Mad Scientists Are Mad

This is my review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

I’d previously read The Handmaid’s Tale by the same author and didn’t like it much. It is like what happens if you lock an emo-goth feminist into a room for a few months- a dystopian novel about the subjugation of women. But I kept seeing the MaddAddam trilogy mentioned on the Internet, and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did!

The protagonist of the story is Jimmy, alias Snowman, who appears to be the last human alive after a bioengineered virus epidemic. The evil mastermind behind the epidemic is revealed to be Crake, Jimmy’s childhood friend. We learn about their formative years while present-day Snowman fights to stay alive in a land overrun by vicious animal hybrids.

The novel is set in an unspecified future time, when scientists are the elite of society, living in separate gated communities. Jimmy’s father is a genetic engineer, working on developing modified animals, mainly for human consumption. He attends the high school in his community, where he meets Glenn, a borderline Aspergers biology prodigy. They become fast friends, indulging in the usual (?) teenage vices. Jimmy’s mother, formerly a lab technician in a biological lab, begins to have serious doubts about the ethics of genetic engineering, and soon escapes from the high security community- she is a fugitive until her death later on in the book.

Jimmy and Glenn separate to go to different colleges- Jimmy to a rundown liberal arts school and Glenn to the prestigious Francis Crick Academy. They are in and out of touch for the next several years. After Jimmy learns of his mother’s death, he falls into a depression, questioning his mediocre job in advertising, his numerous casual relationships, and even his premature hair loss. Glenn, now referring to himself as Crake, visits him to offer a job marketing his latest drug. Further trouble ensues when they fall in love with the same woman, Oryx. It becomes obvious to Jimmy that something is being planned, but the full extent still shocks him.

Like many other sci-fi novels, this book will blow you away with its attention to detail. Jimmy, self-described as ‘not a math person’, doesn’t fit in with his father’s (and Crake’s) scientific background. He studies a watered-down version of the now neglected humanities in college, and though his degree is looked down upon, it allows him to critically evaluate the world-building plans of the scientists. His skills at rhetoric also stand him in good stead as the plot progresses. The genetically modified creatures have some neat features, like insect repellent scents.

And the drawbacks. This is book one of the MaddAddam trilogy, and feels very much like a prequel. The ending is more a cliffhanger than an ambiguous climax and that annoyed me a little bit. Jimmy’s mother is a two dimensional character, despite having an interesting point of view that could have been elaborated. In fact, most of the female characters in sci-fi are strange to say the least- the wives in Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are also pointlessly neurotic. Just saying, it seems like a weird literary trope.

3.5/5, and I’m definitely going to check out the rest of the series. If you liked Oryx and Crake, try reading some Robin Cook for more medical mayhem.

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