Suspension of Disbelief: Oryx and Crake
Suspension of Disbelief is a weekly feature, in which we review movies, books, TV shows, and other popular culture for the skeptical teen.
As I’ve said before, I love a good dystopia, and I usually measure how good a dystopia it is by how much I cry while reading it. All of my favorites – 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go – made me at some point in the novel sob like an infant lost in a shopping mall. Oryx and Crake didn’t make me cry (much), however it is still one of the best and most engrossing novels I have read in a long time.
I’m not overly familiar with Margaret Atwood as a writer; the only one of her books I’d read up until this point is The Handmaid’s Tale. But after reading Oryx and Crake it’s becoming increasingly clear that Atwood has the ability to tap into my conscious and subconscious fears – powerlessness, loneliness, roving packs of wild dogs – and exploit them to create a story so terrifying and mesmerizing that it’s impossible to put down.
The story centers on the main protagonist, Snowman (aka Jimmy), and his best friend Crake, and child sex slave turned business woman Oryx, the love of Snowman’s life. Snowman and Crake were raised in one of several Compounds, part company town, part heavily fortified gated community. The Compounds are home to very high-tech companies who employ the brightest scientific minds to create everything from better organ transplants, to specialized guard dogs to sciencey-sounding homeopathic nonsense. Outside the Compounds are the “pleeblands,” areas which are supposedly undesirable to the brilliant upper crust of society who work for Compound companies. Oryx, presumably, comes from the pleeblands, but it is not certain where.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Snowman is the last human survivor of a global catastrophe, but Snowman experiences frequent flashbacks of the time before. It was a time of egregious environmental degradation, cavernous gaps between the rich and the poor, extreme poverty, riots, and the simultaneous devaluation and commodification of life. The story examines what consequences advanced technology has on us as humans and takes it to the startling extreme.
Even though it’s been proven with SCIENCE that spoiling a story’s ending enhances the experience for the reader, I am determined not to give too much away. Half of the thrill of this book is the deliberate and piecemeal way Atwood reveals what is going on by setting the present scene and filling in the blanks through flashbacks until you realize what actually happened and who the “bad guy” (if that’s even an appropriate term) really is.
Margaret Atwood has created a character in Snowman that is so lonely, desperate, and disbelieving of his fate that I felt every hunger pang and heartbreaking memory in my core. It’s a book that will stay with you for days, or even weeks. It begs to be thought about, talked about, and re-read. As with all good dystopias, I was left feeling hollow and shell-shocked but wanting much more. (I’m so glad there is a sorta-sequel…and maybe a third book!) It took me until I was about a third of the way through to really get into it, but the payoff is huge.
Atwood has thrown a fictionalized version of our world back in our faces, and the view isn’t great. This book was only published in 2003, but unless there is a drastic change, Oryx and Crake will continue to be relevant for decades to come.