Oryx And Crake / Margaret Atwood

I hold a grudge against the term sci-fi. The term came to mean bad space-ship alien stuff. Though sometimes I read that sort of thing, I prefer higher quality books. I didn’t like that my science fiction got tainted by the crap that people called sci-fi. My dander really gets up when I see people refer to books as not science fiction because they are good.

So I have a little bit of sympathy for Margaret Atwood wanting to distance herself from science fiction. She claims to prefer the term speculative fiction because the stuff in her books can actually happen, they just haven’t happened yet. She also claims that her motive is not to distance herself from schlocky sci-fi. I find the explanation a little far-fetched, as those kinds of fine-tuned arguments are ones had within the science/speculative fiction community. Outside of fandom, people don’t care about subtle distinctions between science fiction and speculative fiction. When the discussion happens between someone on the edge of fandom (Ms. Atwood) and the press, as her statements have been, why draw such fine lines when the listeners don’t care? Unless one is looking to distinguish one’s work from stuff those listeners might look down on. (If anyone has other alternative explanations for making such distinctions to the general public, leave ‘em in the comments.)

Cover of Oryx And Crake

Be all that as it may, Oryx And Crake, her 2002 book about a apocalyptic society as it falls apart is science fiction by most accepted definitions of the term. As a science fiction reader, I lay claim to the book. I don’t really give a hoot about mainstream acceptance, except for one thing. I don’t want to have the I don’t read science fiction, but I’ll read Margaret Atwood because her books are good conversation ever again. Good god that conversation got tiring a long time ago.

And Oryx And Crake is a solid story with a lot ot chew on.

Snowman is the narrator. At the beginning, he’s a sheet-clad survivor of an unexplained apocalypse, guiding a band of child-like genetically engineered survivors as they scrabble for sustenance on a sun-beaten shore. The things that array themselves against them are the sun, very little food, and the descendants of escaped pigoons, wolfogs and other genetic experiments. For his tribe, these obstacles pose very little impediment. Their skin resists solar radiation, their urine repels predators, and they eat only hardy plant life that’s found in abundance. Snowman himself has no such modifications.

Through flashbacks, Snowman tells his journey from ad-man Jimmy to last fully human survivor. Crake was his high school friends and fellow outcast. Only Crake was brilliant in all his genetics classes (which are taught in secondary school) and later advances to the highest echelons of corporate laboratories, allowing him to live in secluded compounds away from the deteriorating civilization wracked by severe global warming. Oryx is the Asian prostitute Jimmy obsessed over. The tribe views her as a semi-deity.

Several years ago, the movie Memento was quite the hit. But that film relied on a gimmick for it’s popularity. Events in the movie happened in reverse order, as the main character couldn’t remember things for longer than a few moments. If told in the order events occurred, the movie would have been boring. Same thing here. I’ll not spoil the book, but the structure aligns everything so it’s climax is when it reveals the circumstances taking civilization from declining to calamitous. If framed chronologically, we’d have some boring details about Snowman’s life as Jimmy, a sudden apocalypse, and some not very interesting struggles to survive as Snowman.

In ideas, there’s a lot to chew on. Primarily Crake believes that sexual competition causes misogyny, war-like behavior and most other social ills. So he engineers bonobo sexual behavior into his designed humans. A woman goes into heat, and nearby men are stimulated to action by her pheromones. She selects several of them, and the unselected males lose their ardor. I’m skeptical that the cause of human depravity is sexual competition. I suspect that the tribe will run into some pretty severe difficulties as it grows and has to compete with their descendants for resources.

I’m also troubled by the idea that the solution for sexual competition is to take the choice to participate out of the equation. The males do not have a choice in the matter at all. If they come in range of female pheromones, they are compelled to participate. The female only gets a choice in which 4 or 5 men get to have group sex with her when she goes into heat. Whether to indulge in sex or abstain is out of her abilities.

I’m perplexed that Ms. Atwood had characters that introduced these ideas but left them unexplored. She’s got quite the feminist pedigree, so I’d be surprised she didn’t see those issues. I wonder why she didn’t write about them.

In other feminist hot buttons in the book, Oryx starts off as a forced sex slave. Jimmy (before he becomes Snowman) is alarmed and titillated by her past. Oryx alacrity toward her position, past and present, stands in opposition to his paternalist attitude. She views her position servicing men neither with enthusiasm nor disdain. Everyone has a job to do, whether they chose it or not. It’s often my own attitude toward life, but neither have I ever had to put it to the lengths Oryx does.

As often happens when I read literary fiction, Snowman, Oryx, and Crake probably all represent some broader themes that will go completely over my head until I meet with my Feminist Science Fiction book club (next week as I’m writing this, but last week when it gets posted). I love that group because they are smarter than me.

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