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Book club (November 15): Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (possible spoilers)


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Oct 16, 2009, 12:59pm Top

Okay, we've chosen Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, for our first book.

At BrotherCaine's suggestion, let's try to sync up after about a month, say between Friday November 15 and Sunday November 17. That'll give people time to read the book, and make the discussion more like a MetaFilter conversation, rather than spreading our comments over the next month.

That said, if you don't think you'll remember the date, feel free to post your comments here early!

Spoiler guidelines: let's assume that anyone reading this thread has already read the book.

Oct 21, 2009, 6:47pm Top

Well, drats. I'll be out of the country and internet-incommunicado around that time. But well, I didn't really want to read an Atwood book anyway. Regardless, I hope this works well so I can read the next one!

Oct 31, 2009, 2:07am Top

Just finished Oryx and Crake. It was a faster read then I was expecting. I am looking forward to talking about it!

Nov 13, 2009, 10:18am Top

So ... what did you think?

A mini-review I wrote up a few days ago:

In post-apocalyptic novels, usually the apocalypse itself is perfunctory, relegated to the setup or to a distant, barely-remembered past; the focus is on depicting the post-catastrophe future, as the few who are left struggle to survive, often forming small groups and fighting each other. Stephen King's The Stand comes to mind.

Oryx and Crake isn't really a post-apocalyptic novel in this sense. The focus of the novel is society before the catastrophe, rather than afterward. Atwood imagines a near future dominated by powerful corporations which ruthlessly exploit both people and nature, making heavy use of genetic engineering: headless chickens, artificially created chronic illnesses, feral and intelligent pigs. The apocalypse (a single individual wipes out nearly all of humanity, after first creating a new, child-like human species) is just the coda.

The characters didn't make much of an impression, but I suppose they're not really the point: the point is the setting. In Atwood's vision, attempts to control global warming have failed. There's refugees, hunger, overpopulation, and no personal security outside the gated corporate compounds. Not that much different from the world we live in (except that in our world, we have governments to counter-balance the power of corporations). Atwood is careful to note that a goat/spider splice, intended to provide mass production of spider silk, exists today.

The other notable aspect of Oryx and Crake is its black humor. Corporations often have ludicrously misspelled NewSpeak names like ANooYoo or RejoovenEsence. The protagonist Jimmy and his friend Glenn spend their time web-surfing sites devoted to execution and assisted suicide, with names like niteenite.com.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed Oryx and Crake, exactly--I tend to prefer plot-driven novels--but I did find it compelling. Kind of like a horror movie. And it made me think, as someone working in technology (computer networks), about what impact I'm having on society.

Nov 13, 2009, 12:12pm Top

*russilwvong: So ... what did you think?*

I liked it very much, but I'm a major Atwood fan. I find that I just sink into her prose, happy that at last there is "an adult in charge." Or, in other words, I really, really trust her as a writer; I feel very confident to put myself in her hands.

The characters did make an impression for me... but, again, I'm sort of a fan of her "distanced" method of revealing her characters, because it's like a puzzle... a series of puzzles, and I love puzzles. Every time I finish reading something by her, I feel an urgent desire to start all over again from the beginning, and fit the pieces together again, with all the bits of revelation in mind. And then maybe again. And with her, I always feel that this would be worthwhile.

Anyway, something concerning the characters here... aren't they sort of a trinity? And that trinity is (very roughly) carnal/intellectual/spiritual? Or, in other words, Snowman is Carnal, emotionally bereft/abandoned and seeking comfort in the solace of appetite and sensation, while Crake is the Intellectual, unnaturally removed from the emotional and physical chaos a typical human endures, but supremely able to identify and use those desires and weaknesses, convinced that solutions (moral, environmental, even spiritual) can be imposed by reason alone, while Oryx is the Spiritual, for whom the physical is simple, elementary and meaningless, emotion is dangerous, and faith is everything.

Yet all of them, emotionally damaged or stunted, are ultimately willing to give up everything for the Crakers - are *emotionally* invested in them, though the emotional deficit is perhaps the one thing they have most in common... except for their damaged and twisted, yet entirely real emotional investment in each other.

It's clear that for the Crakers they *have* become the trinity - The Creator/The Madonna/The Prophet, despite the fact that they were particularly created as non-spiritual, non-intellectual, non-carnal versions of humankind, yet are gifted and/or damned by emotion (the very thing our trinity is most deficit in), as the need and expression for all three aspects.


I'm not 100% on this thesis exactly as I've presented it, but it's *something* like that in my head, after reading once, and I'm writing it out here raw for your thoughts.

Nov 13, 2009, 1:50pm Top

Also, I'm curious if my (electronic) version of the book omitted something!

In my version, we don't see anything about Snowman stepping on a piece of glass at all... he's later "reminded" of the shard of glass in his foot, at which point he pulls it out and tries to treat it, but there's never a point previously that shows him stepping on glass or whatever (there's the bit where he throws the bourbon bottle at the land crab, the bottle shatters, and he thinks that it was a stupid thing to do - but there's no indication of him stepping on glass). Is that just something missing from my electronic version, or is it the same in regular books?

Nov 13, 2009, 4:06pm Top

taz_: "aren't they sort of a trinity?"

Interesting interpretation. Atwood's depiction of society as a whole, not just Jimmy, is almost entirely carnal (there's a line about how the body got tired of the mind and spirit, left them behind, and headed straight for the topless bars).

To me, what I remember about Crake and Oryx is how enigmatic they are. You never really get to know what's going on inside their heads. Why does Crake decide to wipe out humanity? His girlfriend and his best friend have no hint that he's going to do this--they're taken by surprise, just like everyone else.

What'd you think of the Crakers? To me they seem pretty much what a mad scientist would come up with, not exactly a model for a better human society. They're so child-like that it's hard to imagine them surviving long with any kind of predators running around.

I just checked the printed book, and it's the same--broken bottle, the pigoons attack, he remembers the cut on his foot.

Nov 13, 2009, 5:40pm Top

Well, what I think about Crake is that he always had this in mind,or something like it. I mean, I think he encouraged Jimmy's mother to run off and join the activists... and was probably in touch with her afterward. In my reading of it, he was definitely in touch, because her last message - at her death - to Jimmy/Snowman... "don't let me down" seems to be mirror Oryx's entreaty also (regarding the Crakers) - *dont let me down!*

I think Jimmy/Snowman was chosen to be the *last human* - perhaps even when Jimmy and Crake were 14, and Crake chose Jimmy's "Extinctathon" name for him: "Thickney" - a name that bothered Jimmy for it's seemingly obvious connotations (thick? stupid? unattractive?), but also referred to a bird that apparently occupied cemeteries. It was about this time that Glenn/Crake was evidently having "intellectually honorable" conversations with Jimmy's mother, and she ran off to join the resistance...

And in her dying statement appealed to Snowman/Jimmy to not "let her down," which is the same thing that Oryx said to him, regarding the Crakers.

*Don't let me down!*

So, I think that Crake was in touch with Jimmy's mother while she was in hiding, probably helped her, and also set her up for her son being the one to carry out the end plan. How plausible is it that the two most important women in his life both gave him an end-of-life edict: "don't let me down"?

That was all Crake. Crake was imprinting that on him in a way that he couldn't reject.

As for the Crakers, you comment "They're so child-like that it's hard to imagine them surviving long with any kind of predators running around."

It does seem that they couldn't easily survive, especially once you realize that there are humans still surviving (the worst of the predators!) - but they have some special characteristics for warding off natural predators (the pee-circle for example, and their own not-meat scent), and when you remember that they have a super-accelerated maturation, it seems a lot more likely.

Those last three humans*, for example? It's going to be about 15 years before they create a single capable lifeform - if they survive.

* (I know they are not the really the very last, but the argument still applies as long as the regular humans are too few and spread out to organize and multiply in numbers to overtake the Crakers.)

Nov 14, 2009, 2:02am Top

"'don't let me down' seems to be mirror Oryx's entreaty also (regarding the Crakers) - *dont let me down!*"

Afraid I don't have the book in front of me, but isn't it Crake who says this, not Oryx?

Certainly in the end, Crake intended Jimmy to look after the Crakers, but I'm skeptical that Crake had a master plan going back a decade or more, and that he was working with Jimmy's mother. Crake's not someone with highly developed people skills (in an interview, Atwood describes Crake as having Asperger's).

Nov 14, 2009, 4:22am Top

Oryx tells him that just before she goes out for pizza. Something like, if something ever happens to Crake and to me, too, promise you'll look after the Crakers...blah, blah, don't let me down. (Also, he hears her voice in his head at the the very end: *Oh, Jimmy, you were so funny. Don't let me down.*

But it seems like his mother was referring to something specific... after all, they were her dying words - which is what made me think that there was some contact with Crake, and that she knew that Jimmy was chosen to shepherd the new world order. And it was a specific plot point that Crake was able to visit the pleeblands at will, so he had opportunity to get and pass information... But you're right, it's not really clear.

What do you think he did in the end, btw?

Nov 14, 2009, 4:38am Top

(Snowman, not Crake.)

Nov 14, 2009, 11:16am Top

(I wrote offline, after I read the first post, but before I read any of the subsequent ones. Sorry.)

I loved Oryx and Crake, much for the reason that it is about the events leading to the apocalypse rather than the events after. Most post-apocalyptic books have only a vague reference to Before (the nuclear bomb, the destruction of the ozone, the alien invasion, the rapture, whatever), as if what caused the destruction is not important now that everything has changed. In this book, Before is of utmost importance because it dictated not just that there would be an apocalypse, but of what kind, and who would remain.

I consume a fair amount of post-apocalyptic media, and "amoral (or immoral) scientists ruin the world through their single-minded pursuit of knowledge" is a very common reason for lit and film apocalypses. It's like we are all still thinking about the fact that Einstein hadn't wanted to kill millions of Japanese people, he just wanted to know how to split the atom. I get a little tired of this story, because it tends to obscure all the good things science research and technology have given us, and blames all the ills of the world on the people who have done the most to improve conditions for all of us. The happy ending to such a story is usually a small band of common folk living a fun and satisfying agrarian life on the rubble of the old civilization.

This is not the story Atwood told, and that made me very happy. Yes, science run amok was definitely part of the problem, but more than that it was corporations and profit run amok, and science was a part of the "solution" in equal measure as it was the problem. Not that she endorses what Crake did, (she seems pretty neutral on it, just recounting what happened without judging), but that considering what Crake saw to be wrong with the world, he used the most powerful means at his disposal to do what he thought right. Science was a tool, used to forward the blind lumbering progress of the corporations, and used in the service of Crake's ideology. I thought that was interesting.

I liked the dark humor, the NewSpeak names Russil (can I call you Russil?) lists. It's always interesting to notice the minutia of how a writer of the future imagines the culture of the time, and as time passes to see how close or far off they got it. I know there hasn't been a lot of time passed between when Atwood wrote the book and now, but I think it's interesting how close these names are to companies we have. While I can't imagine a current or near-future company named ANooYoo, I can sure see one called ANuYu, or RejuvenEssence (maybe with a superfluous umlaut on the u). Don't we have sites devoted to execution clips?

I have to say, I am getting awfully tired of female sexual exploitation as a plot device used to forward the story of a male character, and Atwood came close to my limit on that point. She incorporated that element into the character of Oryx, and it arose as a tension between her and Jimmy, so it wasn't too bad.

Overall, I liked this as an uncomfortable twist on a comfortable genre.

Edited: Nov 14, 2009, 4:52pm Top

I'm interested to read all of these thoughts. Seems like something we all agree on is that the world-building, in terms of the science and the "future history," is secondary to the overall focus on a society in chaos and the human impact of it. (Same could be said of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, yes?)

Which is why I agree with Atwood when she says she doesn't write science fiction. The joy of tinkering with the universe and seeing how it will play out just doesn't seem to be there (and if "joy" is an odd word for a dystopia, I see that but don't know how to describe it).

Agreed with those who feel like the characters are opaque (though again I think that's part of Atwood's method and approach--her characters never seem real to me, even in her works that are set in the present day).

arcticwoman wrote: "Overall, I liked this as an uncomfortable twist on a comfortable genre."

I think this is a really insightful point. Dystopian literature can be a cheap-scare trick a la horror movies--you see all the carnage and think "Whew! Glad that doesn't happen in real life!" Something about Atwood's approach does make this story uncomfortable and hard to shake off, but I can't put my finger on exactly what this is.

Nov 14, 2009, 5:04pm Top

Finished last night. I'll try and have a longer comment later, but here's a quickie.

I liked it. I've never read anything of Atwood's before, and knew her primarily as a "genre-denier," though in reading up on that this month I tend to think her comments about the "speculative fiction" versus science fiction are less egregious than they are misunderstood. (So for the first half of the book, all I had on the brain was that Atwood is writing science fiction and she's treading some well worn ground. )

Anyway, none of this means a damned thing really because Oryx and Crake is a very tight, very well constructed beauty of a thing. It's what I imagine Ted Chiang would produce if he didn't stick to short fiction.

Nov 15, 2009, 2:24am Top

arcticwoman: "I liked the dark humor, the NewSpeak names Russil (can I call you Russil?) lists."

Sure, you can call me Russil. Of course we already live in a world of misspelled corporate names, like Flickr and Google--we just don't notice. The other day I was at the bus stop and saw a flyer for a company called NuYu Lifestyles. They have a Facebook page and everything.

"... considering what Crake saw to be wrong with the world, he used the most powerful means at his disposal to do what he thought right."

I saw it more as a logical extension of the preceding horrifying applications of bio-technology: instead of just screwing around with animals, let's take on God-like powers, create a whole new-and-improved human race, and then wipe out the old one! To me Crake's solution is just as crazy as the dystopia that preceded it--even crazier, in fact, since the corporations may have exploited billions of people, but they didn't kill them. And it exhibits exactly the blind arrogance that technologists are prone to. In Atwood's world, nobody stops to think, "Is it a good idea to do this?"

sidhedevil: "Something about Atwood's approach does make this story uncomfortable and hard to shake off, but I can't put my finger on exactly what this is."

I think it's that biotechnology is indeed racing ahead as we speak. There's a lot of people working on gene-sequencing and genetic engineering. (A friend of mine is working at a company which makes gene-sequencing equipment.) Atwood's imagined future could be here pretty soon.

I looked up the goat/spider hybrid. Can we do links here? It was supposed to mass-produce spider silk as a strong, light-weight material ("Bio-Steel").

Apparently the business failed. The intellectual property was acquired recently by AFMNet, which appears to be an academic research consortium.

Nov 15, 2009, 2:26am Top

By the way, my wife comments that we're missing out on the non-book aspects of book club--the food and the wine, checking out how other people decorate their homes. In the interest of filling this gap, I'll mention that when I look around our living room, I see a lot of ... Lego.

Nov 15, 2009, 4:34pm Top

russilwvong wrote:

"I think it's that biotechnology is indeed racing ahead as we speak. There's a lot of people working on gene-sequencing and genetic engineering. (A friend of mine is working at a company which makes gene-sequencing equipment.) Atwood's imagined future could be here pretty soon."

That's a good point. I was thinking more of something in Atwood's technique that was eluding me, but I think you're right that the "ripped from the headlines" approach is always guaranteed to be spooky.

Nov 15, 2009, 11:17pm Top

I liked it more than I thought it would--it was a compelling read (meaning I galloped through it). It certainly presented a plausible vision of the future, and therefore made me somewhat melancholy. Interesting to consider to what extent Crake had things planned out. I never considered that he might have been in touch with Jimmy's mother. Thought that the description of Jimmy's return to the compound was well done--very haunting to picture Oryx' body still lying there. I wouldn't want to read this book again. It was certainly well crafted but I must admit I'm drawn to more hopeful messages these days.

Nov 18, 2009, 10:23am Top

I really like the idea of Oryx, Crake, and Snowman being some sort of trinity. That had never crossed my mind before, but fits really well. That they are a trinity highlights the fact that they were all necessary in the events of the story - if there hadn't been an Oryx, for example, much of the motivation for the other two characters would be missing.

I also never considered that Crake was in touch with Jimmy's mother. Hmm.

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