I’ve been meaning to read one of Margaret Atwood’s books for years. Actually, thinking about who it was that was originally recommended her to me, it’s probably the better part of a decade, or round about the time that Oryx and Crake was published. Despite this intention, I don’t think I really knew anything about her fiction, aside from a vague idea that it may reside vaguely within the science fiction genre.
Now that I’ve read Oryx and Crake, sci-fi is an accurate label, (given the major part that science plays in the plot), but for those who care enough to distinguish within the genre, it’s probably more appropriate to class it as speculative fiction. In fact Atwood herself prefers this label, and has a rather good explanation of the distinction. The setting of Oryx and Crake owes a lot to the conventions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, though it is perhaps less political than these two other works. Or maybe it’s just that the nature of politics has changed so much in the last sixty years that it’s impossible to compare the two.
In the world of Oryx and Crake, corporations run the world. As far as we know, society as we recognise it has crumbled, and instead the characters live in compounds created by various Bio-tech companies, reminiscent of the micro-burbs of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash combined with the sort of planned towns like Bournville that you’d find in 19th Century England. It’s all a bit totalitarian and creepy, possibly because this doesn’t seem to be particularly difficult to imagine as a long term eventuality any more? Or perhaps I’m just a bit cynical.
Despite all the comparisons I’ve made above, Oryx and Crake reminds me of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Genetic engineering and its results play a major driving force for the plot, because what I’ve been hitherto talking about only happens in flashbacks. The story itself takes place after the end of humanity, with the narrator,one of the few survivors, acting as a caretaker for the first generations of the new and improved Homo Sapiens. In contrast to Where Late, this isn’t just cloned humans, but instead humanoids that have been specifically tailored by the mysterious Crake (who does admittedly become less mysterious through the flashbacks) to be a more perfect species. It’s certainly an interesting concept.
I think what struck me most about the book was that it doesn’t feel dated at all. Apart from a small reference to a library’s digitised catalogue living on CD-ROM, there’s nothing that makes you think “Oh yes, this was written in the early 2000s”, which is definitely something be praised. Atwood also avoids moralising when it comes to the genetic engineering that’s going on (well, except for the bit that causes the extinction of humanity) which is a nice change.