Reading Oryx & Crake after reading The Blind Assassin is almost like reading a totally different author. The tones are so completely different that it’s amazing how chameleonic Atwood can be, but then you pick up on little things–for example, the sarcastic, vicious sense of humor, and other small cues like the word “sere” appearing to describe the color of summer in The Blind Assassin and the word “sere” a word learned by Jimmy, the erstwhile hero of Oryx & Crake. Small things but recognizably Atwood. Also unsurprising considering the science fiction content of the stories told in The Blind Assassin, and the science fiction story that Oryx & Crake undoubtedly is. A weird, horrifying, bio-terror story of science fiction, but nevertheless. And still she is recognizably concerned with stories, the stories that we tell ourselves, lulling us into false senses of security even as the world around us turns to shit.
The viciousness with which Atwood shows us the future we are heading towards is impressive, as is the invention necessary to create this horrible sideways world. We meet Jimmy first as the only survivor of some apocalyptic illness, surrounded by subhuman (superhuman?) genetically engineered crowds, and also as a young boy growing up in the Compounds, sealed off from the “pleeblands,” or the shambling, lawless cities occupied by those not smart enough to earn a job at one of the gigantic corporations that own the Compounds. Jimmy’s world is one of genetically engineered pets (a rakunk, a cross between a skunk and a raccoon), of pigoons, gigantic pigs grown to house cloned human organs as they grow. In high school he meets Crake, the sardonic genius with dangerous plans. The inevitability that society goes to hell, and the telegraphed signs that Crake throws out to Jimmy, run in parallel. And throughout the entire thing, Jimmy doesn’t want to believe what’s happening around him. His tragedy is that though he knows what’s going on, and is deeply affected by it, he can’t face it, and it destroys him. Hypocrisy and the stories invented by society to make everyone feel better is a running thread throughout.
It’s hard to enjoy reading a book like this, where you can so clearly see a possible future of our own in it, but it’s certainly gripping reading. For someone who claims that she doesn’t write science fiction, Atwood certainly does it well. The dark humor, nuanced characters, and inventive world-building make Oryx & Crake a fantastic book, if not a particularly uplifting one. Think about it the next time you go out and order some ChickieNobs. I mean, a Double Down.
(Also worth noting: Oryx & Crake is the first in a trilogy. I was rather disappointed with The Year of the Flood but am holding back judgment until the third volume.)