Friday, September 30, 2011

Literary Frontiers: Oryx and Crake

by Sara Crow 
(Find me on Goodreads!)

 Literary Frontiers is a brand new series in the blog which gives us the chance to offer our perspective on both new and established science fiction and speculative fiction books. The series will publish around twice a month, or whenever one of us can finish and post one of our most recent reading projects.

The selection for our inaugural post is Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I'll be making my way through Year of the Flood before the holiday season. Atwood is currently working on her final book in the series, which at this point will be entitled MaddAddam, and we'll be reviewing that title when it's released as well.

The review is available, just for you, after the jump (to Warp?)! Make it so!

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy #1) 
by Margaret Atwood
Anchor books, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-0385721677
It's unmistakable that Oryx and Crake is a unique and glorious work of literary science fiction (no matter what Atwood herself whats to say about its genre assocations), a piece of work that is inexorably linked to technology and the future. I can understand Atwood's resistance to the classification, but she'd positively keel over if she was ever qualified under the other possible genre in which this book could fit: romance.

Because this is, at its core, a multifoliate romance, in the love triangle between Oryx, Crake and Snowman. But it's also the story of the love that grew between Snowman and the Crakers. Snowman shows a depth of love for Crake's creation that is only fully realized in the last few pages of the book.

Atwood has incredible skill at crafting characters with depth that still retain incredible mystery about them. Crake's motivations, for example, are thrown completely into question at the climax of the book. We never really understand Oryx's motivations or desires--since we understand the story only from Snowman's perspective, his other desires tend to overshadow a drive to actually understand Oryx as she is at the time he's with her rather than understanding her within the context of her past.

I haven't read many reviews of this book yet, but I'm sure that many of them classify this as a "Mad Science" sci fi--a morality tale about science and progress run amok. But the story isn't about "mad science" in the traditional sense, with a megalomaniac bent on world domination or scientists believing they can engineer everything in life taking control and ruining society through their greed or arrogance (though there is a little of that in the obvious global warming consequences written in as a subtext and the already existent culture of genetic modification established from the early pages of the novel). No, the driving destructive obsession in this story is much more personal--the exclusive possession of a woman. I'll restrict myself from saying too much more, out of the fear that I'll end up divulging a spolier or two, but suffice it to say that the end of the world comes, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, with BOTH a bang and a whimper, and while science is the catalyst, the real source of downfall is much more ancient.

Oryx both confounds and disturbs me. She's a fascinating character, someone a product of her past, at least according to Snowman, though she seems to hold no malice over it. Her characterization is so blank and stoic as to be impressed on me as something of a statue, an object like Pygmalion's statue, given life throughout her lifetime only by the male gaze and obsession over her. Her desires otherwise seem to be inert. In another context, I'd consider this to be a failure on the author's part, but Atwood's intent seems to be to throw up a veil throughout this story and show characters from a very limited viewpoint to draw out particular points, so I can't help but see the same with Oryx.

The story is, after all, told from Snowman's limited perspective, and though he was at the epicenter of the events, he seems to be simultaneously oblivious throughout the process. He sees Oryx's grace, beauty, generosity and love, but he doesn't see her as a person. In his obsession over his own moral indignation at what he perceives as the travesty of her past, he neglects to see how he attempts to sculpt her present, conforming her to his own parameters, trying to possess her just as presciently (perhaps even more so) as the people who exploited her beauty in the past.

It was a fantastic point of storytelling to choose to narrate this story in simultaneous flashbacks and present-moment impressions. Since we're seeing this story from Snowman's perspective, it can be enraging to be entombed within that one head, but the revelations are so much more engrossing as a result. We see simultaneously the actions and their consequences in a way that telling the story in a more linear way would prevent. It's so difficult to actually handle flashback elegantly, and Atwood achieves the balance of her flashbacks with marvelous care.

This story is a tragedy on so many levels, and I ended up being completely engrossed by the scale of each aspect of the unfolding events and their simultaneous consequences as I read. I would highly recommend this work to other readers, with the caveat that this story carries horrifying weight. Oryx and Crake is a deep tragedy, for the characters, the population and to the Earth itself. The reader must enter this work aware of the challenges of reading such an emotionally distraught narrative and be ready to watch every house of cards built both by the author and by our own society fall around them. If the reader's not ready for that trauma, it might be best to pursue another novel. But to readers who've braved Atwood's other heavy works, most particularly A Handmaid's Tale, which was an emotional trauma in itself, Oryx and Crake will be a highly recommended, albeit emotionally challenging, read.

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