Ah Post Apocalyptica, the holiday destination of dreams, where there are no lines, no traffic and you can throw your dirty towels anywhere you please. I can’t be the only antisocialite who reads through something like The Stand or I Am Legend and daydreams of living in that place of serene quiet and optional clothing etiquettes, where I can finally stand up in a pub and shout the words ‘Cold Chisel are overrated’ without being beaten to death again. There really should be a resort made into a faux post apocalypse world where everything can be bought for the price of a brick through a shopwindow and ample parking abounds in splendid isolation.
And so we come to Oryx and Crake, a title that every time I asked for it at a bookstore I sounded like a Scottish person asking for Oreos and Crack, which as far as misunderstandings go was pretty fun. So after dusting the cookies crumbs off my crack pipe it was onto the book, which sees us following a man called Snowman, last surviving human and somewhat unwitting caretaker to a species of vibrantly coloured perfect humanoids called Crakers. The story follows days-in-the-life-of Snowman as he lives in a world where every other human has gone the way of popular Game of Thrones characters, punctuated with a steady stream of flashbacks to a time when the population outnumbered the current number of crack references, slowly revealing just how everything went tits up, pear shaped, shit the bed then hit the fan with the shit.
In this instance the answer to ‘how did all the peoples die?’ and ‘what the frak is a Craker?’ is intricately woven through the entire book, the flashbacks and Snowman’s narrative forming the careful stepping stones of exposition throughout as we play catch-up, which I initially I found kind of irritating because it’s often the technique of a boring narrative to put the timeline in a blender in order to create an artificial air or mystery about the proceedings and keep people interested, like when the office dullard says ‘boy, did I had a crazy weekend’ and then stops, goading someone to ask what happened then launching into a twenty minute story about how he thought his cat had run away but was really just asleep behind the sofa again. Thankfully what’s on offer here actually becomes interesting and holds a lot of depth as we delve into Snowman’s past all the way back to when he was a toddler called Jimmy right up to the how and when the world became a shit sandwich with only him around to eat it.
After my initial wariness abated things got pretty damn good, Atwood has a strong handle on her characters, especially the progression on Jimmy’s life from neglected toddler through uncomfortable adolescence and unremarkable adulthood, his friendship with Crake an eventually Oryx and his relationships with his parents feel genuine while the world surrounding him of genetic engineering and science dancing on the edge of an ethical knife is detailed and real, balanced between philanthropic ideals and monetary gain, veering frighteningly close to home is written in a way that you can feel the hopes and plight of people trying to build a Brave New World on the deck of a sinking ship.
So if all that’s good it must be perfection right? Not quite, you see much like building a life size sculpture of David Hasselhoff out of jelly cubes things get a bit wobbly once you’ve put all the pieces together. Atwood has described the novel as speculative fiction, which is getting to be sort of a buzz word these days, and an “adventure romance’ instead of strict science fiction and I can only really agree with about half of that. While a dedicated sci-fi writer like Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clark could have knocked a concept like this out over lunch they might have missed all the character depth and complicated relationships that form at the heart of the story which makes the title ‘adventure romance’ seem totally apt, however there’s a certain lack of emotion at times which seems to treat that description as more of a suggestion. For instance Snowman recollects Oryx as his great love even hearing her speak in his solitude, the back story being Jimmy first sees Oryx on a kiddie porn site (giving our book club exactly one book that doesn’t contain either hookers or porn) after which he keeps a photo print out for the next couple of decades, but then when Jimmy finally meets her not much really goes on between them before mass extinction kicks in and that brevity of it doesn’t do quite enough to tie Flashback Jimmy to Snowman the Lastman which takes away some of that emotional character grounding. Despite having built up to their meeting over 300 odd pages it’s almost like Atwood had no interest in their relationship, content with the impression that; ‘yes he dreamed of her for years then found her now they’re in love or maybe not anyway shut up I’ve got shit to break’ and much of the third act seems to go by pretty quickly. You could call that a re-contextualising of the narrative now that you have all the jelly cubes of story if you want to but as the old saying goes, don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining, and as long as you’re doing me favours don’t piss on me at all.
Then there are also some unexplained elements, such as Snowman’s vulnerability to the midday sun or why it always rains every afternoon. I checked Wikipedia and this is meant to be due to climate change but I don’t remember that ever getting a mention in the book proper. The ambiguity does certainly work elsewhere though and suffice to say you’ll learn ‘how’ eventually but ‘why’ is largely left to your own interpretation and how closely you’ve been paying attention so I mostly let it all slide.
Perhaps my biggest problem here isn’t with the book itself but in the fact that this is the first in a trilogy, which annoys me somewhat because I enjoyed the ambiguity of it all and the idea of that ambiguity being expanded and explained washes away that ‘only Crake knows for sure’ vibe that made things mysterious and interesting. In the right hands the lack of clarity can make things bigger as you fill in the gaps yourself with no limitations whereas additions to the series will only add boarders. The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam may be great books and I’ll probably end up reading them but under a slightly begrudged cloud of gloom because the stories I’ve told myself in the wake of having read Orxy and Crake will have less room to live.
But really that’s speculative criticism, the guts of it is that Oryx and Crake is good, possibly great and as we approach the half year mark and I plan my retrospective of the first six books we’ve covered O&C is easily vying for the #1 space. Occasional lapses in character and a somewhat truncated third act hardly ruin what is a well crafted, thought provoking and strangely endearing in its protagonists affection for the people that left him all alone in a post apocalyptic nightmare, or paradise depending on your perspective.
With that in mind I’m off to visit my travel agent, I hear Prypiat is lovely this time of year.
Written By B.T. ‘Omelettes and Crepe’ Calloway