I’m not sure if it’s really coming across here that I’m a fantasy/sci-fi nerd. Like, a full-on Lord of the Rings-loving, video-game playing, Robert Heinlein-reading nerd of a gal. Therefore, I enjoy the books of Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is a sci-fi classic: a well-crafted look at a dystopian future through the eyes of Offred, who was forced in sexual slavery as one of the few fertile women left alive. And yeah, Atwood did once refuse to call what she wrote science fiction–who cares? Her plots are awesome, her characters are believable and engrossing, her pacing is tight, and I like her writing.
And yet…I did not like Oryx and Crake, another of her apocalyptic future novels. It was just kind of blah (and if there’s one thing an apocalyptic future should NEVER be, it’s blah). This was a let-down because I really, really liked The Year of the Flood, the “sequel” which actually takes place simultaneously to the events in the first book. Spoilers ahoy…
In Oryx and Crake, we meet Jimmy (Snowman), Glenn (Crake), and Oryx (uh, Oryx), who eventually engineer the end of the world. The future in Oryx and Crake is starkly divided by classes, the privileged compound families and the slum-dwelling pleeblanders; it’s a desperate, resource-depleted world with a thin veneer of beauty and opportunity. This future that Atwood creates is interesting and horrible and realistic enough to be scary, with genetically-modified animals supplying us with fast food and human organ replacements, and a prison for the worst offenders that showcases a kill-or-be-killed game called Painball. Crake, fancying himself both the destroyer and the savior of mankind, wipes out almost all human life and creates his own “perfect” human species (eradicating jealousy, greed, fear) to take their place. I know, it sounds awesome.
The frustrating thing is that our narrator is Jimmy, the kind of oblivious, coasting-through-life doofus that all of us have at least one of in our own lives. I get that we’re supposed to be isolated from Crake, the misanthropic, possible-Aspergers’-having genius, and from Oryx, the guarded, possible-former-child-prostitute, but THAT’S WHERE ALL THE ACTION IS! Seeing Jimmy and Crake grow up together is interesting, but we see more of Jimmy than Crake, and mostly what Jimmy does is watch porn, resent his parents, and perform a boring job that pays the bills…i.e, regular people stuff. (Meanwhile, Crake is fucking CREATING A NEW RACE OF PEOPLE. WHO ARE BLUE AND PURR LIKE CATS.) And while I understand that Oryx, the love interest/obsession of both Jimmy and Crake, is supposed to be this unreachable being, as a reader I felt so far removed from her that it was difficult to see her as a complete, well-rounded character. I wanted her story–not just the image of her through Jimmy’s eyes as a love object. (And I felt a bit cheated, too, since Atwood’s female characters are usually SO complex and real!)
I did actually like the narrative structure of the book. It takes place in two timelines, the past and the present, and switches back and forth between them. So you’ll get one chapter of Jimmy as Snowman, living with the Crakers (Crake’s “improved” human race) in the newly-empty world, and then the next will be about Jimmy and Crake as kids living in the CorpSeCorps buildings. It was a cool and relatively smooth way to introduce us to new information and develop Jimmy at least. And I appreciated the ending, which has a weirdly-uplifting note, but still leaves you hanging. Overall, while the themes are interesting and the statements Atwood makes (about the environment, genetic experimentation, and humanity) are valid, I think The Year of Flood is a better presentation of them.
Though many people seem to disagree with me, at least on Goodreads, I probably would not have even READ The Year of the Flood if I had read Oryx and Crake first, as you’re meant to (O&C came out in 2003 and The Year of the Flood came out in 2009). If you’re interested in Atwood and this vision of a future she’s created, I’d suggest you just read The Year of the Flood and forget O&C, unless you’re a canon-freak who wants all sides to the story…even the less interesting sides.
Bookwanderer Rating: Two and a half stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: This book is to The Year of the Flood what Episodes I – II are to classic Star Wars: unneccessary.