McClelland & Stewart, 2003, 378 pages, C$37.99 hc, ISBN 0-7710-0868-6
When a talented mainstream author tackles a science-fiction novel, quite a few interesting things start to happen. The novel is read by two largely distinct audiences (the author’s audience, and the genre SF audience as well), leading to what can be hilariously divergent takes on the result. Historically, mainstream authors writing SF did so without the bag of tricks drilled into the heads of budding genre writers (consistent world-building, incluing, social complexity, etc.) and without any lifelong affection for the genre either. The result tends to read like well-written, but substandard science-fiction: The background doesn’t hold together, the extrapolation is superficial and there’s a suspicion that everything is supposed to be a metaphor standing for something else.
But Margaret Atwood is not just a “talented mainstream author”: In fact, despite her occasional protestations, she’s perilously close to qualifying as a true science-fiction writer. She has written at least three SF novels so far, and one of them, The Handmaid’s Tale, remains a minor landmark of the genre. Mainstream fiction novel The Blind Assassin even included a subplot about a hack SF writer in mid-twentieth century New York. Atwood has apparently read a lot of SF in her formative years (which may explain her familiarity with an often-outdated notion of the genre) and clearly understands how it can be used to do things that mainstream fiction can’t explore.
So it is that Oryx and Crake is a return to Science Fiction for her: While the framing device is about a man, a quest and a post-apocalyptic world, the meat of the story is the imagined biography of three people growing up in an increasingly unpleasant future. Jimmy (later Snowman) is the main viewpoint character, and his experiences growing up with his friend Crake, and then meeting Oryx, form most of the bulk of the novel. It’s not a pleasant future, what with deadly violence figuring prominently in popular entertainment, and genetic manipulations resulting in ever-stranger life forms. When humanity is wiped out in the last third of Jimmy’s narrative, just in time to make place for the post-apocalyptic landscape Snowman has been inhabiting in-between telling the story of his life, we feel as if it’s a deserved end. After all, it has already engineered its better descendant to inherit the Earth once they’re gone.
Genre readers poking at Atwood’s imagined future won’t be impressed by the originality or depth of the SF elements. Much of it appears recycled wholesale from other post-apocalyptic genetically-engineered nightmares. Atwood loves portmanteau words and can’t resist the impulse to label everything in cute fake trademarks, surrounding her characters with a blizzard of consumerist tags. Her future society, pre-catastrophe, seems to be one in which everyone is gleefully complicit with competing corporations, unchallenged pornographic entertainment and rotten “human” behaviour. It’s not a nice novel, and even pointing out that it’s supposed to be dystopian satire doesn’t do much to quieten thoughts that we’ve seen all of this before, in more fully imagined settings. This being said, Atwood does not embarrass herself with paper-thin future elements like so many of her mainstream colleagues: There may not be a lot of SF here, and it may not go far, but it’s good enough to suspend the disbelief of the average SF genre reader.
But reading Oryx and Crake for the SF elements is like using a Ferrari to commute to the nearest bus stop: It’s a bit of a waste, and it denies the book’s greatest assets. An Atwood novel is meant to be read for the writing, the sly humour, the deadpan take on human weaknesses. Never mind the obviously converging plotting; it’s a book meant to be appreciated line-by-line. Reading it is, if you want to go back to clumsy car analogies, like experiencing a performance engine put in an otherwise unassuming beater: The writing is polished to a level that would cause lesser writers to weep openly. It doesn’t amount to much in the end, but it’s a ride to get there.
Oryx and Crake even fans the deep and undying crush that mainstream-friendly SF genre readers may have on Atwood, who will always remain Canada’s hottest writer no matter how much we can take her for granted.