BioSci Fi: Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, 2003

Jacob Sherkow

One of my favorite novels—science fiction or otherwise—is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a beautifully written and frighteningly prescient tale of the future of boyhood, love, sex, the foundations of civilization, educational institutions, pharmaceutical policy, pet ownership, and, of course, genetic engineering. The book opens to a seemingly post-apocalyptic world where our narrator, Snowman, appears to be the last true human on Earth—and the caretaker of a small band of child-like humanoids he refers to as the Crakers. We spend the rest of the novel learning, through Snowman’s flashbacks, how the world has come to be this way—and just who was responsible and why. Oryx and Crake presents an almost implausibly dark view of humanity and the potential dangers that come with fixing the power of unregulated genetic engineering in the hands of a few. (Spoilers to follow.)

The plot of Oryx and Crake of is superbly rich and seems almost impossible to briefly summarize. Nonetheless: Snowman grew up as Jimmy, on a biotech compound—think the Googleplex or the Facebook campus—with his friend Crake. Crake is a genius biotechnologist, even at a young age; Jimmy, an indifferent student. In high school, both boys’ lives take a few dark turns. Jimmy’s mother leaves the compound to rebel against the onslaught of biotechnology. She’s eventually captured and executed on video, where she mouths to Jimmy, before being shot, “I’m counting on you.” Jimmy also becomes obsessed with a girl he sees in a child-porn video, and is haunted by his inability to save her. Crake, meanwhile, presents a cool, detached exterior—driven by engineering aesthetics and indifferent to the plight of humanity—even after his father commits suicide in the “pleeblands,” the cities of the hoi-polloi outside of the biotech compounds.

After Crake’s star rises and Jimmy’s falls, Crake invites Jimmy to work on a secret project at Crake’s biotech company, RejoovenEssence. And there are actually two secret projects: the first is a drug called BlyssPluss. The pill gives its users uninhibited, limitless sexual desire, masterful sexual prowess, protection against all STDs, and prolonged youth. But it also—unknown to consumers—acts as a permanent contraceptive. The drug is a massive success and sold in every corner of the globe. The second project is a splice of humans and several other animals to create, in Crake’s mind, a perfect race of humans: happy, vegan, shameless, pacifist humanoids, as much in communion with nature as wild animals. These, as we learn, are the Crakers.

But like humans, the Crakers need to be taught about the world and how to gather food and sustain themselves. And Crake, almost in an effort to tantalize Jimmy, has found and employed the one person he believes suited for the task—the girl from the child porn video Jimmy is obsessed with. Her name: Oryx (after the then-extinct ungulate). As Oryx teaches the Crakers about the natural world, in a self-contained biosphere on the RejoovenEssence compound, Oryx and Jimmy engage in a not-so clandestine tryst.

And then, one day, the world ends. Jimmy, alone in the control room of the Crakers’ biosphere, sees news reports of a horrible virus rapidly spreading through every corner of the world. It’s instantly fatal and contagious and appears to wiping out entire countries in only several hours. As he watches the world burn, he calls Oryx and Crake to return to the compound immediately. And at that point, Jimmy figures out the truth: the secret effect to BlyssPluss wasn’t a contraceptive—it was a deadly virus with an incubation period just long enough to ensure its worldwide adoption. Crake has engineered the drug to effectively end humanity and, with his Crakers, start over—civilization be damned. As a bloody Crake drags Oryx back into the biosphere control room to meet Jimmy, Crake slits Oryx’s throat with a knife, looks at Jimmy, and says, “I’m counting on you.” Jimmy then shoots his best friend. Jimmy waits inside the compound for weeks for the virus to clear up and then takes the Crakers down to the coastline to begin civilization anew.
*          *          *

One of my first thoughts in reading the book was, Where’s the government? And that, perhaps, is one of the more surprising aspects of Atwood’s future in Oryx and Crake: the absolute absence of traditional forms of government. The entire concept of nations seem to be absent, the biotechnology compounds appear to be governed by their own authority, and none of the products sold anywhere—including in vitro grown chicken parts, ChickieNobs—appear to require pre-market approval. Even the police are slyly named CorpSeCorps—a suggestion that they, too, are part of a larger corporate enterprise. When Oryx and Crake was first published back in 2003—when the Patriot Act was in full swing—this may have seemed like pure fantasy, even for science fiction. If anything, it felt like we were headed closer to George Orwell’s 1984. But think about all that has changed since then: tech companies did indeed create their own massive corporate campuses; Facebook was invented, making the technics of surveillance largely a corporate affair; people everywhere have revolted (albeit on a smaller scale) against government intrusion; the wealth disparity has widened creating what seem like actual pleeblands; and there are calls to regulate biotechnology less rather than more. I have my doubts that society will ever replicate the social structure found in Oryx and Crake. But, without question, we’ve moved closer to Atwood’s vision of the future in the past decade, not farther away.

Along those lines, the book has an eerie accuracy in describing the rise and adoption of new technologies. Online videos play an important role in Oryx and Crake—it’s where the youthful Jimmy and Crake idle their high school days, much in the way teenagers watch YouTube now. Atwood also predicts the ubiquity of pornography and the dark web, of significance when Jimmy first sees Oryx. And the biotechnologies so casually bandied about in the novel—nigh on impossible when we were just completing a true draft human genome—now seem ever so closer in reach. ChickieNobs? ChickieNobs may be coming to a drive-thru near you with the invention of true, in vitro meat. Cross-species splicing? Less preposterous with the discovery of CRISPR. Xenopregnancy? It’s actually being discussed, if not attempted. (With that said, like all good science fiction, Atwood isn’t flawless; DVDs are still an important medium of the future, not yet relegated to the status of coasters along with their CD cousins.)

But it’s not just the accuracy of changing technology Atwood has down—it’s the accuracy of changing attitudes toward technology. The current soulless, Jony Ive, Apple “purity” aesthetic of engineers (N.B.: I’m a total follower), is aptly captured in describing Crake, with a “one sided demi-smile….That kind of cool slouchiness.” Jimmy’s insistence in caring about people’s feelings and human dignity, like his guilt over failing to save Oryx from molestation, is ridiculed by others as not just romantic but antiquated—even by Oryx herself. Even the hot-button issues of today—like climate change, race, and economic inequality—are viewed by Atwood’s characters as immediately solvable engineering failures rather than echoes of the human condition. Humans are little more than Homo economicus in Atwood’s future. And all that is elegant is right. How chillingly familiar does that sound about the hordes of twenty-something engineers today?

With that said, what sets Atwood’s novel apart from other science fiction—what elevates it to the form of literature (if you believe that literature is an elevation)—is how nuanced and enigmatic her characters become on further reflection. Take Crake. We never get an answer, at least not an explicit one, why Crake has worked so hard to bring about Götterdämmerung. And perhaps it’s fair to simply peg Crake as the apotheosis of that cold, solutions-driven engineering aesthetic. The problem is humanity; the solution, its extermination and replacement. But Atwood leaves several morsels scattered throughout the novel that may suggest something different. Later in life, Crake learns that the biotechnology companies have not merely been curing disease, but creating it as well, in the hope of ensuring their continued existence in an illness free world. Crake confesses this realization to Jimmy with the hypothesis that his father did not, in fact, commit suicide in the pleeblands, but was done in by his superiors. Like everything else—like Jimmy’s mother’s execution, like Oryx—he appears to shrug it off, in that cool, can’t-be-bothered Silicon Valley way. But we get the sense, at that end, that perhaps what Crake views as human problem is not humanity but inhumanity. His desire to exterminate the human race is less about bettering the species but, instead, about extirpating hatred, violence, and jealously—and, of course, getting a little revenge. This is, perhaps, why he hires Jimmy—the cryer, the feeler—to join RejoovenEssence and leaves him as the sole survivor.

There’s much more I could write about—like the book’s metaphorical disquisition of the decay of liberal arts institutions—but I’ll end with the book’s ending—a truly excellent cliff-hanger. After going on a mission for more supplies—and revisiting the old RejoovenEssence compound where Oryx and Crake’s bodies have long turned to bones—Jimmy (Snowman) returns to the Crakers, who inform him that others like him have visited them while he was away. Snowman brings a working gun, tracks these others down to a fire they’ve made by the beach, and ponders what to do. The book ends with Snowman’s thoughts—“Zero hour. Time to go”—and we’re left trying to piece together what Snowman will end up doing. The last words of both his mother and Crake—“I’m counting on you”—seem to suggest two alternatives. He could fulfill his promise to Crake, and shoot the survivors to ensure the Crakers’ survival. That is probably what Crake’s, “I’m counting on you” meant. Or he could fulfill his mother’s dying wishes—who Snowman still loves, despite abandoning him—as a testament to civilization. He could join the survivors and potentially murder all of the Crakers—rebuilding the human world of before, warts and all. The right answer tests our commitment to one of two ideals: civilization or the future.

Jacob S. Sherkow is, among other things, an Associate Professor, New York Law School and Affiliated Faculty, at the Innovation Center for Law and Technology.  One of the other things is CLB Fellow, 2012-14.