Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake begins with a picture of utter ruin and devastation. Abandoned buildings and computers litter the landscape. There are wild animals roaming the streets. This is the end of the world as we know it. Or perhaps the end of the world as we will know it, since this is the near future, when uncontrolled bioengineering, environmental damage, and a stark gap between the haves and the have-nots have created a world in chaos, political instability, danger, and disease.
In the aftermath of some colossal catastrophe that has destroyed civilization, only the Snowman survives, perhaps the only human being left on earth. In a long series of flashbacks, he relives the destruction of a society that was perhaps not worth saving in the first place. He remembers meeting his genius best friend Crake, and the mysterious Oryx, who was brought up as a child prostitute in Southeast Asia and now is alluring, wry, and exasperatingly practical. He remembers the long spiral of things going out of control. And he remembers the last push over the edge.
I’m an Atwood fan from way back, and of course this is not the first time she’s done dystopia. While The Handmaid’s Tale is not my favorite of Atwood’s novels, it’s probably the one most people have read or heard of, and it too describes a possible near future, a society that has crossed some terrible frontier. But there’s no real comparison. The Handmaid’s Tale has an undercurrent of anger, an edge of disturbing wit, and Atwood’s acute insight into women’s problems and relationships. In comparison, Oryx and Crake feels like play. What would happen if we crossed wolves and dogs, snakes and rats? (Wolvogs and snats, in case you were wondering.) What would happen if an idealist tried to make the perfect human being? (Citron-scented, many races, no hierarchy, and no sense of humor.) We’re never terribly involved in the Snowman’s plight, partly because of the prevalence of flashbacks, and partly because even in those flashbacks, he is not the major player. While the vision of a post-apocalyptic world irreversibly damaged by genetic engineering and climate change is interesting, it’s never gripping or terrifying, and the science is not terribly original. The most intriguing character is Oryx, and she has the fewest appearances. Atwood’s best talents lie in the scalpel she uses to dissect women, their motivations, their relationships. The fact that she didn’t do it here was frustrating.
This is a reasonably interesting book, and it’s a quick read (unlike several of Atwood’s other novels.) I wasn’t sorry I read it. But unlike Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride, it’s not one I’ll return to again and again. I look forward to her next novel (or book of poems), though. She always provides a new way of looking at the world, and particularly the underground and tangled world of women, and when she’s doing that, it’s impossible to put her down.