Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Speculative Snowman

Where should I start talking about Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood?  If I start at the beginning I'll be starting at the end, but if I start at the end I'll start at a new beginning.  It's all so strange, and yet frighteningly familiar.

The book itself starts with post-apocalyptic Snowman, explaining simple objects to people who he calls "the children of Crake".  He is naked, with few possessions, and he sleeps in a tree to avoid the genetically modified animals who might attack him on the ground.  The time shifts between Snowman's present and his memories of his past, starting with his childhood.  Snowman, who was then known as Jimmy, grew up in a compound, like everyone else that he knew.  The compounds were owned by competing corporations, working to secure the smartest people who they could find to create new breeds of animals, new cures for diseases, and new sources of food.  The normal people who were thought not to be as smart as those living in the compounds lived in "pleeblands" between the corporate bases.

Growing up among the elite brains of the era, Jimmy lived a fortunate, but highly guarded life.  He never left the compound.  Ever.  The ocean was a few miles away, but he had never even seen it.  Still, he was certain that his life was better than that of the pleebs.

Jimmy's best friend in the compound was Glenn, who was also known as "Crake".  Together they played computer games and surfed the Internet.  There were sites where the tweenagers could watch live executions, sites where they could watch people commit suicide, and every variety of porn site that a person could dream up.  It was on an Asian kiddie porn site that Jimmy and Crake first saw Oryx.  While still kids themselves, they were mesmerized by something about Oryx's eyes as she looked into the camera.  They took a screen shot of her face, and each kept a copy.

The years go by, and the boys grew in different directions, with Crake becoming a rising star as a bioengineer.  Soon he was basically running his compound, and designing things that no one else fully understood.  Jimmy was working in a third or fourth rate compound when Crake brought him to work for him, eventually making Jimmy his second in command.  Obviously, since I started out by referencing an apocalypse, something goes wrong.  Jimmy/Snowman questions his culpability as he tires to help Crake's children make their way in the new world.

Atwood apparently does not feel that this book is science fiction, but instead is "speculative fiction", because it doesn't deal with "things that have not been invented yet."  That is scary, and I hope that she is exaggerating.  While listening to Oryx and Crake I thought a lot about what science fiction is, and why I am finding myself so attracted to it lately.  I was specifically thinking about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and whether that is science fiction or not.  In Penumbra's case, I think it's even more likely that the technology mentioned in the book may already exist, in the hands of a chosen few.  With that in mind, Penumbra might also be considered speculative fiction. I'm tagging these, and the other sci-fi books that I've reviewed here as "Sci-Fi-ish" in deference to Atwood's assertion.  Whatever it is, I like them both.  With no offense intended to the reader of Oryx, I think that if Jeff Woodman or  Wil Wheaton had read it, I might have been persuaded to add it to my list of favorites.

Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for 2003.  It was also a NYT Notable for that year.  I hadn't heard of Oryx until I read a review of the book that is the third in the trilogy, MaddAddam, and I thought that if I wanted to read that one, I should probably start at the beginning (there I go again) with the first book in the series.  The second book is Year of the Flood, and I will be adding that to my TBR list.

Next Up on CD:  The Iliad by Homer

Still Reading:  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

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