Oryx and Crake: A Novel by Margaret Atwood (New York: Anchor Books, 2003. 376 pp)

Born in Ottawa in the autumn of 1939, Margaret Atwood grew up in Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She attained her B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto and her M.A. from Radcliffe College. Atwood has written more than 50 works of poetry, children’s fiction, fiction, and non-fiction. While she is most known for her many novels, her book, Blind Assassin, received highest acclaim winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Currently, she lives with Graeme Gibson in Toronto.

Patenting Nature

Last year, my wife and I watched Food, Inc. on Netflix. While much of the movie shocked us, nothing was more appalling than the brazen business practices of Monsanto. Both by genetically modifying the soybean and patenting the new strain, the company, in reality, held a monopoly on soybeans.
As it stands, if a farmer desires to grow soybeans, he or she must work through Monsanto. To make matters worse, Monsanto decrees that farmers are not allowed to save seeds after harvest for next year. Instead, farmers must buy another set of seeds from Monsanto.
Despite the many unreasonable practices seeping out of this corporation, what really bothered me about Monsanto was its ownership over nature. By modifying a seed commonly found in nature, Monsanto staked a claim on that portion of nature for as long as it exists. The very idea that a corporation can own an aspect of nature – something we typically consider part of the global commons – is absurd.

If Monsanto Ruled the World

Depicting the corporation taking over the natural world, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake explores the frightening possibilities of a dystopic world transformed from natural to synthetic.
Our protagonist, Snowman – known as Jimmy before an apocalyptic event removed humanity from earth – looks after the genetic creations of his best friend, Crake. Inhabiting a barren wasteland with both a midday sun too scorching for human skin to withstand and a collection of genetically modified creatures seeking the feast of human flesh (the wolvog, or part wolf part dog, is particularly frightening), Snowman hovers on the edge of insanity.
Comparing this wasteland to civilization at its peak, Atwood pens,

“Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind” (45).


The Struggle to Survive

Convinced that he is the last surviving human and faced with dwindling supplies, Snowman must decide between guarding the children he swore to protect and enduring another expedition for supplies.
During the narrative, Atwood brilliantly interposes scenes from before Armageddon. Tracing the story through Jimmy, Crake, and the interest of both their affection, Oryx, Atwood links the current maladies with a society governed by corporations who seek profit above human good.
In this society, the virtues and altruistic behavior of civilization has been replaced with the carnal desires of base human beings. Atwood writes,

“When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. It must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?
But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance” (85).


The Children of Crake

As the book unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the mysterious children of Crake, the creation of Snowman’s best friend. Without releasing too much detail, these creations act like humans but aren’t exactly part of the classic category, homo sapien. Amongst other oddities, the children of Crake lack much of the understanding gained over a lifetime in culture. This point is exemplified when Atwood writes,

“’What is toast?’ says Snowman to himself, once [the Children of Crake] run off. Toast is when you take a piece of bread – What is bread? Bread is when you take some flour – What is flour? We’ll skip that part, it’s too complicated. Bread is something you can eat, made from a ground-up plant and shaped like a stone. You cook it… Please, why do you cook it? Why don’t you just eat the plant? Never mind that part – Pay attention. You cook it, and then you cut it into slices, and you put a slice into a toaster, which is a metal box that heats up with electricity – What is electricity? Don’t worry about that. While the slice is in the toaster, you get the butter – butter is a yellow grease, made from the mammary glands of – skip the butter. So the toaster turns the slice of bread black on both sides with smoke coming out, and then this “toaster” shoots the slice up into the air and falls onto the floor…
‘Forget it,’ says Snowman. ‘Let’s try again.’ Toast was a pointless invention from the Dark Ages. Toast was a ritual item devoured by fetishists in the belief that it would enhance their kinetic and sexual powers. Toast cannot be explained by any rational means.
Toast is me.
I am toast” (98).

As the final line in the quotation suggests, Snowman echoes the general feel of the book as he becomes increasingly pessimistic regarding his living scenario. Atwood asserts,

“Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo” (147).


The Human Condition

Ultimately, Oryx and Crake explores what it means to be human. Without a civilization around him, is Snowman a human? Does culture constitute humanity or is it physical existence? Despite their peculiarities, are the Children of Crake more human than Snowman simply because they have culture, albeit an odd one?
Stated differently, Atwood asks,

“Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?” (371).

 Oryx and Crake is a book of heartbreaking beauty. With love and disaster, Atwood explores the human condition through a world controlled and destroyed by big business and genetically modified organisms. Where Monsanto terrifies me with its patenting of nature, Oryx and Crake applies this concept in its fullest scale. Despite the horror portrayed, this book is masterful. Highly recommended.

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