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Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake

Title: Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Year: 2003

Strangely enough, my most prominent impression of Margaret Atwood before I actually read any of her books, is that she is quite silly in trying to categorise books that are clearly science-fiction as something that is not (although I approve of the term “speculative fiction”, which is allegedly what she preferred instead for Oryx and Crake as well as The Handmaid’s Tale). Oryx and Crake consists of two story lines dispersed in time, one of them telling the story of Snowman after the fall of civilisation as we know it, and the other explaining the events leading up to that downfall, also focused on Snowman (or Jimmy, as he was called then).

Central to both threads are the main character’s relationship to the other two protagonists, Oryx and Crake, from whose names the title is derived. Oryx is a girl who Jimmy has seen on a porn site in his adolescence, who in some mysterious way manages to touch him deeply and has great impact on his way of thinking. Crake is his mate from school, and a genius, working his way up through the genetic engineering enterprises that seem to be ruling an increasing part of novel’s world. Still, it is Jimmy who is the main character and even though the others are of great importance, it is he who narrates and it is his thoughts and emotions that matter most.

Since the chronology of the novel is not straightforward (the post-apocalyptic part only gives clues to the reasons of the current state of affairs, and the other thread takes its time working up to the explanation), the reader only gets glimpses of what is happening, but still enough to create and patch up interesting speculations from the very start. In short, information is portioned out in an interesting and skillful way.

Oryx and Crake alternates between describing Snowman’s despairing situation together with the enigmatic Crakers (who seem human, but obviously are not), and Jimmy’s life before the catastrophe, focusing on the stampeding research on genetic engineering and the breakdown of civilisation. Even though I do net feel that credibility is the main target, the story is carefully thought out and feels solid.

Contrary to what my statement above might convey, credibility is still what makes this novel worthwhile, but it is not the extrapolation of today’s environmental problems or overpopulation that interest me. Instead, it is the thrilling, touching and interesting story of Jimmy himself, a story made plausible by nuances of language, as well as by small details in the narration. Seldom have I come a cross a more lively description of a character’s inner feelings that, at the same time as being touching, also are interesting.

In addition to this, the language is brilliant, almost good enough to merit a read even if the rest of the book would have been totally worthless. Atwood employs a witty, realistic and sometimes also funny language that truly enables the reader to get close to Jimmy and get under his skin. Also, the life he leads and the themes thus covered have much bearing on the word today (such as child porn, genetic engineering, environmental issues and corporate power). The difference between this novel’s and others’ approach to these themes is that, in Oryx and Crake, Atwood manages to make them relevant and touching. They are not superficial. Instead, through straightforward and often brutal language usage, they seem to reach their intended goals without being overly moralising or pretentious. By talking about these issues mediated by a hypothetical future, they are made manageable (I do not think that I would have appreciated a novel focusing on these issues if that was the superficial focus as well as the deeper one).

Conclusively, I think that Oryx and Crake is a novel most people, if not everybody, ought to read. If you are not familiar with science-fiction as a genre, books like this one serve as excellent introductions, because they show very clearly that even though the story takes place in another time than our current one, the novel has much to say about our world today. Also, the author is competent enough to merit reading regardless of genre. I will definitely read more by Margaret Atwood, and I hope that you will, too.

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