20 Years of Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s Other Horribly Prescient Dystopian NovelBooks Features Margaret Atwood
It’s painfully easy to wake up every day, look at the current crumbling political landscape, and compare it to The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian drama about a fascistic takeover of America that results in the total stripping away of women’s autonomy slowly went from being a cautionary tale to an instructional guide for right-wing abusers. Republicans’ utter decimation of reproductive freedoms across the country cannot help but evoke images of Gilead, red smocks, and Aunt Lydias. Atwood’s seeming gift of divination is remarkable, although that may have more to do with the disheartening predictability of life under patriarchal rule, something she writes about with wry awareness. When the system is set up in this way, one can’t be surprised when it operates as planned. And the Canadian legend’s skills of prescience extend well beyond her most iconic novel. Her second dystopian tale, the MaddAddam trilogy, imagined another future where humanity doomed itself through biological furor. Predicting one apocalypse is unlucky. Guessing two makes you wonder what Atwood knows that we don’t.
First published 20 years ago this Spring, Oryx and Crake saw Atwood theorize another bleak near-future for this decreasingly green planet. It opens in the aftermath of a cataclysmic incident that wiped out almost every human being and left behind a rewilded landscape dominated by genetically modified animals. One such species is the Crakers, a group of naive human-like creatures who are peaceful, herbivorous, and have breeding seasons more akin to animals than people. Seemingly the only real human left on this land is Jimmy, known to the Crakers as the Snowman, a teacher of sorts who knew their almighty creator. Flashbacks reveal how Jimmy knew Crake, a brilliant scientist with plans to make the world a better place, whether we wanted it or not.
Many a sci-fi novel has explored the notion of science going “too far”, whether it’s through genetic abuse, technological warfare, or good old-fashioned robots running riot. Humanity has never fully embraced the mind-boggling revelations of progress, fearing that playing God will result in our fated extermination. Atwood doesn’t avoid this fate in Oryx and Crake, but she does drive home the inanity of its unfolding. Where The Handmaid’s Tale had to be deadly serious in its worldbuilding, MaddAddam revels in the proud stupidity of corporate supremacy.
Jimmy and Crake’s America is one of a tiered societal divide where the privileged live in gated communities and eat food that was once adjacent to organic produce. Companies with names like RejoovenEsense, HelthWyzer, and CorpSeCorps dominate every aspect of living and create genetic abominations such as ChickieNobs, mutations of chickens that are all breast and no brain for the purposes of consumption. The internet is a hellscape of graphic child pornography, live executions for entertainment, and naked news bulletins. Jimmy attends an arts college, which is viewed with the same disdain as vagrancy, a subject suitable only for the purposes of propaganda for the multi-conglomerates that dominate the landscape. If all of this seems kind of silly, that’s Atwood’s point, and you can’t claim she didn’t hit on something painfully real when she noted the ways that the dumbest shit is quickly elevated to genius when it has the right powers behind it.
The Oryx of the title is a mysterious woman who Jimmy and Crake first saw on a child abuse website they perused out of adolescent boredom, totally numb to any sort of sensory bliss. As adults, Crake hires her to be his live-in mistress and a kindly teacher to the Crakers, his pet project at RejoovenEsense. Notably for an Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake has a majority male cast, and Oryx, its reluctant heroine, is a cipher to its beleaguered protagonist. He presses her for details of her traumatic past as a victim of trafficking, to which she asks him not to focus so much on sad things. She makes herself sexually open to Jimmy, who has long desired her and seems wearily aware of her place in the pecking order of both their “friendship” circle and overall. Oryx isn’t even her real name, Jimmy admits. “It’s only a word. It’s a mantra.” It’s striking to see Atwood of all writers deny an internal life to a female character, but it’s not an accident. A world stripped of humanity (and the humanities) with a laser-like focus on so-called progress seems doomed to reinforce patriarchal rule. Jimmy’s devotion to her is sweet but hopelessly stunted, still devoted to viewing her as a fantasy he can rescue rather than a real woman.
And then there’s Crake himself, the almighty leader and destroyer of the human race whose aims seem curiously casual. He’s no cacking mad scientist or brooding Marvel villain with a disdain for his own kind. Rather, the Crakers and his plan to replace humans with them feels like a troll move from a smart guy who just wants to see what would happen. He is the corporate scientist made flesh, one who participates in the ruin of the planet rather than its rehabilitation. RejoovenEsense turns pigs into vessels for organ harvesting not for betterment but for profit. Resistance is futile but almost everyone adheres without fail (an exception is Jimmy’s mother, who runs away from her scientist husband to become an underground protestor.) Crake develops a supposed wonder drug, BlyssPluss, which Jimmy helps to market as the ultimate fix for aging, unhappiness, and poor health. In actuality, it sterilizes those who take it, a way for Crake to “fix” overpopulation. It takes very little for Crake to become a full-blown eugenicist, and that’s long before he decides to commit genocide. He sets the world on fire and can barely shrug in response.
Atwood is the daughter of a scientist and through Oryx and Crake we see how the inherent optimism of scientific advancement has become bastardized beyond recognition by politics, capitalism, and misogyny. At a time of intense ecological panic and climate change, combined with CEO-driven hunts for profits in areas of basic human existence, the Maddaddam series hits particularly close to home. Oryx and Crake is giddier in its humor and satire than The Handmaid’s Tale, noting the often impossible-to-parody idiocy of weirdly named corporations so thoroughly destroying the planet as we watch on with a nonplussed glance.
If The Handmaid’s Tale ends on a darkly hopeful note, Oryx and Crake concludes with a grim laugh, a reminder that all of this could have been avoided but doing so never seemed plausible. In the other books in the series, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, we see other perspectives of the world before and after the deluge, particularly the lower classes who live in the depressingly named pleeblands. These are the nameless victims who Crake and RejoovenEsense saw as a combination of customer and victim. These novels delve further into the dregs of humanity’s attempts to survive in this “perfect” new world. To nobody’s surprise, it doesn’t take long for them to try and replicate the mistakes and corporate mandates of the past. This is how the world ends: with a snappy slogan and billionaires trolling from the top. Would that Atwood had warned us earlier.
Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.