The Book that Dare Not Speak Its Genre: a Review of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

I love Margaret Atwood. I really do. I love The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, and enjoyed The Testaments, even if it fell short of my expectations. And I think she is one of the few authors I consider to be incapable of writing a bad book because even if a story of hers does not work for me, I can still enjoy the artistry by which she tells it. However, like the late great Ursula K. Le Guin, I have scant patience for Atwood’s persistence in denying the sci-fi label for some of her works. Le Guin believed that Atwood’s determination to die on her specially-pled hill is an attempt to prevent her books from being categorised in the literary ghetto of genre fiction. I lean towards simple snobbery as an explanation. Because all genres are equal, but some genres are more equal than others, don’t you know?

I tried to hear Atwood’s case out. I really did. I read her 2004 essay The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context published in Vol. 119 of the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) in which she defined science fiction as,

… books with things in them we can’t yet do or begin to do, talking beings we can never meet, and places we can’t go…

She prefers the term speculative fiction for her works “which employs the means already more or less to hand, and takes place on Planet Earth”. In all honesty, it sounded to me to be a wholly arbitrary distinction that practically no writer or consumer of science-based fiction would make. Still, even if we play her game and take her at her own words, I can say with the utmost confidence that Oryx and Crake absolutely depicts things we can’t yet do or even begin to do, like the ability to modify human mating behaviour to the degree we see in the her Crakers. Keep in mind that when Atwood published Oryx and Crake, we were still a decade away from the advent of precise gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 but even with our present tools, we won’t even know where to start to achieve what Crake achieved given the complexity of human courtship and sexual behaviour. Neuroscientifically speaking, our brain is still considered to be a “black box” and detailed explanations of its processes still elude us. The suggestion that we have the ability (within our grasp in 2003 no less) to tweak our genes in a way which results in a specific configuration of our brain tissue and endocrine system that can turn humans from a menstrual species to an oestrous one is quite a ludicrous one to me.

The similarities that the Crakers share with Le Guin’s Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness did not escape me, of course. They are both genetically modified humans with oestrous reproductive cycles that eliminated sexual violence in their societies, with specific adaptations to handle the extreme climates of their respective environments—except in Le Guin’s case, she wasn’t precious about her book being classified as sci-fi.

What saddens me most is that Ms Atwood is an author with the power to be wholly immune to genre definitions, similar to George R. R. Martin who successfully transcended the audience of the fantasy genre to appeal to the wider reading community. It’s one reason why I think snobbery is the motivation. She has the ability to bestow some of her considerable prestige on the unjustly maligned genre of sci-fi, to de-stigmatise it, but instead she, like Kazuo Ishiguro, participated in its malignation by perpetuating cartoonish and falsely limiting caricatures of sci-fi and fantasy (or as Atwood put it, it’s a genre that features “the talking squid of Saturn”, as opposed to her genre that features the talking photosynthetic blue-genitaled mutants of post-apocalyptic Earth). In a way, Atwood and Ishiguro are very similar to the late dead Terry Goodkind who said,

I don’t write fantasy. I write stories that have important human themes.

Goodkind is more transparent in his insult of the fantasy genre when he suggested that fantasy authors do not trade in important human themes, all to elevate his paeans to Randian objectivist philosophy above what he considered to be dreck. But how different is Atwood from Goodkind when she said she does not write sci-fi because she writes stories which are speculative extrapolations of the possible set in the near future, pretending, fingers in ears going la-la-la, as if sci-fi authors don’t already do that? Surely, she is sufficiently versed in language to recognise the stinging backhand she dealt to the cheek of sci-fi here? She added she did not make the distinction between her works and sci-fi “out of meanness”, but it rang to me like the justification a husband made when he punched his wife, saying he only raised his hand out of love.

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood

Now that I got all that off my chest, I just want to say I had wanted to read Oryx and Crake for a very long time. My desire stemmed from—as you can see above—my curiousity in examining a book with a premise that sounds very much like sci-fi yet its author insists it isn’t, but also because the subject matters it discusses are topics that matter to me. As a citizen of this planet, I am concerned about the effects of climate change on humanity and our way of life. As a humanist, I love to explore the ethics and ramifications of genetic engineering and transgenic experiments. As a medical doctor, I live with the knowledge that one day, none of our antibiotics will not work anymore because all the pathogens would have evolved resistance to them, and that our society will be wracked by pandemics which are far more serious than even COVID-19. There are also themes of children being desensitised to violence, both physical and sexual, by the media; the rise of seemingly all-powerful corporatocracies grown from the soil of the free market; the widening wealth gap; ecoterrorism; and even human-trafficking. One of Atwood’s predictions in this book had even come true in the form of deepfakes: counterfeit synthetic media that, when done well, are virtually indistinguishable from actual recorded images, videos, and sound clips of real people. It’s like someone asked Ms Atwood what sort of dystopia she wanted to write next after The Handmaid’s Tale, and she cackled, “all of them.”

The story was told from the perspective of Jimmy alias Snowman, and we jump to and from between his Crusoe-esque survival story in a harsh post-apocalyptic future populated by transgenic organisms pigoons, and rakunks and peopled by the naive, infantile Crakers, and his past growing up as a child in corporate-controlled compounds as the two narrative yarns twined and converged by the end to explain how things came to be what they are. While The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are both ostensibly works of dystopian fiction, they differ significantly in tone, with the former being a darker, more serious story. Don’t get me wrong, Oryx and Crake have some very disturbing scenes in it, but there’s also a bassline of absurdity and satire pulsing underneath it all.

Now, I don’t know what Ms Atwood’s personal views on GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are, but the sense I got from the book is that she tended towards the frowny side of the spectrum. Or maybe not because from the perspective of the Crakers, genetic modification is a literally a godsend to them since it made them uniquely suited to survive in their overly-hot, disease-ridden world. It reminds me of a bit George Carlin used to do about how saving the planet is actually about saving humans, and that the Earth is fine no matter what we do to it,

The planet will be here for a long, long, long time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the Earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The Earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The Earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children.

And to relate that back to Oryx and Crake, the future is simply “the Earth plus GMO’s” and they would most assuredly get along fine without us.

A few years back, when scientists announced that they are looking to create transgenic pigs which would grow human organs in them that we can harvest to use for transplants, many rightly pointed out that that’s what Atwood’s pigoons are. Ms Atwood isn’t clairvoyant though. The idea of modifying the genes of organisms to produce something that humans need is one that predated Oryx and Crake (where do you think medical insulin comes from?) and scientists have been dreaming of using pigs parts to replace human ones for a long time now. Still, I think it is a little alarmist to think that this is how we end up with hyper-intelligent murder pigs since none of the methods they intend to use leads naturally to pigs growing functional human brains. Rather than fear, I look on such developments with optimism that this will save the lives of so many who languish, with little hope, on transplant waiting lists. And as arable lands shrink around the globe, hardier, more productive GMO crops will literally be our only lifeline in sustaining human civilisation in the near future. And is the ChickieNob really that nightmarish compared to how modern factory farms produce poultry parts today? I’d argue that consuming an organism that is designed without any capacity to think or feel pain would be far more ethical than what we are doing to actual chickens now.

I think Oryx and Crake functions very well as a catalogue of worst case scenarios of many current issues today—issues which only became worse in the two decades since the book was first published. If you have anxieties about the state of the world, this story may turn them feral and give them teeth. Still, while I found the text engaging, the story it told was not a particularly compelling or original one. None of the characters proved to be likeable companions for me as I strolled leisurely through its pages to all its obvious conclusions. I already bought the other two MaddAddam books in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing why Ms Atwood felt that she needed two more books to say what she has to say about this world she created.

P.S. Hulu is adapting them for the small screen, so it’s as good a time as any to get stuck in.

Rating: 3.5/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

3 thoughts on “The Book that Dare Not Speak Its Genre: a Review of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

  1. Ms Atwood came to sign for Oryx and Crake when I was working in DC. The woman in charge of the science fiction section – where we cross-shelved the novel – was very excited to meet her. Her book was selling very well from the SF section — not so well from the Just Plain Fiction section. Our nice lady noted that we sold a lot from SF, and Ms Atwood straightened up and sniffed that her book Is Not Science Fiction. The crestfallen look on my coworker’s face is something for which I will never forgive Atwood.

    And, sure, lady, your books set in the future that involve scientific developments aren’t scifi.


  2. You are absolutely right of course – it’s a kind of marketing snobbery that doesn’t even work, as Anna also shows.

    But on the other hand, I feel that speculative fiction would be a much better term than science fiction for some of the things that are currently grouped under that monniker, like The Handmaid’s Tale or Ballard’s The Drowned World, just to name a book I recently finished.

    Some people not familiar with the genre indeed think of sci fi as purple squids and spaceships only.


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