ORYX & CRAKE by Margaret Atwood (Vintage Press, 2009)  –  MaddAddam Trilogy #1

The world of Oryx  &  Crake resembles a corrupted and desolate Garden of Eden.  There’s plenty of irony and black humour but ultimately this is a bleak dystopian vision of the near future.  Planet Earth is in a sorry state wherein “The whole world is now one vast controlled experiment”. 

Against a backdrop of thinly veiled class conflict between the privileged world of the ‘Compounds’  and  the dispossessed zones of the Pleeblands, we take no encouragement from re-engineered humans (Children Of Crake) who are little more than benign zombies.

Margaret Atwood throws in a plethora of apocalyptic elements, any one of which would be enough to strike the death knell for humanity.  Taken all together this looks like being the end of the world as we know it.

There are customized animals producing unpredictable cross breeds, a virulent man-made ultra virus and a series of climatic catastrophes of biblical proportions.

From an observation like “wrecked solar cars are plentiful”, it’s safe to assume that any eco-friendly solutions have floundered while mad scientists seem oblivious or uncaring about the consequences of their actions. The main impetus for all their reckless manipulation with nature appears to be a vain attempt to cope with an overcrowded planet – “There are too many people and that makes the people bad”.

The main character is Jimmy,  aka Snowman. The reason for jokey alias escaped me but having two names provides a convenient stylistic device for making plot shifts between past and present. If the Snowman name is used we are in real time – the now of the novel. When exactly these events take place is unclear as on page one we are told that “Nobody nowhere knows what time it is”.

The novel begins with Snowman waking up near the ocean, dispirited and  isolated – maybe he’s even the last man on earth. He spends his days scavenging for food and safe shelter with only a tattered sheet for warmth and company. He is described as a “castaway of sorts”  with no evident means of finding sanctuary or civilisation. The narrative voice tells us  “He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly” .

Meanwhile, Jimmy takes us back to the time before these tragic events. These parts of the story seem to belong to another novel since they tell of general struggles in a dysfunctional family,  his studies at university,  and his friendship with Glenn (named after pianist Glenn Gould).

Glenn  though soon becomes known only as Crake and his part in the whole crisis is gradually revealed. Crake  is described as a charismatic individual who “generated awe” and “exudes potential” but who is ultimately someone who (mis)uses science to play god.

It  is significant, I think, that Crake appears a few months after Jimmy’s mother disappears. Although the protagonists are male, I perceive that Atwood’s intention is for the enigmatic females – the mother and Oryx – to hold the moral compass.

Oryx is ultimately important but I still spent a good part of the novel wondering why her name is part of the novel’s title. Mostly she appears to be just a peripheral figure whose inauspicious introduction to the story is as an 8-year-old who is “another little girl on a porno site”.  A mystery surrounds her origins and true identity.  No-one knows her real name or exactly where she’s from, although Cambodia and India are suggested as possibilities.  Her exotic sexuality enthralls both Crake and Snowman, possibly intended as an Eve tempting the weak-willed males to a fall.

Overall, this is a sprawling novel full of competing ideas that don’t always gel together. It is however redeemed by a powerful conclusion that raises enough unanswered questions to make me eager to read the next two parts of the trilogy to find out what happens next.