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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Review by Caleyna 2004-03-15

Margaret Atwood is a new author for me, one I never intended to read. When Oryx and Crake first came out I determined I would never read it based on statements Atwood made in several interviews. She claims the book is not science fiction. She doesn't dirty herself by writing science fiction. Instead, she writes speculative fiction (which is just a broad term meaning fantasy and science fiction, but she doesn't seem to realize this). Her contempt of the science fiction genre is ironic and ridiculous. She has managed to do a pretty good job of offending science fiction fans, the very people who might enjoy her book.

That said, Oryx and Crake is a well written, if not well thought out book. It can't be denied that Atwood's writing is striking. She has solid command of the English language, using it to it's best effect. Sometimes when an author uses too many big words I want to smack them upside the head and tell them I'm proud they know how to use a thesaurus. I didn't have such an urge with Atwood. She managed to make the bloated vocabulary work well within the framework of the story.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to the wonderful writing. The plot may be enjoyable to a non-science fiction reader, but as a person who's read many, many books about the distant and not so distant future, I have to question Atwood's world. The characters are in an unspecified future where they still have DVDs, the Internet and television. The main character's favorite word is bogus. I could buy this scenario if the book was in the near future, but the world is obviously in a pretty far away future. The cities are so dangerous that normal people don't venture out into them. Genetic research is the way to wealth, with genetic research compounds being the only safe place to live. There are all sorts of useful and/or dangerous hybrids running around that make it obvious the story has to be far in the future. To a critical thinker who has any experience at all thinking about possible futures, this book is really weak.

It's obvious Atwood has thoroughly researched certain areas of genetics, but she's put almost no effort into creating a believable world around her basic plot of genetic research gone mad. If Atwood would have spent time reading some science fiction similar to her own she would have realized that she's not the only person in the world with a vision of the future. It's almost like she thought she was doing something imaginative and original, but she was trotting out tired old cliches that she could have easily avoided by doing some recreational reading in the genre she was writing in.

Even though I have major complaints about the background of the story, the story itself is interesting and compelling. The reader takes a journey in the past and present of one of the only humans left on earth after a man-made disaster destroys humanity. Snowman was at the center of the end of the world, a place he most definitely did not want to be. The mystery of his past and the world's future are slowly revealed as he remembers his life story while taking a trip through a destroyed compound.

I can see why Atwood wants her book to be classified as "literature" instead of "genre sci-fi." It's very introspective and lonely, something I equate with Oprah book club literature. There's lots of talk of depraved sex and violence, another thing authors of "literature" can't seem to get enough of.

Can my review get any more mixed? While I had serious problems with this book, I did enjoy it quite a bit. It's almost impossible for me to rate it, but any book that only takes me two days to read deserves four stars I suppose.


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