Oryx and Crake rabbit

A few months ago, I picked up the book Maddaddam on the spur of the moment after I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop. At the time the only thing I knew about it was that it was written by Margaret Atwood. I’d just finished the stunning The Handmaid’s Tale and was the book was still on my mind.

When I find a new author that I love, as with Atwood, my weekly trips to my local Oxfam become quests to seek out the author’s previous works which often results in pillars of new books growing on my bookshelf.

I eventually got around to reading Maddaddam before I realised in the first few pages that it was the second book of a trilogy. Disappointed, I moved on to another novel, but a few weeks of further second-hand bookshop searching and I finally found the first in the series: Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake

The only Margaret Atwood I’d read previously was The Handmaid’s Tale, but I had no other knowledge of Atwood’s work, so I had no expectations when I started Oryx and Crake. So it was to my surprise that what unfolded before me were a series of characters damaged by a near-future world set against the backdrop of a twisted diplopia. But what makes Oryx and Crake particularly compelling is that no matter how dark and disturbing Atwood’s world becomes, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, every feels frighteningly close to home and familiar.

Atwood describes Oryx and Crake, as she does with A Handmaid’s Tale, as speculative fiction rather than science fiction because it does not deal with things “we can’t yet do or begin to do”. Everything in this tale, from the protagonists use of the internet for his own carnal pleasures, the way that extreme violence has been normalised, to the way the clinical and rational logic of the scientific method can create disturbing monsters for human morality to deal with.

Oryx and Crake tells the story of Snowman, a strange, bedraggled loner who lives outside of what remains of human society as he struggles to stave off hunger and survive. To say much more would be to spoil the story, but Oryx and Crake is one of the most intelligent, clearly defined works of dystopian — or is it utopian? — science-fiction I’ve ever read. Atwood clearly understands not only the science of genetics in some depth, but also the worrying implications for the development of the human race.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks as Snowman attempts to find his place in his new world. While at first Snowman’s situation appears strange and bizarre, through his story telling we slowly develop an understanding of how he came to exist, and through the development of three relationships, how the world came to be as it is.

At its heart, Oryx and Crake is a love story, but even this is twisted in disturbing ways by Atwood’s stunning imagination. Concepts of human and animal genetic engineering, transhumanism, and all dealt with with dark and clever humour, and asks what it means to be human, or even alive.

Oryx and Crake Pigoons

Oryx and Crake bears some similarities to Atwood’s previous novels, in that it tells of a future broken by ideologies and demagogues. Oryx and Crake could be considered a sister novel to A Handmaid’s Tale, but where Offred’s world is damaged by religion run amok, Snowman’s is damaged by uncontrolled scientific developments.

Like A Handmaid’s Tale, the world of Oryx and Crake is both unfathomably distant and oddly familiar. The way Snowman, entertained himself in his previous life feels twisted and disturbing, but we’re only one step away from that.

If you’re expecting more A Handmaid’s Tale, you might be disappointed; not in the excellent story telling or characters, but Oryx and Crake is written in a very different style to the former, it’s almost comic is style.

As I said before, Oryx and Crake is the first novel in a trilogy. I have yet to read the sequels but Oryx and Crake is already starting to feel like a creation story.

I’m about to start on the sequel, Maddaddam.

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