Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

--The blurb--
"Margaret Atwood's chilling new novel Oryx and Crake moves beyond the futuristic fantasy of her 1985 bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale to an even more dystopian world, a world where language--and with it anything beyond the merest semblance of humanity--has almost entirely vanished.
Snowman may be the last man on earth, the only survivor of an unnamed apocalypse. Once he was Jimmy, a member of a scientific elite; now he lives in bitter isolation and loneliness, his only pleasure the watching of old films on DVD. His mind moves backwards and forwards through time, from an agonising trawl through memory to relive the events that led up to sudden catastrophe (most significantly the disappearance of his mother and the arrival of his mysterious childhood companions Oryx and Crake, symbols of the fractured society in which Snowman now finds himself, to the horrifying present of genetic engineering run amok. His only witnesses, eager to lap up his testimony, are "Crakers", laboratory creatures of varying strengths and abilities, who can offer little comfort. Gradually the reasons behind the disaster begin to unfold as Snowman undertakes a perilous journey to the remains of the bubble-dome complex where the sinister Paradice Project collapsed and near-global devastation began."

--The review--
The strength of a good dystopian writer is to seize on a hot topic with which current readers will identify, and turn it into something even more horrible; a very good dystopian writer will, however, not only do this, but also manage to resonate with generations to come.

Ray Bradbury is a particularly chilling exponent of this format, with his descriptions of a nation consumed by media being as relevant today as they were in the 1950s (perhaps even more so). Margaret Atwood's track record, too, has her down as being fairly successful at this, with the attempts by the totalitarian state in her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale to dumb down its citizens to such a degree that they wouldn't question the state's equally dumb decisions being something that still sits scarily well today for many British readers in particular. It perhaps goes without saying that to try to predict the ongoing relevance of Oryx and Crake as the years roll on before they've even happened yet is both presumptuous and precarious; however, with the novel being based around something that's currently a very hot topic indeed in climate change, she at least already has one box ticked, especially since this isn't something that will disappear from the public consciousness anytime soon.

The start of the novel (perhaps even the entire first half) is really quite bewildering, with the reader being thrown in in medias res and being left to work out the back story for themselves as Atwood takes us through proceedings in a completely assorted, non-chronological manner. Throwing the traditional Three Unities to the wind by changing time, place and action frequently, Atwood certainly makes your brain work. As well as working quite well as a horror movie, there are also plenty of James Bond elements in the eponymous characters of Oryx and Crake themselves, which make this a tense and action-packed novel. Even at the moments of eerie calm, when Snowman is left alone with the Children of Crake, the atmosphere is still highly charged, with constant melancholic reminders of a dream future that failed.

The main elements of the novel are all tied up by the book's end, but only very loosely, leaving Atwood room for a sequel (well, since it's set both before and after the events covered in Oryx and Crake, Atwood herself cleverly refers to it as a 'simultaneouel'), The Year of the Flood, which is out next month. It is perhaps testament to Atwood's imagination and flair that I am looking forward intensely to getting hold of this sequel/prequel. However, I do worry about Atwood becoming pigeonholed into this genre of writing. - she is worth more than the label of a one-trick pony.

Other novels by Margaret Atwood
The Edible Woman (1969)
Surfacing (1972)
Lady Oracle (1976)
Life Before Man (1979)
Bodily Harm (1981)
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
Cat's Eye (1988)
The Robber Bride (1993)
Alias Grace (1996)
The Blind Assassin (2000)
The Penelopiad (2005)

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