Dystopian Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Dystopian Review is a channel I established on Youtube, mainly as a way to bring back a series of articles I wrote for Suite101 before that site became a truly lame duck.  I won’t distract you from the video with words, however I will put some afterwards so you can get some information on what Dystopian Review was, and what I hope to make it, again.



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EDITORIAL NOTE:  I’ve decided to re-post my original Dystopian Review article, here.  There’s more info below this, if you’re interested.


Dystopian Review:  Oryx and Crake

During the Cold War, there was only one way the world could end in fiction – atomic fire.  It was already proven to be dangerous, and it was something that denizens of that era couldn’t help but consider while doing their duck-and-cover drills.  Only after the relaxing of tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union did we turn, for a brief time, to issues like the environment’s degradation.  This sort of setting – where the world was just too poisoned to live in – had it’s heyday, then it saw the first big airborne pathogen, SARS. The world knew of the potential for a microbial apocalypse far more certainly than ever before, and as readers we were fortunate that Dystopian creator Margaret Atwood was there to put her own, indelible mark on pandemic trend. 


The Setting of Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake is not the sort of novel leaving you to wonder where you’ve started off.  Readers are introduced to Snowman.  Within one page we can tell that he was once a normal man – the Dystopian “every-man” who could just as easily be the reader – that has suffered some sort of horrible trauma both in his own mind and in reality.  The term “Zero Hour” is loosely thrown out, and that can only mean one thing – a major catastrophe took place.  Whatever happened, the main thrust of the event was far from subdued.

Within the very first chapter we learn that Snowman is the apparent caretaker of a strange set of children, children who know nothing of the world as it was “before,” to put it bluntly.  Crake, one of the titular characters, had clearly made rules for them – they are, after all, his “children.”  By the end of the first chapter, he is on the verge of suffering delusions of his time with the also-titular (and how!) Oryx, before breaking into a ramble about how terrible a person Crake is.  As the chapter winds down, he declares all-too-ominously, “You did this!”  And now we, the reader, know Crake is a super-villain, responsible for the end of the known world as well as some truly freaky children of the new.

So how did we get here?

The discovery of Snowman’s past is what makes a reader unable to put the book down.  As always, Atwood has come up with ridiculous, almost childish-sounding names for various adult-oriented concerns (ANooYou, BlissPlus, Chickie-Nobs to name a few).  We quickly learn that biological catastrophes were a recognized risk long before the world ended, and that eco-terrorism was alive and well and likely to be the cause of it.  In so many ways, her world resembles ours with certain features magnified.  Atwood’s portrayal of mega-corporate malfeasance rivals that of William Gibson when she puts her mind to it, with the CorpSeCorps’ questioning methods and the surveliance state that the wealthy live in (protecting them from the external threats of the “pleebs,” of course), but that’s not necessarily the focus of the novel.

No, the focus is on Snowman and how he got to be the proverbial last man on Earth.


Characterization makes Oryx and Crake outstanding.

Spoiling the novel would be too easy, but despite Snowman’s intricate knowledge of the man behind the end of the world, the truth is that Snowman is far from omniscient.  In fact, his range of knowledge is exactly as limited as his post-apocalyptic opportunities have been.  After all, unless one has time to prepare for chaos, they often have few chances to go exploring.  If one doesn’t have anything they need to protect, then those chances seem to abound – but as they carry risk, and as Snowman has become the de-facto prophet of the Children of Crake, his chance to glean knowledge from the surrounding world is minute.

We eventually do meet Oryx and Crake, of course; we see how their lives are interwoven in Snowman’s, and we catch glimpses – from Snowman’s perspective, of course – as to how exactly this apocalypse emerged.  If leaders readers to wonder if they’ve ever seen a friend of theirs act the way Crake does, at times; and, of course, to thank their lucky stars that their friends aren’t both brilliant and crazy enough to pull off such a stunt.  Aren’t they?

For the writer however, Snowman’s life story holds a special treat.  Describing himself as anything but a “numbers guy,” and instead focusing much more on the words mankind seems to have stopped caring about, Snowman cuts a sympathetic if occasionally bone-headed character.  His “every-man” nature fades as we get to know him, and his “starving artist” nature is one that resonates with any author (or website content creator…) who has struggled at some point to get by.  As a point of fact, he even starts praying for that “dream job.”

But as we see Snowman head for his happy ending, we readers know all to well that, sadly, the dream will not be a pleasant one.  And that is why we lament for him, even as we hope that the last glimmer of light that we see for his world is one which will not be extinguished after the cliffhanger ending.  But fear not!  By the time you’re done reading Oryx and Crake, you’ll be overjoyed that there’s going to be an entire trilogy set in Snowman’s world, too!




So, a little more about Suite, and the original Dystopian Review channel…  It was a glorious place to write, and for a while it offered a decent income, but they changed their models and fell asleep at the wheel, and at this point I’m just debating whether or not I want to go through the hassle of procuring all of the rights to my articles and re-producing them here.  Dystopian Review is probably the best literary critique I do, and as an aside I have absolutely considered doing a “Dystopian Reality” to talk about news articles that are dystopian in nature.  There’s also “Dystopian Reflection,” a format for musing aloud about concepts like the reach of the police, but without a specific event to spur it along. These are all ideas I’ve had, but I’m not exactly an expert with a video camera (and, it’s a Logitech C615, I believe?), so producing a video is an all-day affair.

At any rate:  So far I have done three episodes of this on Youtube, and I’ll periodically re-post them on this site, along with some extra commentary, for your enjoyment and education.  I’ve already done episodes on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the film version of The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire.  On that note, I hope you’ve enjoyed your first taste of Dystopian Review’s latest location for syndication!

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