SFWRITER.COM > Book Reviews > Oryx and Crake
Atwood's Depressing Future
A Review of Magaret Atwood's
Oryx and Crake
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All rights reserved.
First published in The Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, April 27, 2003.
Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart
374 pages, Cdn$37.99
Margaret Atwood doesn't like to be called a science-fiction
writer. Tough beans, says I. When she writes a novel set in the
future that purports to be firmly rooted in contemporary
scientific thought, she is indeed writing science fiction.
Yes, one might have been able to argue that her earlier, and
quite terrific, futuristic foray, 1985's
The Handmaid's Tale, wasn't really science fiction
it had no basis in science (even though it did win the Arthur C.
Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year, and was
a finalist for the Science Fiction Writers of America's Nebula
But Atwood herself takes pains in an afterword to her new novel,
Oryx and Crake, to direct you to her web site (inevitably,
oryxandcrake.com), where she lists the scientific references she
drew on in creating her future world.
So, given that what she's doing is indisputably science fiction,
how does she fare by the standards of that venerable genre?
The sad answer is: not very well. It's not that her predictions
are unreasonable she rails against the decline of the
environment, and decries the possibilities of genetic engineering
gone bad. But such notions are already front-page news, and have
been for years. Despite frequent references in her text to "the
law of unforeseen consequences," Atwood provides no wake-up call
about anything that has hitherto eluded public consciousness.
Rather, she has jumped on a bandwagon that long ago ran out of
It's this failure of speculative insight that will doom Oryx
and Crake to minor-league status in the SF field, although
doubtless the book will zoom onto the bestseller lists. Atwood
wraps up, admittedly in a very stylish package, a selection of
old-hat concerns, and fails to give any new twist either in the
way in which things might go awry (which at least would have been
intriguing) or in how humanity might extricate itself from the
problems it has created (which might have been instructive).
Instead, we're presented with an unalloyed
it's-all-coming-to-an-end tome, depressing in the extreme.
Oryx and Crake is apparently set just a few decades down
the road (the author, who seems so sure of what the future will
bring, is surprisingly coy about specifying a date). The book is
told from the point of view of Jimmy, the last genetically
unaltered human being left alive after a bioengineered plague has
wiped out civilization (in that, it recalls Richard Matheson's
1954 classic I Am Legend, filmed as The Omega Man).
Jimmy spends much of the book recalling his relationships with
Oryx, a philosophical child prostitute from Southeast Asia, and
Crake, a boy-genius with Asperger's syndrome. During these
flashbacks, we slowly learn about the artificial plague created
by Crake that destroyed humanity; although global warming also
plays a role in Atwood's singularly unpleasant future, biotech
and genetic engineering are the clear villains of the piece.
And that's unfortunate. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood at
least was putting forth an important caution, one that very much
needed to be heard when that book was released: if the religious
right continues to gain power, all the strides made in gender
equality will be erased. It was a warning, and a call for
preventive action, at a time when something could have still been
done. But in Oryx and Crake, Atwood has given up on
humanity; we've already gone too far, she says, and it's just a
matter of decades before everything comes crashing down around
Indeed, Atwood comes off as relentlessly anti-science; in that
sense, she deserves the mantle of Canada's answer to Michael
Crichton, whose books are always of the
if-anything-can-go-wrong-it-will variety (cloning in Jurassic
Park; nanotechnology in Prey). Atwood and Crichton
share nothing in terms of style the lady from Toronto
writes circles around the gentleman from Los Angeles but
they are depressingly similar in substance.
Of course, it's for the beauty of her writing that we come to
Atwood. Other reviewers will doubtless praise her wordplay: new
genetic hybrids called "snats" (snake-rats) and "rakunks"
(raccoon-skunks), and supposedly futuristic websites with names
such as NoodyNews.com.
But none of this is uniquely Atwood; science-fiction writers have
always reveled in such portmanteau linguistics. Old masters
including Samuel R. Delany, and newer voices such as
James Patrick Kelly, wield this device much more deftly than she
does. (Indeed, it seems pointless of Atwood to try to pawn off
NoodyNews a web-based newscast presented by naked people
as her own clever satiric invention when NakedNews.com,
which offers precisely this service, has been up and running for
Still, there is much to admire in Atwood's prose (but then again,
there also is much to admire in that of many SF writers,
including Ursula K. Le Guin and Canada's own William Gibson).
And her satiric hand when applied lightly to interpersonal
relationships, instead of heavily to the Demon Science is
a joy, as always.
But, to me, as a science-fiction writer, the saddest thing about
Oryx and Crake is that it will be seen as cutting-edge and
visionary by the literati, instead of as what it really is: a
retread of timeworn ideas. For instance, others will doubtlessly
chortle with glee over Atwood's "ChickieNobs," the meat of
bioengineered chickens that have no brains or beaks, but produce
eight succulent breasts per animal. But Frederik Pohl and
C. M. Kornbluth did the same thing half a century ago in
satiric, and much more prescient, SF novel,
The Space Merchants.
I'd long thought that Atwood was a savvy businessperson who
understood that, if she avoided the "science fiction" label,
she'd get a bigger audience. After all, prejudice keeps many
otherwise intelligent readers from entering the science-fiction
section of bookstores (Toronto-based SF writer
Terence M. Green counters the "I don't
like SF" chestnut with a simple question:
"What work of SF did you read that led you to form that opinion?"
The answer, of course, is none ...).
But after finishing Oryx and Crake, I better understand
Margaret Atwood's reluctance to let her work be considered as
science fiction. And that's simply that it comes off poorly in
comparison to the truly great works in the genre.
Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer's latest science-fiction
novel is Humans (published by Tor).
More Good Reading
Rob's Maclean's essay on Oryx and Crake
Other book reviews by Rob
Other nonfiction by Rob
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