Even though I greatly appreciated Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, I never read anything else by this author, and I needed a friend’s enthusiastic comments about this book to finally try her other works: I must recognize that Atwood does dystopian landscapes quite well, and even though I needed to take a break, now and then, from the bleak scenario she paints here, this story is indeed a compelling one.
We start at the very end – or rather the aftermath: Snowman, once known as Jimmy, is probably the only surviving member of the human race, wiped out by a devastating plague that swept across the globe. He survives in a radically changed world, where climate has gone crazy with high temperatures, flooding rains and tornadoes, and a damaging level of UV – probably due to the thinning of the ozone layer. Snowman is not alone though: he acts as a sort of indifferent shepherd to a group of people that have been genetically tailored to be the new inhabitants of planet Earth, placid, innocent creatures he calls the Children of Crake.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn how the situation came to the present state, and it’s a disturbingly hopeless picture: overcrowding and lack of resources have brought Earth to the brink of collapse, while the population is divided between the Compounds – guarded enclaves where the privileged enjoy higher living standards – and the Pleeblands, where the rest of humanity lives in the polluted remains of the cities. Jimmy is one of the privileged, since his parents work for one of the bio-tech companies more interested in profit and exploitation rather than the betterment of living conditions. He’s not living a charmed life, though, because he’s a lonely boy, largely ignored by his elsewhere engaged parents and not bright enough to be included in the circles of his peers. Things change with the arrival of Glenn – later to be known as Crake – and the start of a friendship that will profoundly mark Jimmy’s life and affect his future.
It’s through these two teenagers’ eyes and habits that we get to know the not-so-far removed future in which the action takes place, and it’s a dismal one: the deep split in social structures and the dwindling resources go hand-in-hand with illness, violence and drug abuse, while the bio-tech corporations flood the market with tailored pharmaceuticals and drugs, also providing genetically modified animals for either food consumption or organ harvesting. What’s more horrifying though, is the high level of violence in “entertainment” programs, video games and internet sites, where the common theme is the lack of value in human life: as we see these two young men watching videos of executions, assisted suicides and so on, or playing games where maximum points go to the highest body count, we understand humanity passed beyond the point of no return and that the bleak future in which Jimmy/Snowman now lives in comes as a direct consequence of these premises.
What I find fascinating here is that events are described through the point of view of unlikable characters that nonetheless manage to keep the reader’s attention focused: Jimmy goes through his life as more of a spectator than a participant, and if his apathy is the direct result of parental neglect, his constant whining about the unfairness of it all – both in the past and in the present – did nothing to endear him to me, and yet I found myself following both his life story and his current journey through the abandoned ruins of our world with deep fascination. The same fascination offered by a developing train wreck, granted, but still…
The same goes for Crake: brilliant and personable where Jimmy is average and awkward, he hides quite well a dark streak of scorn for the rest of humanity, a side of his psychological make-up that surfaces in deceptively off-hand remarks whose deeper meaning, and impact, Snowman will understand only through the obsessive recollection he spends his time on. Crake is profoundly disaffected with humanity in general and his scientific mind compels him to find a solution to the world’s troubles: the fact that this solution is quite final – and bloody – would put him in the proverbial mad scientist’s shoes, if his coldly intellectual and analytical approach to the problem did not make a sort of twisted, spine-chilling sense, or rather, it would if simply applied to a theoretical exercise and not to the real world.
Oryx is the third character in this story, a former sex slave bought from an impoverished family who becomes Crake’s assistant: her role is somewhat limited, and mostly consists in being Jimmy/Snowman’s constant obsession, and yet she represents the love Jimmy wants but can never fully attain, just as Crake represents the kind of friendship he strives for, but that might have been more imagined than factual. This is probably the reason for the presence of both names in the title: love and friendship (Oryx and Crake) that are now forever out of Snowman’s reach and whose memory is not enough to fill the last surviving man’s emptiness.
This review would not be complete without a comment on the Children of Crake, the genetically tailored post-humans that in Crake’s plan should inherit the Earth: these lab-grown creatures are simple, innocent and trusting and in their creator’s plan they will avoid mankind’s mistakes of strife through religion, politics and unfulfilled passions. Yet we catch a few glimpses that show how human nature can’t be so easily denied, even in the absence of proper stimuli: the Crakers are intensely curious about their world, for example, and they tend to create their own mysticism in an attempt to explain what they don’t understand – this would seem like a precursor to religion, one of the components that Crake tried to breed out of them. Snowman also observes that some of them are more assertive than others, which would indicate an embryo of leadership, with all the negative elements this might entail.
Does this mean that Crake’s grand plan is doomed to fail? The book does not answer the question, since it ends in a sort of cliffhanger that will – probably – be resolved in the following novels, but what really matters here is the journey, how humanity reaches the brink and falls to its own destruction. It’s a compelling, if very depressing, story that offers no room for hope or respite, but still takes hold of one’s imagination and never lets go.
My Rating: 8,5/10