Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Anchor Books, 2003. 389 pp. 978-0-385-72167-7.
... in which we read of a devastating biological apocalypse that ravages the world, and explore the events and philosophy leading up to it, as well as the consequences in the aftermath.
Anyone who has ever read anything by Margaret Atwood should know that her work is not exactly what you'd call cheerful, but it is always relevant. Atwood is most famous for The Handmaid's Tale, an Orwellian depiction of a bleak future where human reproduction is an imperative and society is ruled by totalitarian dictatorships. Oryx and Crake is also Orwellian, but in a different way.
The story jumps between two time-lines, both in the future. The first time-line, the "past", depicts events that occur before the biological catastrophe. The second time-line, the "present", depicts what the world is like after the catastrophe. The first time-line is set in a world that has become highly stratified; the wealthy and brilliant live in secure, walled communities known as "Compounds". Each Compound is operated by a major corporation, and all who live within its walls are employees of the corporation or families of employees. The Compounds have everything the rich and intelligent need: clean air, reliable food, first-rate medical care, modern amenities, etc. Surrounding these Compounds are the "pleeblands"... communities full of the not-so-fortunate. The pleeblands aren't exactly hellish places, but they're not exactly nice either. They're grimy, crime-ridden, seedy places. Children within the Compounds are educated to contribute to the upper echelon society, and rarely, a child with promise is brought in from the pleeblands to be educated at a Compound college.
Jimmy, the son of two biologists working for a biotech company, lives a lonely childhood. He isn't brilliant like his parents, and he is constantly aware of his failures. His father puts work first: his work is on "pigoons", pig hybrids that have been genetically engineered to grow organs for human transplants. A single pigoon might grow five human livers, or several kidneys. Companies all around the world have made it their business to select desirable traits from animals and mix them all together into human-designed hybrids, for example, the rakunk, which is a docile pet that's a cross between a skunk and a raccoon. Jimmy's mother is disenfranchised with her work. She soon turns against biotech entirely and flees the Compound. As a teenager, Jimmy meets a brilliant boy named Glenn. The two of them become fast friends, bonding over a game called Extinctathon, where the person with the best knowledge of extinct species wins. Through this game, Glenn earns himself the nickname Crake, after a small extinct bird (it's still alive now, but in Atwood's future, it's long gone, like the vast majority of species). Eventually Jimmy and Crake go off to separate colleges; Crake goes to the Watson and Crick Institute, for the very very brilliant and promising scientific minds. Jimmy, a much less impressive student, gets sent to the Martha Graham Academy, a school that seems to focus on arts and literature. Crake's classmates invent creatures like the ChickieNob, a chicken body that grows only the parts you need... for example, a "chicken" with ten drumsticks on a torso, and nothing else. These students go on to the most prestigious jobs. Jimmy's classmates plagiarize their way through school, and Jimmy graduates with a degree in something like advertising.
In their adult life, Crake goes on to work for the top biotech company, and Jimmy goes along to manage the rhetoric and public image side of the work. Along the way, they meet a girl who goes by the name Oryx (an antelope, presumably extinct by that point). She was born and grew up in southeast Asia as a sex worker, and eventually makes her way to the US. Inevitably, Jimmy, Oryx and Crake find themselves in a love triangle.
The second time-line follows Jimmy, a survivor of the apocalypse, and a breed of "humans" known as the Crakers, engineered by Crake to be "perfect". Slowly, piece by piece, we learn what the apocalypse was, what led to it, the cause, and the aftermath.
This is not at all a cheerful story. Even the first time-line, before the catastrophe, gives me the creeps. The setting after the catastrophe is bleaker. Having said that, I couldn't put it down. Jimmy, the main character, is deeply flawed but also by far and away the most sympathetic character in the novel. His life was never easy, and it got worse as he grew older.
One of Atwood's strengths is the way she weaves her social commentary into her stories. In this instance, it comes across a little strong occasionally, but her points need to be made. When we've bred all of the undesirable traits out of humanity, do we cease to be human? Just because we can splice together genes from totally different biological kingdoms, should we? Are science and "progress" for the sake of science and "progress" laudable goals? What is the role of spirituality, religion, and morality in the destruction of an old society and the shaping of a new society? The novel closes on a note that the reader can take as hopeful or not. This book is the first of a trilogy, called the MaddAddam trilogy. The second book was released in 2009.
In an interesting juxtaposition from the norm for novels such as this, the role of humans-as-gods with no higher power than their own science and hubris are not "the good guys". Futuristic fiction tends to portray the shining civilizations of tomorrow as bastions of science, logic, and rationalism; gleaming pillars of progress. Atwood dares to suggest that maybe science and progress, without being tempered by an understanding of humanity's place in the universe, could ultimately be our downfall.
A highly recommended read for people who enjoyed other Atwood novels; George Orwell's 1984; anyone who enjoys reading about the interplay between science, progress, and society; and anyone who ever ponders what it is to be human, and what that implies about our responsibility to the world as a whole.