Re-reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake during the midst of the pandemic was daunting but eye-opening. The novel, the first in the MaddAddam trilogy, explores the dangers of genetic engineering and the consequences if it goes wrong. In the novel, Snowman, the sole survivor who has had a vaccine, is left to navigate a harsh climate. The rest of the population, besides the genetically engineered, have been wiped out by a disease.
Atwood defines the novel, like The Handmaid’s Tale, as speculative. Because everything that is in the novel is perfectly conceivable – especially in the current climate. But it is not quite real enough to be defined as realism. However, in 2021 it inches a lot closer to the realm of realism.
Crake, who obliterates mankind, tells Snowman whilst building his utopia: “The best disease, from a business point of view … would be those that cause lingering illness”. The idea that something natural can be turned into a product of capitalism is scary but not impossible. Capitalism is capable of any injustice at this point.
The “lingering illness” is what is most interesting. COVID also lingers with its victims after they have overcome it. Difficulty breathing, lack of taste and smell and the list goes on. About anything can go wrong after you’ve caught the disease. It may prevent you from working or you have to rely on someone else. By weakening the population it gives those in power a whole lot more of it.
Crake also observes: “The proper study of Mankind is man … You’ve got to work with what’s on the table”. Science knows a scary amount and so does technology. It’s not hard for people to work out the best way to infect mankind.
One of the most impactful lines of the dystopia is “… for jokes you need a certain edge, a little malice”. There is something comic about Crake, he doesn’t quite fit in and his actions seem odd. But not funny in the way that you want to laugh, funny in that shiver. His ignorance and lack of interest in other people seem to almost parallel with the current Prime Minister.
Oryx and Crake is certainly a very fitting book right now and makes you wonder if Atwood is a psychic; but only pick it up if you’re prepared to question everything around you.