Oryx and Crake’: A World Unchecked

Grace Zhou, age 17

Fast forward a few hundred years — past sweeping technological change, past the takeover of soulless corporations, past the rebellions of the repressed. Humans have destroyed themselves, save for one man who roams alone. This post-apocalyptic vision of the future isn’t new, but Margaret Atwood’s 2003 book “Oryx and Crake,” the first installment of the MaddAddam trilogy, still manages to enthrall readers with its technicolor world-building and deeper ethical questions.

Snowman fights to survive in a desolate landscape while mourning the deaths of his brilliant best friend, Crake, and mysterious lover, Oryx. A group of genetically-engineered semi-humans called Crakers keep him company, but when his food supply runs low, he is forced to leave them and venture back to the once-powerful city he left.

Between the suspenseful chapters of Snowman’s journey, Atwood fills us in on his — and the world’s — more vibrant past. Before he became the weathered, disillusioned Snowman, he was Jimmy: a creative, attractive man who grew up in a broken home. He lived in a society where unrestrained scientists birthed new creatures at their will, massive corporations disseminated unregulated products for profit, and clueless plebeians ate it all up, literally. It was the golden age of genetic engineering — but after Oryx and Crake exposed him to the world outside the comfortable Compounds he’d always lived in, Jimmy started to see its cracks.

The storylines transition seamlessly, bridging together in a breathtaking showdown at the end (or middle?). It isn’t quite an “aha!” moment given the conspicuous hints dropped earlier in the book, but it satisfies. Although some characters and backstories remain frustratingly elusive, an unexpected twist at the end suggests some answers in the sequels.

“Oryx and Crake” straddles the line between being entertaining and thought-provoking. Lives are at stake, characters hide things, and doom is inevitable. There’s rarely a dull moment.

But the book’s government-absent world is also a playground to unleash human temptations and raise questions about our moral choices. Characters watch executions for entertainment; scientists build murderous creatures in the lab just because they can. One day we, too, might have the ultimate power to manipulate life in any way we desire. But does that mean we should?

Atwood’s beautiful, quirky prose and her overwhelming use of silly-sounding names like “Happicuppa” gloss over a devastating plot with a touch of playfulness. The resulting sense of slight detachment reminds us of our own tendency to avoid confronting the problems stirring beneath our society like they are in Jimmy’s: rampant pollution, unethical actions of companies, child trafficking, and so on.

“Oryx and Crake” presents a riveting portrait of the future — but it also warns us about today.