Thoughts on Oryx and Crake

Monday January 3, 2011

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood

I don't remember exactly how, but somehow this book was recommended to me by some combination of Toni, Brice, and Joanna, I think. Maybe others.

So I borrowed the book and read it on the way back from Wisconsin to Korea. First of all, I was surprised how quickly it went. Reading in English is so easy, and novels are so much fun to read! So I did the whole thing in probably around ten hours. Maybe I should read more books like that.

Atwood is compared to Orwell on the cover, and I guess it is a little like 1984 with the totalitarian government replaced by competing corporations. I don't know if I would have made the comparison if it wasn't on the cover like that.

The comparison I made myself is with Vonnegut's Galapagos. In Galapagos an arbitrary (implied natural) microorganism makes the entire population of humans, except for a handful stranded on a remote island, all turn sterile. So humanity is done, except for those isolated humans who go on to evolve into weird seal-like creatures.

Sort of the same thing happens in Oryx and Crake. Well, Crake starts to make everybody sterile, but then immediately afterward just kills everybody with an artificially manufactured microorganism. Anyway all the humans die, except for one and possibly a handful more, and some genetically engineered neo-humans, as a sort of new Adam and Eve population.

Note: one interesting thing is that new population is supposed to be designed to have none of the problems that people have, but toward the end there are signs that some of the problems are reemerging among them anyway.

So in both Galapagos and Oryx and Crake, pretty much everybody dies, with just a few, pretty much non-human, survivors. In Oryx and Crake, it's somebody's fault.

A complaint I often have with stories is that there's some sort of pure evil force - with no sensible motivation. Happens all the time. "I want to kill everyone! Destroy the world! Etc.! Because I just do." So a lot of the book is about this Crake guy, a super-genius who kills all humans. The way it's presented, it seems like it's mostly because he's pissed off about the death of his dad and therefore disgusted with humans. Either that, or he loves humans but things are getting so shitty on the planet because of over-consumption etc. that he thinks it would be better to kill everybody off quickly; sort of species euthanasia.

It's not totally clear (or maybe I'm stupid) and the ending is also open. I'm not sure how I feel about open endings. I kind of think I dislike them. It's like the author is assigning homework at the end of the book instead of finishing it. "What do YOU think happens?" "Hey lady, it's YOUR book!"

Anyway I think Snowman kills them and then dies himself shortly thereafter because of his infected foot.

Other things: the book is largely about the evils of over-consumption, pollution, capitalism generally, and genetically engineering everything. But at the end the huge crisis and death of humanity is not the fault of any of those really, but one guy that just wants to kill all humans.

Anyway, final opinion, it's not a bad story, but not quite as great as some of the blurbs make it out to be. Sometimes there's great subtlety and dark humor, but sometimes it's too obvious and smug about it.

And I'm not going to go look up a German quote thing to find out what it means. I did feel smart when I knew the Latin and French bits though, thanks Marge.

Reading the wiki, I see that I missed an unattributed quote from Slaughterhouse Five that's in there! So there is some explicit Vonnegut. Vonnegut rocks.

Also, apparently Atwood DOES finish her story - in a 2009 sequel called The Year of the Flood. I should probably go read that now.

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