Oryx and Crake: A scathing condemnation of the world we are creating

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Stuart’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOryx and Crake by Margaret AtwoodOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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.

~Ryan Skardal


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOryx and Crake by Margaret AtwoodOryx and Crake is a great book. One of the things I love about Atwood’s speculative fiction is her ability to take trends of modern society and spin them out to their logical, if extreme, conclusion. You’ll never look at a gated community quite the same way again.

~Ruth Arnell


Oryx and Crake by Margaret AtwoodI’d highly recommend this as well as the book set in the same world – The Year of the Flood. And Atwood’s classic dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.

~Bill Capossere


Oryx and Crake by Margaret AtwoodI love this highly imaginative speculation about the future of our society. I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Margaret Atwood at my university and she read from Oryx and Crake. What a treat!

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOryx and Crake by Margaret AtwoodOryx and Crake hit me a lot harder than I expected. It’s Margaret Atwood, so you can expect the deft characterizations, innovative narrative structure, effortless writing, and social criticism. What I wasn’t prepared for was the powerful emotional impact it had, and the thoughts it generated within me. In essence, Atwood asks a simple question: “What type of world are we creating, and does it deserve to exist? Moreover, do we deserve to exist if we stay on the path we are heedlessly pursuing?” This is not a new question. Plenty of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels have asked it in a variety of forms. But for my money, Oryx and Crake is the most eloquent and harsh condemnation of the world we have created, whether intentionally or not, that I’ve read in the last few years.

It has elements of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and I imagine some overlap with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (which I plan to read soon), but Oryx and Crake is a distinctive work with an unmistakable message. The story is about Snowman, the last human survival of a global biotech-induced plague that has wiped out humanity; the Crakers, a group of genetically modified herbivorous childlike-humans that have been designed to survive in this new world; Crake, the brilliant geneticist who has passed judgment on humanity and found it unworthy; and Oryx, a young Asian former child-prostitute who is involved with both Snowman and Crake.

The story is about a near future dominated by corporations that maintain carefully-guarded communities for their sheltered employees, and the rest of the population that live in pleeblands. Governments, armies, universities, security — everything has been privatized, as so many free-market proponents tell us would benefit us all. I wonder how many of those intellectuals, economists, professors, and social innovators live as the have-nots of the world do, on the fringes of our global economy. My guess — none at all. I myself work for a giant securities company that is built on the premise that the efficient use of capital leads to greater economic benefits for all members of society, and the fewer government restrictions, the better. So the irony of this message invariably coming from the privileged class is not lost on me, I can assure you.

Oryx and Crake is also about the online world we have created for ourselves, and with just the slightest bit of exaggerations, shows us the childhood of Snowman and Crake, growing up on a steady diet of online public executions, 24/7 webcams, Noodie News, assisted suicide, frog squashing, snuff videos, hard-core porn, and child pornography. It’s all just standard stuff for kids in the future. Looking all the content that the Internet offers without any restrictions to anyone with a smartphone, including kids of all ages, I think any parent out there can share my discomfort and fears about what this unrestricted flow of information can do to young minds not prepared to draw distinctions between what we still attempt to categorize as “good” and “bad,” “moral” and “immoral,” “healthy” and “harmful.” Who is it that decides? Well, nobody, unfortunately.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNobody wants the censored internet of China, but what price do we pay, particularly children, for the unfettered freedom of the Kardashians, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.? I certainly have found much good in social media and endless information at my fingertips, but that’s because I grew up in the pre-Internet age when I first developed interests and ideas without the ubiquitous influence of social media. How would I and my peers have fared with non-stop free entertainment on the web? Would I have ever bothered to delve into lengthy novels for hours on end, or would I go for the instant gratification of Tweets, YouTube, Google, and the like? It’s such a slippery slope, and the same question applies: “Do guns kill people, or people kill people? Does the internet kill meaningful thought and reflection, or does it depend on the user?” It’s just a tool, after all, say proponents of the Internet. But when I see people’s fingers twitching on their mobile phones the instant they have a free moment, and the sea of bowed heads staring at their little private digital worlds (and my head among them), I have to wonder, is this the world we want for ourselves? It’s not as if going back to a simple agrarian existence is even a remote possibility in our massively-interlinked global society. 99.9% of us would be dead within a week without the global economic infrastructure, and if we did survive it would be about as pleasant as The Walking Dead.

So when the brilliant scientist Crake engineers a supervirus to wipe out humanity for its sins, his judgment is cold and harsh. To paraphrase, his view is: “The world we have created is evil, and we cannot expect to solve our own problems. Therefore, I will annihilate humanity and create a new, simpler, and more innocent species to carry on in the post-human world.” That’s much the same idea as Vonnegut’s Galapagos, though that book has a much whimsical tone to mask the harsh message beneath. And so every reader of Oryx and Crake has to ask themselves that question. Atwood doesn’t let us squirm away. Oftentimes post-apocalyptic tales are cautionary in nature, and warn us to step away from the path we are going down in terms of environmental destruction, overpopulation, religious intolerance, overreliance on technology, tinkering with genetics, etc. And certainly Oryx and Crake is about that. On the other hand, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a gentle and elegant hymn to the good and beautiful aspects of our world that we take for granted, and that is a valid view as well.

But Oryx and Crake is no gentle fable. The future world it depicts has basically nothing worthy of redemption at all. The privileged corporate workers in their guarded compounds live a cynical and willfully ignorant existence, knowing their activities are built upon exploiting the plebes outside. The plebes for their part live a brutish existence lacking in appeal. Snowman is closer to the reader’s perspective as he observes with horror what Crake has planned for humanity. And Oryx is an oddball — a young girl subjected to the worst that developing world poverty can dish out, and yet having a beatific and serene outlook on life that chooses to focus on the good and ignore the ugliness. But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Instead, Crake takes it into his own hands to pass judgment and ruthlessly exterminate humanity. He takes action, but what a cruel and final sentence. We, humanity, are not given any chance for redemption or even rebuttal. I hardly think Atwood is suggesting that his act is justified or right, but she also doesn’t shy away from putting our world on trial and letting us think about our own answers. It’s a very intense experience and I can’t imagine any reader who doesn’t finish the book without stopping for a long time, maybe even days later, to think about the implications. Amazing, wonderful, and terrifying all at once. I’m tempted to read it again right now, but I need to move on. I’ll definitely revisit it again someday.

I’m fully aware that Oryx and Crake is the first part of the MADDADDAM TRILOGY, but I’m reluctant to proceed to The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. That’s because I’ve read dozens of reviews of both, many from friends whose judgment I trust. And what I’ve gathered is this: The Year of the Flood explores much of the same territory of Oryx and Crake and fills in many details of the world and relationships there. And while some people say this book is just as good as the first one, many said they prefer Oryx and Crake where all the ideas and characters are new, and said the second book is well written but lacks the impact of the original. The reviews of MaddAddam are even more mixed, with a lot of people seriously disappointed in comparison to the first and second books. Because I was so impressed by Oryx and Crake, I don’t want to ruin that feeling, so if anything I’d rather re-read it instead. Or I may read The Year of the Flood someday to learn more, and skip the final book. We’ll see.

~Stuart Starosta


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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, N.K. Jemisin, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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11 comments

  1. Sweet blog, Ryan. Intresting stuff. I hadn’t heard of Oryx and Crake or Margret Atwood before.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. Sometimes labels are helpful, other times they are not. I try not to worry to much about that and just enjoy the story for whatever it happens to be.

  3. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve heard a lot about it. Seems to be one of those novels that’s a must-read for a lot of people no matter what their preferred genre, or at least that’s what I’ve heard from others. I’m going to have to take the chance on it at some point and see what all the hype is about.

  4. @Ruth. I think you’ve identified exactly what Atwood does so well in Oryx and Crake.

  5. I tried reading “A Handmaid’s Tale” three times. I never got to page 50. Science fiction from anti-science people usually isn’t good.

    So now she is trying to do a science as Frankenstein story. Science is the study of reality and reality is indifferent to the existence of humanity. We can use what we learn about reality well or stupidly. Reality will not care. Tom Godwin covered this in “The Cold Equations”.

    Give me “real” science fiction, Atwood can speculate all she wants. What science does she actually know?

    • I prefer Oryx and Crake to Handmaid's Tale, but I'd characterize neither the author nor her these books as anti-science.
  6. Yes, I think you missed the point of my review. Atwood is criticizing the ways that we are using science, not science itself. She then extrapolates many of the dangerous trends that we can see in our “reality” today. You don’t need to be a scientist to speculate on such trends, and this book didn’t strike me as all that far-fetched.

    • Kevin S. /
      Outstanding review, Stuart. This book describes an extreme view of our future but I agree with you that it's not that far-fetched. One only needs to look at what we're doing to our environment (I'm not a manmade global warning nut but I do believe it's common sense to take care of the planet we call home), our reliance on technology and what technology is doing to our society and the job market, the "leaders" we are electing to lead our country, etc. and Oryx and Crake looks like something that could happen next week. I only rated the book 3* on Goodreads because I felt the first 150 pages dragged and I didn't like the ending. The last 80 pages (with the exception of the very end) were very good. If nothing else, Oryx and Crake definitely made me think about what is going on in our society and what the future could look like. As a High school teacher, I have to admit I have serious concerns.
      • Thanks for your comments, Kevin! One of the things that distinguished Oryx and Crake from the vast majority of post-apocalyptic cautionary tales was its spot-on depiction of the growing impact on our youth from social media and reality TV. I have a 14yr old daughter so I can observe first-hand how she is continually immersed in that world of ubiquitous connectivity but also short-attention spans and superficial thinking. So as you are a high school teacher, it must be with mixed feeling to see how your students are growing up into adults, with a very complicated and conflicted world we are handing over to them.
        • Kevin S. /
          Oh I am very, very concerned about the impact of technology on our society. Of course, technology has many great benefits and conveniences. However, I think it is also doing a lot of damage that will not be reversed. Like in Oryx and Crake, kids have instant access to things that are very unhealthy for them. What's worse is how parents are totally unprepared or oblivious to what their kids are seeing. Sad.
          • I know exactly what you mean as a parent - I realize that I can't protect my daughter from harmful web content directly - I just have to try to encourage her to develop her own judgement and good sense to be able to filter the good from the bad, the sensible content from the nonsense. But what scares me is that it is no longer under the control of either parents or teachers - but directly in the hands of children themselves, and they will have to decide how to make sense of it all.

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