Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 6

My favorite Margaret Atwood book is still Stone Mattress, a collection of nine stories. There’s something about her pacing in full-length novels that doesn’t work for me. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake bounces between a dystopian future and a world a few tweaks from our present. It works well to have a main character with their feet in both worlds—who better to show the contrast?—but this means the dystopian elements must move quickly and perfectly into place. I’m not saying either future is impossible, but the speed of the transition raises questions without clear answers.

Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman (formerly known as Jimmy) who has somehow become the last human. Other than the wild hybrid animals, the Children of Crake are his only company. Snowman is respected by them because he knew their creator and adds to their mythology (making it up as he goes), but he’s too different to live with them. Much of the plot is given via flashback in a “how did we get here” tone. Jimmy’s present-day goals and story arc are all about survival in this strange world.

What I can say without too many spoilers—
The Children of Crake have been genetically modified to the point of no longer being “human.” As the book goes on, you learn more details about their modifications, each more bizarre than the last. The degree to which Crake has spliced and experimented is disturbing. There are philosophical questions raised here like you’ll find in any great work of science fiction. e.g., If the Children of Crake aren’t human, at what point did they become something other? Because their bizarre qualities are revealed a few at a time, the reader can’t help being pulled into this debate as they learn more and more.

The third part of the story is the titular Oryx. The main identifying detail given to her character is a childhood lost to sex traffickers and pornography. These sections are overly detailed and feel unnecessary; they feel almost gratuitous with how little Oryx affects the main plot. She only interacts with Jimmy in the bedroom where she speaks in cryptic, detached one-liners and she educates the Children of Crake offscreen. She’s present at the climax, but in a non-speaking role where she can’t answer any questions.

Maybe it’s because this book opens a trilogy that it can’t provide many answers about its characters and their motivations, but for all the detail and care that went into the world building, I wanted to see 3D characters walking around. Jimmy/Snowman is the most developed because he’s the main POV character, but Oryx and Crake are frustratingly thin. The scenes when Snowman talks to himself are more interesting than when Jimmy talks to either of them.

Strangely enough, I feel absolutely no curiosity about the second two books of the MaddAddam trilogy. I went online to see if my unresolved questions are answered in either. When I saw the answer was no and that there were going to be more cruel (possibly gratuitous) backstories, I lost interest in both books.

Overall: 4.4 (out of 5.0) A higher score than I expected to give, but the writing itself is wonderful. Grim subject matter aside, there are great moments of clever wordplay and absurdist humor. Writing-wise, this is my favorite Atwood novel by far and it’s disappointing that Oryx and Crake aren’t better defined.

2 thoughts on “Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood”

  1. I’ve never read any of her short stories. Now I’m intrigued. I read The Handmaid’s Tale back when it came out and finishing it felt like an assignment. I didn’t read anything by her after that.

    1. I highly recommend Stone Mattress even though its stories are as bleak as anything else she has written. I like her writing best when it gets right to the point and she’s brilliant whenever some humor comes through. The last story, “Torching the Dusties,” has really stuck with me for how unsettling it is.

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