The Short Version: Sometime not too far into the future, humanity has been decimated (perhaps obliterated) by a super-plague. A single survivor, known once as Jimmy and now as Snowman, lives with a tribe of genetically modified proto-humans and ekes out a tenuous existence as a prophet of his friend Crake and the woman they both loved, Oryx. As he embarks on a treacherous journey for supplies, the backstory of how humanity failed – and the parts Crake, Oryx, and Jimmy played – is revealed.
The Review: I’d like to start this review off by apologizing to a Mr. Rob Henry, teacher at my high school. He assigned for us, snot-nosed high school juniors that we were, a Margaret Atwood novel called Cat’s Eye – a novel that was, I’m pretty sure I’m remembering correctly, universally panned by AP English Language students that and every other year. In fact, I had such a bad experience with that book that I swore off Atwood forever. Oh, yes, I’ve been told such wondrous things about The Handmaid’s Tale and it has gathered dust on the “I should pick that up” shelf in my mind – but I don’t think I was ready, at the time, for Atwood. I’m never going to re-read that novel, so let this instead serve in its stead: I was wrong, Mr. Henry, about Margaret Atwood.
This book is, in many ways, something rather surprising and astonishing. Being aware of Atwood’s arguably-most-famous work clued me in to the fact that she is a writer of sci-fi, one might say – but I had no idea that she actually worked in the field so regularly, so often, and so inventively. Yet here is the first book in a trilogy that concludes later this year – to much fanfare, the book community tells me – that occupies that envious position of being considered “literature” but really just being a “sci-fi / dystopia” novel in literary clothing. Loyal readers of Terry Brooks might recognize a kindred apocalyptic vision to that of the Genesis of Shannara series – but Atwood holds far more clout than Brooks and it’s not just because she’s got a sometimes savvier turn of phrase.
The writing, I’ll admit, is quite good. Definitely of a “literary” caliber but also punchy enough to be interesting to the masses. There’s an interesting, if you’ll forgive me the Wally Shawn/Approval Matrix-ism, highbrow & lowbrow communion here: the subject matter, dystopic apocalypse at the hands of genetically modified creatures and superbugs, has been fueling sci-fi for decades – but the way it’s handled is, I daresay, bordering on the unique. Because at the end of this book, I can tell you that there are several discrepancies between what’s expected (even during the course of the reading of the book) and what ends up delivered.
For one thing, the character of Oryx feels… well, two-dimensional barely begins to describe it. She’s paper-thin, barely more the construct of a male fantasy – and she only really appears in the story in the last hundred pages. For another, Snowman/Jimmy’s present-tense action feels bordering on superfluous. I suppose it’s all in the interest of a) a framing device and b) setting up the sequels, but why couldn’t this have been a novel told simply instead of through flashbacks? Indeed, the most interesting moments are in those flashbacks, where we catch a glimpse of an entirely possible future – but we’re then presented with an even-further future that seems, in many ways, almost completely alien. This destabilization may well be Atwood’s objective and, if so, she succeeds – but it keeps the reader’s experience of the novel constantly on shaky ground.
But even as I write this, I realize that the two-dimensional characters (because even Jimmy and Crake feel barely fully-fleshed-out) and the odd decisions regarding plot don’t seem really to be the point of this novel. Even the plot itself seems like a tool to engender something else: discussion. This is, without doubt, a novel-with-message. We’re meant to read this and walk away thinking about Monsanto, thinking about Pfizer, thinking about all of the corporations we increasingly give o’er our lives to, without much thought or consideration at all. The genetically modified animals – the pigoons, the rakunks, and so on – all seem to serve a purpose, one that will better humanity without question… but what happens when the solution becomes the problem? It’s that Studio 60 episode where the snake gets loose and so they bring in a mongoose to catch it but then need a wolf to catch the mongoose, etc etc etc. Our (meaning humanity’s) desire for a quick fix, for an easy way out, for an opportunity best Mother Nature, bites us hard in the ass in Atwood’s world – and it’s not difficult to make the leap from our present to the “future” of Jimmy and Crake. It is, perhaps, a little harder to take the next leap – to Crake’s meteoric rise and his wackadoo plans from there – but all of that, as I’ve said, seems very much like it’s only there to present a forum for debate, discussion, and thought regarding the much-more-pressing matters of playing God.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. This is, don’t doubt it, a good book. For one thing, it has shown me the error of my ways: I should be giving Margaret Atwood a chance. But for another, it’s bound to engender extra-literary thought whenever you’ve put it down – especially some ten years after it was published, in a world that looks increasingly like the one Atwood herein imagines. The question for you, reader, is whether or not you can forgive such flaws as strangely-paced (and sometimes barely-extant) plotting and ludicrously flat characters. Coming from an author as widely regarded as Atwood, it feels difficult for me to do that – even outside of any other literary context (because, let’s be real, I remember nothing about Cat’s Eye). Smart sci-fi that flies under the radar as “literary fiction” is all well and good – but you don’t have to sacrifice exceptional writing just to get speculative. There’s a disconnect here I just can’t come to terms with.