As a novelist, Margaret Atwood is, in my mind, two completely different writers. Sometimes she’s a writer of particularly good fiction about women and relationships (The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye), and sometimes she’s a writer of chilling dystopian fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale). Only in the case of The Blind Assassin does she seem to straddle both genres. I enjoy Atwood’s work in both of these genres enough that I usually make a point of reading her novels soon after they are released. So it’s been several years since I read Atwood’s 2003 dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake. Because her new book, The Year of the Flood, takes place in the same world, this seemed like a good time to revisit Oryx and Crake.
Oryx and Crake is set at some undisclosed point in the future, probably later this century. Snowman, previously known as Jimmy, is, as far as he knows, the last human left on the planet. The world has been devastated ecologically and biologically in ways that only gradually become clear. Snowman lives with a group of human-like creatures called Crakers, who seek him out for advice and treat him as a sort of eccentric sage. He also serves as our guide, both to his present-day world and the past events that brought it to this point. (See Jenny’s review for more on the plot and characters.)
On first read, I was absorbed in understanding what was going on and piecing together the narrative. How did these things happen? Is Snowman alone on the planet? Who are Oryx and Crake? In that reading, the book was primarily a polemic on the dangers of science run amok. There are also some musings on art and the impossibility of silencing the spirit. It worked, and I enjoyed it, but as a dystopia, it’s not especially original.
However, this time I was struck with how Atwood seems to be exploring how we construct reality. The scientific aspects of the story involve genetic engineering. The characters are trying to build life that isn’t susceptible to disease, discomfort, or other frailties. But the scientists aren’t alone in that. Before the disaster, Snowman/Jimmy worked in communications, in spin-doctoring. When he talks to the Crakers, he tells them a version of the truth that he thinks they can understand and that will not overly distress them. Their understanding of history, of creation, of humanity, is constructed almost entirely by Snowman. But the rabbit hole goes deeper. In fact, on this second encounter with the story, I’m convinced that a lot of what is presented as truth in Snowman’s flashbacks is in fact a massaging of the truth, designed to fit Snowman’s fantasies. But where does Snowman’s fantasy end and the truth begin?
I enjoyed this book the first time, but a second visit deepened my appreciation for it. I’m very excited about The Year of the Flood, which I plan to read in the next few weeks. The audio version, narrated by Campbell Scott, is well done. This isn’t anything close to my favorite Atwood, but second-tier Atwood is still very good fiction.