I heard a radio interview with Margaret Atwood, promoting her latest book The Year of the Flood. She mentioned that some characters and the speculative scenario were common to this earlier novel. In preparation for reading the new one I went down to the local library and checked out Oryx and Crake.
Atwood describes Oryx and Crake as "speculative fiction," as opposed to science fiction, by which she means there are no space ships or aliens in the book. I think that Atwood is trying to differentiate herself from the pulp science fiction that some of us so dearly love, myself included. I would call the book a Vulcan mind meld between science fiction and literary fiction. The book begins in the middle with a protagonist named Snowman who lives in a tree house and wraps himself in a dirty sheet as if he never quite made it home from a toga party. His neighbors are a group of innocent naked vegetarians that look up to him as some sort of prophet or high priest. It's not at all clear what is going on at first - or second, or third. As the novel progresses Snowman's past is revealed bit by bit and Atwood's
Atwood takes contemporary issues and asks "what if." This is what really good science fiction does. Like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz and Nevil Shute's On the Beach. Atwood gives us a post apocalyptic world. In this case, it is our current obsession, climate change and another contemporary issue, genetic engineering, that cause the apocalypse, and not nuclear war, the favored end times scenario of the 1950s and 60s, when these books were written. What if the Earth warmed up to the point that Canada had a tropical climate? What if corporations had their own cities, gated communities writ large, that separated their privileged employees from the dangerous unlawful, disease ridden "plebe lands" occupied by the rest of humanity? What if plants, animals and microbes, customized for commercial purposes, escaped into the wild and were able to survive and reproduce?
As might be expected one of those diseases, a raging airborne hemorrhagic, breaks loose and kills almost everyone. The naked people, a group of genetically engineered, disease resistant and socially manipulated post-humans, created in one of those corporate compounds as an experiment, that Snowman is living among are one exception. The genetically engineered "pigoons," wolvogs," "snats" and "rakunks," all animals created with the combined genes of different species, are the survivors, along with Snowman, for reasons not apparent until near the end of the book.
It is hard to write about Oryx and Crake without letting out some spoilers. Even knowing what you now know will take away some of the initial confusion, but perhaps also the frustration, of reading the first chapter or two. Atwood wants the reader to wonder what is going on with Snowman and who these friendly naked people are. It seemed as though he were a stranded Robinson Crusoe figure on one of Ursula LeGuin's planets, among her hermaphroditic humanoids. No aliens, indeed.