For several hundred years, since the advent of the Enlightenment, what is broadly called Western thought has been dominated by the idea of the perfectibility of man. Believing, somehow, against all available evidence, leading thinkers from Rousseau and Jefferson to Marx posited that the human race could proceed from triumph to triumph on its way to, well, Utopia. This was a new idea for its time, since it clashed with the age-old notion that life and history alike were governed by cycles: the cycles of the moon, the sun, the seasons, life and death themselves. Then came the 20th Century. Evidence began to accumulate that history didn’t move in a straight line, that somehow man possessed the capacity to disrupt the forward motion of the human race solely through his own devisings.
Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy #1) by Margaret Atwood @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Enter dystopian fiction: Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), George Orwell (1984), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and, most recently, Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) and Veronica Roth (Divergent). The work of the celebrated Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood falls squarely in this tradition.
Published in 2003, Oryx and Crake is the opening salvo in the Maddaddam Trilogy, and a powerful one it is. The tale is set in what appears to be the late 21st Century following catastrophic climate change and . . . something else. Whatever it was that happened was so severe that Atwood’s protagonist, a young man named Jimmy who now styles himself as Snowman, believes he is the only human being left alive on Planet Earth. His only companions are vicious, genetically engineered hybrid animals gone feral—wolvogs, pigoons, rakunks, and such—and a small community of gentle near-humans who live by grazing on grass and trees while Snowman survives by scavenging through the moldering remains of his lost civilization.
Atwood writes brilliant dystopian fiction
With consummate skill, Atwood gradually reveals the backstory through flashbacks, as Snowman recalls, episode by episode, how things came to be the way they are. We learn of his complex relationships with Oryx and Crake, and of their pivotal roles in the catastrophe—the one a petite and beautiful former child prostitute, now the love of Snowman’s life; the other a brilliant young man who has been his best friend since childhood.
Oryx and Crake is brilliant speculative fiction—a cautionary tale about the prospects for the human race that veers dangerously close to today’s reality.
However, there are times I wish readers could edit the books we read. Were that the case, I would correct the glaring anachronisms in Oryx and Crake, finding some workaround for the frequent mention of CDs and DVDs that somehow seem to have survived the passage of most of the 21st Century to remain in active use even as the planet is plunging toward catastrophe. It’s difficult to reconcile this bonehead error with the brilliance of Atwood’s writing. This is outstanding dystopian fiction, but with flaws.
For further reading
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- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
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