Review of “Oryx and Crake” and “Year of the Flood,” by Margaret Atwood

Atwood proves herself a master science fiction writer in these books, the first two of a trilogy (the third has not yet been published). Spoiler alert: this review begins with plot summaries!

Oryx and Crake tells the story, in reverse via flashbacks, of how Crake, a genius with a grudge against the world, designs both a plague to wipe out humanity and a new species, the “Crakers,” to replace humanity, all the while being employed by a Corporation to provide gene goodies for a toxic Corporation-ruled future. Crake employs or co-opts underground genetic partisans, “God’s Gardeners,” to help with his work. The story is told from the point of view of Crake’s less gifted friend Jimmy. Both men are in love with Oryx, a smart girl from a backwater country. The story proceeds through the death of almost everyone at Crake’s hand. As the plague rages, Crake cuts Oryx’s throat and is in turn shot by Jimmy, who survives because he has been inoculated by Crake in order to tutor his Crakers. At the end of the novel, Jimmy is left watching over the Crakers and trying to keep from being killed by rogue genetic pets such as wolvogs and pigoons. At the very end he chances on the camp of three more human survivors…

The Year of the Flood recounts the same events from different points of view. The God’s Gardeners group, which attempts to contest the Corporate future, has advance warning of the plague and some of its members survive, including a young woman, Toby. Another woman, Ren, survives because she has been held captive in a sex club where she has been working; she has also been Jimmy’s girlfriend. Toby, Ren, and some other survivors make their way out of the city, where they meet Jimmy…

In addition to being a more competent fiction writer than most science fiction writers, which is no surprise given her publishing record, sales, and critical reputation, Atwood also turns out to be a better science fiction writer than most science fiction writers. In this book, she cuts to the heart of a dilemma currently troubling the human race. We have gained a Godlike power over biology, including our own biology. But we are not living up to this responsibility, for which nothing has prepared us. The main characters in the books – Crake, Jimmy, the God’s Gardeners partisans, the Corporations, and even Oryx – epitomize and live through the twists and turns of this dilemma, which are not simple.

In the books, our failure to live up to our responsibilities may well lead to our extinction (at least, that is very much where things appear to be heading at the end of the second book). Crake, a genuine genius, takes all responsibility upon his sole self: exterminate Homo sapiens sapiens with a designer plague and replace us with a successor species custom-designed for Eden.

At the end of the second book, this extermination appears very close to success, and the Crakers, as Jimmy calls the new species designed by Crake and his co-opted biological partisans, are left on the stage. Along with, however, the pigoons and the wolvogs, creatures not created by Crake and that, in biological terms, would prey upon or compete with the Crakers. The pigoons are co-operatively social and intelligent (though apparently not linguistic or tool-using), they are a chimera with nervous systems partly derived from us. They are certainly more dangerous than any non-human creatures currently on this planet, though they would not be a serious threat to an intact human society. I do think they might well pose an existential danger to the Crakers, possibly this is Atwood’s intention. There are also a few human survivors, God’s Gardeners partisans forewarned to isolate themselves from the plague.

In reality, the only extermination program likely to completely succeed against us would be an impact from a very large and fast-moving extraterrestial body, something big enough to boil the whole surface of our planet. But that is not Atwood’s scenario. The Year of the Flood leaves the pigoons, the Crakers, and a few humans together in a big fat mess. In reality, if the humans pull through, enough human weapons and other hardware would remain to leave the humans firmly in control.

What would happen then would be another novel. Or perhaps Atwood’s third book.  Quite possibly Atwood will find a solution I fail to imagine. We will see.

Whatever the intent, or the weaknesses, of Atwood’s plot, our evolutionary dilemma is terribly real, and it lends Atwood’s tale a terrific power. The human race will not, cannot, remain in its present form for more than another generation or so. We cannot and will not remain as we are. In reality, it is not likely that we can be destroyed, even if we, or some Crake, try to kill us off. Therefore we will change, or we will be changed. Atwood’s novel very definitely lives in this change, and Atwood dreams its motives, fears, loves, and reactions.

There are multiple pressures for large-scale change. In the first place is our palpable overpopulation, which is causing a great wave of extinctions across the planet. These extinctions are irrevocably, possibly catastrophically, altering the ecosystem of our planet. In the second place is urbanization, also irrevocable, and which is changing every selection pressure that is acting upon the human race. Global warming is but one facet of this urbanization. Atwood is very clear on other dire features such as mass consumption, social stratification, and out-of-control Corporations. In the third place, the place of honor, is germ line genetic engineering. Currently, the human race uses germ line genetic engineering on a very large scale for agriculture. At this time, somatic genetic engineering is  being practiced upon a few human beings for medical purposes, with mixed results. Such research is inherently difficult and unpredictable, but the very existence of us and our fantastic capabilities compared with other creatures is a striking sign of what may be possible. Human researchers and institutions have achieved very difficult goals, such as safe jet travel and nuclear power, and I personally do not doubt that we will master genetic engineering.

So, in the next generation or so, it will almost certainly become feasible to do germ-line genetic engineering, with stable results, upon human beings. That means future human beings, or at least some classes of them, may live longer, be smarter in at least some ways, and be profoundly different in other ways. In all likelihood, such genetic engineering will result in multiple species of human beings. I believe the most profound result of genetic engineering on us will be changes in human social biology. This indeed is, in Atwood’s novels, the major agenda of Crake’s engineering: get rid of pair bonding, meat eating, male competitiveness, and other striking features of human society. It’s not clear where Atwood’s preferences go – perhaps simply to telling a good story, or to making us think. But of course other changes would be equally feasible. Ant-like changes. Perhaps a warrior caste, an intellectual caste, and so on. Perhaps more disposition to conform. Perhaps less.

Ultimately, what is 100% certain is that, since not all the effects of these changes can be foreseen by us, they will subjected to the same old judge that has decided every case of biological “justice” from the very beginning: natural selection, or an inscrutable God.

Change on an unprecedented scale can’t be stopped, so the right questions are: what is the right thing for us to do? What is the right kind of germ-line genetic engineering for human beings? Who shall our descendants be?

Crake’s post-humans are one proposal, but I am not at all sure it is Atwood’s. To me the Crakers seem painted in very satirical colors, though I could well be wrong about that….   A clue may lie in the recordings of the God’s Gardeners hymns to extinct creatures that are featured on Atwood’s blog.

Dear reader, please understand that I doubt I will share Atwood’s values and goals as perhaps to be revealed more fully in the third book. I definitely favor the germ line genetic engineering of our descendants, but I think I would probably aim for different targets. Atwood seems to be focused on changes to very basic human instincts, I would be more likely to focus on decreasing the incidence of mental illness, reworking our ethnic and national chauvinism on a higher level than basic sexuality, and in other ways attempting to widen the authority of reason without huge unpredictable side effects.  However, I think Atwood’s novels are excellent science fiction, and that they grapple with fundamental issues in an admirably thorough and compelling way.

I am eagerly awaiting the sequel!

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