Margaret Atwood has written all manner of novels, so you shouldn't be overly surprised to see her name on a science fiction book. She's done it before to great success with 'The Handmaid's Tale', and returns to sci-fi with 'Oryx and Crake'. Not that you'll ever hear her describe it as such however. She's adamant that her books are never science fiction, because they don't have 'rocket ships'. Despite the fact that 'Oryx and Crake' takes place in a future world rife with biotechnology that's decades away from being realized, it's apparently not science fiction. Her explanation is that the techonlogies involved are feasible in today's world, and thus this is simply fiction. By that standard, 'Jurassic Park' wouldn't be science fiction. Don't let her rhetoric fool you, Atwoods new novel is without a doubt sci-fi, just not hard sci-fi.
'Oryx and Crake' tells the story of Snowman, quite possibly the last real human left alive on earth. His duty is to guard Crake's Children, a group of people who are at the same time more and less than our definition of human. Snowman's only barely eking a out a living in the altered landscape of earth, and he sets off on a journey to the remannts of civilization to search for supplies.
The main narrative of the novel is Snowman's fragmented memories of his past; before he was Snowman, when he was just Jimmy. He remembers growing up in a world where true prosperity was enjoyed only by vast parasitical corporations intent on squeezing the impoverished masses out of every drop of wealth they can. Atwood tosses in a bit of wit and plenty of irritation with names such as AnooYou and RejoovenEsense, in an apparent attempt at avante-garde semantics. Regardless, Jimmy is unsatisfied with his life, and Atwood tells an excellent story of a young boy growing up in a disentegrating household. Things change when a new boy moves into the neighbourhood, eventually to be known as Crake. These names come from a game called Extinctathon, where players take the names of extinct species.
Crake has an 'elegant mind', an undisputed genius even in a corporate world of immaculate genes. Together him and Jimmy explore the murky world of the net, and engage in any number of mental games. They form a close friendship stretched only when Jimmy and Crake go their seperate ways after graduation. Years later they are re-united, along with a third - the female Oryx, as Crake embarks on an ambitious corporate project focused on irrevocably changing humanity.
As mentioned, the main thrust of the plot is focused on 'Then', instead of 'Now'. Although we're treated to Snowman's trials in the present, we're not told much about post-apocalyptic earth, only his immediate surroundings. What we do get is intriguing. A land where genetic altertations have run amok, and human's have fallen off the evolutionary ladder.
Snowman's memories are compelling, to say the least. Atwood bulids her three main characters painstakingly, and brings them to an equisitely crafted conclusion. Crake's eccentric and aloof personality evolves as the story moves along, as does Jimmy's growing discontent with life in general. Oryx herself is given a background as a child prostitute in an unnamed asian country, but even with her integration into the main plotline, serves mainly as an impetus for Crake and Jimmy rather than as a character herself. We never truly get a feel for Oryx, and what we do get is delivered through Jimmy's intensely biased eyes and Snowman's fragmented memories. Although this makes for an interesting read, as it's curious to wonder if Oryx was the really what Snowman remembers, it also serves to make Oryx's character a little flat. Atwood's climactic finish isn't so much one of pure story, than one of character. Sadly however, insight into the actual motivations of her protaganists is sorely lacking, and contributes to an unsatisfactory ending.
The world of 'Oryx and Crake' is rich and almost tangible. Jimmy's evolution of memories contain many intriguing tidbits, from details of genetic experiments to narratives of life outside the corporate compounds. Her view on our future is undeniably dark. Corporate parasitsm is a major theme in 'Oryx and Crake', and the conclusions she draws are immensely intriguing, and perhaps a little frightening. Atwood seamlessly integrates this future world into Jimmy's character, and even in his youth, Snowman peeks through.
Perhaps the most enjoyable facet of 'Oryx and Crake' is Atwood's brilliant writing style. She narrates her story in delicate prose, and connects pieces of her story together in an elegant fashion. The novel never falters, and even when events slow Atwood fills the spaces admirably, making even the tiniest minutiae riveting.
The weakest point of the novel is undoutedly the ending. It's left open, with the reader free to imagine what direction future events will take. This is all well and good, but the problem is that Atwood doesn't find it necessary to explain the past, nor make any compelling arguments for the motivations of her characters. Things begin to unravel a few chapters out from the close, and Atwood makes no effort to bring her narrative together - making for a very unsatisfying ending. Granted, it makes for plenty of speculation, and if you look carefully enough - one can perhaps determine the most likely answer. It remains a pity that the 'Who' and 'What' was described so carefully, while the 'Why' remains unanswered to the end. She never pauses to explain her biggest mystery, simply using it as backdrop for a smaller and more focused story.
In addition, a little more time spent in the present would have been greatly appreciated. What we do get to see is captivating, but there's not as much of it as one might have liked. If you're looking for a story of a broken Earth, you're better off reading Ocatavia E. Butler's 'Parable of the Sower', and/or Stephen King's seminal post-apocalyptic novel, 'The Stand'. Atwood's narrative intent is solely focused on the past, and her thematic thrust is centered on the nature of humanity. Both are admirably executed, and 'Oryx and Crake' suffers only from a weak ending that doesn't answer the gripping questions the rest of the novel poses.