[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood details an apocalyptic plague, introduces a new species of creatures that have been genetically designed to replace humanity, and the villain is a mad scientist in love. What could be more “SFF” than Oryx and Crake?
Quite a lot, according to Margaret Atwood, who prefers to describe her novel as “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction.” In interviews promoting Oryx and Crake, Atwood explained that everything that takes place in Oryx and Crake is based on trends that we can see today, as opposed to distant planets that have an allegorical connection to our lives. Atwood is “speculating” about where our society is headed. It’s a distinction that some readers may choose to reject, but it’s an approach that adds urgency to the world that Atwood has built.
When the story opens, “Snowman,” the last human, is standing on a beach looking at now useless skyscrapers as he considers that no one anywhere can say what time it is. This is the world after the plague. However, although Snowman is the last of his kind, he is not alone. With him are the “Crakers,” a group of genetically hybrid creatures, designed to eliminate all of humanity’s flaws. The Crakers are better able to defend themselves against nature – the scorching heat, the biting bugs, and the surviving predators – than Snowman, but they are otherwise naïve about the world they find themselves in. Snowman shepherds this new species through its early years, and the Crakers use their manufactured genes to help Snowman survive the post-apocalypse.
A second storyline introduces us to the world before the plague. Today, many scientists warn that we need to curb our emissions, our wanton use of resources, and our reliance on monocultures. Atwood speculates about what will happen if we dismiss these warnings: the sun seems hotter, the weather is violent and erratic, and bacteria have evolved to the point that the wealthy live in isolated compounds that protect them from the germs that prey on the poor. Thankfully, there are also exciting new drugs like “Blysspluss,” which protects its users from sexually transmitted diseases and is also said to improve orgasms. Readers that have little patience for allegory or obtuse allusions will not have to struggle to find Atwood’s targets.
There are plenty of targets – and warnings – in Oryx and Crake, and it often feels like a call to action; however, it is not a simple screed in which a green-thumbed hero triumphs over a cigar-smoking businessman. Instead, Oryx and Crake, as the title suggests, is a love story. Our mad scientist, Crake, is in love with a former child prostitute, Oryx, who has also had a relationship with Crake’s best friend, Jimmy. Unfortunately, as fans of Margaret Atwood’s “literary” fiction already know, love is all too often a painful experience.
Oryx and Crake can also be approached as an “SF” adventure as well. One of my favorite scenes has Snowman on the run from “pigoons,” which are extremely intelligent pigs whose genetic code has been spliced with human code. Snowman has been cut off from his protective Crakers and he has to think fast if he’s going to prevent the extinction of the human race.
Oryx and Crake is a masterpiece that sits on the edge of several genres. Atwood combines the distinctive character development and wordplay that has earned her so many literary fiction accolades with the speculative premise that we associate with SFF to create an impressive story that few readers will be able to forget. Regardless of where it’s shelved, Oryx and Crake is a must read for SFF fans.