Review: Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First I want to establish that I love Margaret Atwood. I read this novel partly because I am going to see her speak next month and I knew the topic of the talk was about speculative fiction. This is a list of works I love by Margaret Atwood, ranked in my personal order of preference:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale (novel)
2. “Spelling” (poem)
3. Alias Grace (novel)
4. Circe/Mud Poems (set of poems)
5. Siren Song (poem)
6. “Happy Endings” (short story)
7. “Death by Landscape” (short story)
8. “This is a Photograph of Me” (poem)
9. Cat’s Eye (novel)
10. The Robber Bride (novel)
11. “Hairball” (short story)
12. “Rape Fantasies” (short story)

While I have not read anywhere near all of Atwood’s work, I have read enough, I think, to call her one of my favorite authors. I love that she was the first author in the Future Library Project. She is truly great.

But I really, really did not like Oryx and Crake. I only finished reading the novel because it was written by one of my favorite authors. I wonder, did I miss something? A lot of my friends like, even love, this novel.

1. I do not generally like dystopian stories. For instance, I am the only person on planet Earth who did not like The Road. (However, The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian, and that is one of my favorite novels of all time…)
2. I have not read much science fiction/ speculative fiction. Maybe I just don’t like the genre?

Now, here is why I didn’t like O&C (not an exhaustive list):

1. If it had been a short story, I probably would have liked it. Generally speaking, I thought it was a decent idea that just got stretched way too thin.

2. It cribs almost unscrupulously from The Handmaid’s Tale. The tone is very similar, as well as the structure, and even parts of the plot — for instance, the way (view spoiler)

3. Yet, despite the similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale, the things that worked so well in that novel don’t work here. For instance, the tone is that of nostalgia for a lost world. In THT, this made sense, as the flawed world pre-Gilead is so much like our own, full of freedoms and pleasures as well as problems. By contrast, the pre-catastrophe world of O&C already just totally sucks. Why would we mourn it? It’s terrible already. Similarly, the shifts in time. In THT, this made complete sense, as Offred was dreaming of the past so much. But when she is in her present world, things are still happening. She still interacts with people, and we learn about the world and how it got that way through that interaction. By contrast, the present day of O&C doesn’t allow Snowman to interact in a meaningful way with other characters. For me, at least, part of the allure of THT was how much was unspoken between characters: this built tension really effectively.

4. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but I didn’t exactly understand the stakes of the argument. It came off as anti-science completely, and maybe a little fear-mongering. (Have I just drunk the kool-aid?) Take, for instance, the example of the Nubbins. Jimmy is sickened by the sight of them, apparently because the idea is inhumane. Yet, he later eats them. And is factory farming any better? If the point were that we are inhumane to animals, that would be one thing — but it seems to be explicitly related to genetic engineering, not the general well-being of animals. ((Then again, I’m a vegetarian, maybe I’m overthinking it.) Or, why the disdain for the Crakers? Because they’re not human? But aren’t they human? I’m confused. A story like this should be chilling to me, right? I kept feeling like it was being handled in a way that was too simplistic.

5. The structure of the novel really didn’t work for me, partly because the world of the present day was so boring (see #2). If it had been told chronologically, I actually think I would have been drawn into the story much more, and more time could have been spent developing the relationships between Jimmy, Crake, and Oryx, to make the tragedy of Snowman being stuck taking care of the Crakers more powerful. I do not generally object to stories told through flashback, but it was frustrating in this case.

6. WTF did Jimmy and Crake even see in each other? Why were they important to each other? And what about the fact that (view spoiler)?

7. If I hadn’t known I was reading a Margaret Atwood novel, I would have sworn the portrayal of women in this novel, especially Oryx, was sexist.

8. The portrayal of Oryx was problematic on many levels. Somehow she was the most interesting character — yet simultaneously the most undeveloped. How is that even possible?

9. The “catastrophe” was kinda stupid.

10. The ending was a cop-out.

I guess that does it. Tell me I’m wrong. I wish I had liked it, so feel free to share your disagreements.

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