When word got around that Margaret Atwood’s 11th novel was going to be a work of speculative fiction‚ her readers probably hoped for the best but feared the worst. The best would be a revisiting of the dystopian darkness she explored in her 1985 masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that grows more prescient with each passing year. The worst would be a replay of the planet Zycron sections of The Blind Assassin, with their three suns and virgin sacrifices and zorch-ray death guns.
Oryx and Crake, fortunately, falls closer to the former than the latter. It’s a story about The End of Civilization As We Know It, but the event is coming up very soon – around the year 2050, it seems, from the hints Atwood provides. That’s close enough to the present for us to be able to recognize the seeds of catastrophe in our morning newspaper.
Environmental degradation, global warming, and the resultant floods up the East Coast (Harvard has drowned) provide the backdrop, but the central action involves our most disturbing current headlines: cloning and genetic manipulation, toxic microbes and viruses, and a culture that has handed all the important decisions over to the “numbers people.”
It’s a broad canvas that allows Atwood to show off her brilliant talent for satire and wordplay, as well as her considerable love and knowledge of the natural world. If there’s an emptiness at the core of the story, it has to do with her choice of protagonist.
We first meet Jimmy (Snowman, as he calls himself) living in rags by the seaside, going half-mad with isolation, forgetting dozens of beautiful old words each day, and baby-sitting a new tribe of perfect humanoids who have been genetically modified by the arch-fiend Crake to survive the end of civilization. How they all got there is described in an elaborate series of flashbacks throughout the novel.
Jimmy went to school with Crake back in the 2030s, both of them sons of scientific whiz-brains who live in imperial luxury in one of the Compounds, super-gated communities run by the companies that have replaced any kind of central government. The rest of the world’s citizens – those unendowed with mathematical brilliance – fight for increasingly congested and polluted living space out in the “pleeblands.” Jimmy grows up a low-status “arts” person, in love with words that have less and less power, while Crake shoots to the top of the RejoovenEsense Compound, where nefarious gene-splicing experiments go on in dark corners.
Jimmy and Crake’s world contains some wonderful Atwoodian creations, including pigoons (enormous pigs bred to grow five or six kidneys or livers for transplantation), wolvogs (perfect security animals because you can’t make friends with them), snats (a malicious combination of snakes and rats), and bob-kittens. It contains ChickieNobs (don’t ask) and SoyOBoy burgers, BeauToxique skin treatments, and gym suits embedded with sweat-eating bacteria. It contains Internet sites like hedsoff.com, deathrowlive.com and nitee-nite.com for assisted suicides.
Their world is also awash in pornography, which is where the boys first encounter Oryx, a beautiful sex slave from Thailand or Manila whom Crake tracks down and brings to live in the Compound. He brings Jimmy there too because he needs his word-manipulating skills to sell BlyssPluss, the aphrodisiac/sterilization pill he has created to bring about the end of humanity.
Why does Crake want to do this, apart from being the standard-issue sci-fi megalomaniac? Because, according to Crake, homo sapiens just doesn’t know when to stop – procreating, that is. A lethal little virus embedded in the BlyssPluss pills wipes out all those horny, undisciplined humans, and out of Crake’s Paradice dome (the ubiquitous spelling errors are a deft Atwoodian touch) emerge the Crakers, whose females come into heat at orderly intervals and whose males respond by turning their penises bright blue and bedding the fertile female in happy four-man gang-bangs.
Crake took the precaution of immunizing Jimmy against the virus, so he’d be there at the end to get the Crakers well launched into their brave new world. Jimmy is the reader’s guide as well, but his utter shallowness makes him a most unsatisfactory companion. As the world crumbles around him, he’s still obsessing about sex, bemoaning his lack of sunblock, and wondering what that water is that runs out of his eyes and down his cheeks. Compare him with Offred, the star-crossed heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale, who, in spite of her frozen exterior, has layers of complex human emotion surging beneath the surface and drawing the reader into her horrific plight.
It’s impossible to give a damn what happens to Jimmy, and without that connection The End of Civilization As We Know It seems a little, well, banal.