Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)

A blend of science fiction and literature, the story of Jimmy, Oryx and Crake is set against the backdrop of the destruction of the human race.

Their story is partly an echo of this process, played out on an intimate scale.

The book also points out, as does Crake himself, that human development comes down to individuals.

That is, nobody, no matter how great in scale their plans, is immune to their own humanity. In the end people make their decisions according to this incontrovertible humanity.

Although for this reader, a question mark still hangs quietly over Crake’s own motives.

By remaining silent on this Atwood seems to say that some things cannot be explained.

She forces your mind to bend, comprehend, to reconcile causes and outcomes. And this – to me – is the point of literature, to explore what inside and outside yourself and others, whether you end up with understanding or a greater sense of the  incomprehensibility of the world.

Oryx’s past happened, and yet again it did not. Her scars were those of human beings in general, her nameless sisters.

Oryx’s feelings may be genuine, or may not. Her experiences are hers yet she does not own them. This decentralisation of human experience is repeated in various guises. News and the internet feature heavily in the “before” scenes. People are put on display, removed from reality. Jimmy watches old movies in silence, precious artifacts of a world forever removed from him.

The story is so incomplete, as all life feels in a way to those who are living it, always striving for greater understanding, greater security, greater happiness. Stories do not really end (well, we and the characters live as though they don’t) and nothing is explained, either by the Almighty All-Powerful or Margaret Atwood (or perhaps, as I have long suspected, the two are the same.)

Some critics perceived this element as a lack of emotional depth; I can see how a reader could feel that way. There is a definite element of the parable in this book.

And yet Atwood’s creation is so richly detailed, so full in its suggestions. The blanks are pointed out, rather than painted over.

This makes Jimmy’s consciousness of his own very apparent mortality especially devastating. Wounded but proceeding, he brings to mind thoughts of immortality. As Crake describes it:

“Immortality is a concept. If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear…”

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