to look first at what she’s doing making Snowman our point-of-view character. He has no heroic qualities: pre-apocalypse, he is an advertising copywriter cynically twisting the English language into unrecognisable shapes; post-apocalypse, he’s quite happy to manipulate the innocent Crakers for his own comfort (forcing them, for example, to kill fish for him every day, despite their vegetarianism). By comparison with Crake, certainly, he is utterly unremarkable.
The key lies, I think, in his willingness to go along with Crake’s plans when he’s eventually hired by Crake’s corporation; his utter moral incuriosity about the fact that Crake’s literally breeding a new strain of humans. Snowman is Everyman, accepting moral compromise in return for material comfort, as most of us are forced to under capitalism. His inaction makes him complicit in Crake’sa hubris; and his Everyman status makes us, in turn, complicit. We are all Snowmen: enablers, willing or unwilling, of a globalised system that objectifies humans and animals both. Because what else is Crake doing, in engineering a perfect version of humanity, than failing to see humanity “in the round”, the good and the bad?
Snowman, too, is guilty of objectification, in the way he treats Oryx, not as a person but as an ideal. This, then, is the link between the two modes, SF and realism. And through this link Atwood suggests that small, individual failures of humanity, empathy, curiosity can, writ large, spell disaster; is, in fact, the same as disaster.
It has to be said that this is not a terribly interesting conclusion: substituting the speculative for the real is just what SF writers do, and have been doing for a long time. Really I think that sums up my experience of Oryx and Crake: it was a fine book, I didn’t dislike it, but nor can I see myself reading it again.