Excerpted from Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 2003 by O.W. Toad Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; and The Year of the Flood. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.
Q: Most of your previous novels have female protagonists. Was it a conscious decision to have a male protagonist for Oryx and Crake, or did Snowman simply present himself to you?
A: Snowman did present himself to me, yes, dirty bedsheet and all.
For this novel, a woman would have been less possible. Or let's say that the story would have been quite different.
If we are writers, we all have multiple selves. Also, I've known a lot of male people in my life, so I had a lot to draw on.
Q: When The Handmaid's Tale was published, Contemporary Authors listed your religion as "Pessimistic Pantheist," which you defined as the belief that "God is everywhere, but losing." Is this still an accurate description of your spiritual philosophy?
A: I expect you don't have the foggiest what I meant in the first place. On bad days, neither do I. But let's argue it through.
In the Biblical version - Genesis-God created the heaven and the earth- out of nothing, we presume. Or else out of God, since there was nothing else around that God could use as substance.
Big Bang theory says much the same, without using the word "God." That is: once there was nothing, or else "a singularity." Then poof. Big Bang. Result: the universe.
So since the universe can't be made of anything else, it must be made of singularity-stuff, or God-stuff - whatever term you wish to employ. Whether this God-stuff was a thought form such as a series of mathematical formulae, an energy form, or some sort of extremely condensed cosmic plasma, is open to discussion.
Therefore everything has "God" in it.
The forms of "God," both inorganic and organic, have since multiplied exceedingly. You might say that each new combination of atoms, molecules, amino acids, and DNA is a different expression of "God." Therefore each time we terminate a species, "God" becomes more limited.
The human race is terminating species at an alarming rate. It is thereby diminishing "God," or the expressions of "God."
If I were the Biblical God, I would be very annoyed. He made the thing and saw that it was good. And now people are scribbling all over the artwork.
It is noteworthy that the covenant made by God after the flood was not just with Noah, but with every living thing. I assume that the "God's Gardeners" organization in Oryx and Crake used this kind of insight as a cornerstone of their theology.
Is that any clearer?
Q: You grew up among biologists; the "boys at the lab" mentioned in the novel's acknowledgments are the grad students and post-docs who worked with your father at his forest-insect research station in northern Quebec. Does being a novelist make you an anomaly in your family?
A: My brother and I were both good at science, and we were both good at English literature. Either one of us could have gone either way. My father was a great reader, of fiction, poetry, history - many biologists are. So I wouldn't say I was an anomaly in the family. We all did both. We were omnivores. (I read then - and still read - everything, including cereal packages. No factoid too trivial!)
Science and fiction both begin with similar questions: What if? Why? How does it all work? But they focus on different areas of life on earth. The experiments of science should be replicable, and those of literature should not be (why write the same book twice?).
Please don't make the mistake of thinking that Oryx and Crake is anti-science. Science is a way of knowing, and a tool. Like all ways of knowing and tools, it can be turned to bad uses. And it can be bought and sold, and it often is. But it is not in itself bad. Like electricity, it's neutral.
The driving force in the world today is the human heart - that is, human emotions. (Yeats, Blake - every poet, come to think of it - has always told us that.) Our tools have become very powerful. Hate, not bombs, destroys cities. Desire, not bricks, rebuilds them. Do we as a species have the emotional maturity and the wisdom to use our powerful tools well? Hands up, all who think the answer is Yes.
Q: You've mentioned the fact that while you were writing about fictional catastrophes in Oryx and Crake, a real one occurred on September 11. Did that experience cause you to change the storyline in any way?
A: No, I didn't change the plot. I was too far along for that. But I almost abandoned the book. Real life was getting creepily too close to my inventions - not so much the Twin Towers as the anthrax scare. That turned out to be limited in extent, but only because of the limitations of the agent used.
It's an old plot, of course - poisoning the wells. As for blowing things up, the Anarchists were at it for fifty years in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Joseph Conrad has a novel about it (The Secret Agent). So does Michael Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion). And the Resistance in World War Two devoted itself to such things. The main object of these kinds of actions is to sow panic and dismay.
Q: Though the book's premise is serious, you included many wordplays and moments of deadpan humour. Was this difficult to achieve, or did it arrive naturally during the storytelling process?
A: My relatives are all from Nova Scotia. That's sort of like being from Maine. The deadpan humour and the skepticism about human motives are similar.
The French have an expression, "Anglo-Saxon humour." It isn't the same as wit. It's dark; it's when something is funny and awful at the same time. "Gallows humour" is called that partly because highwaymen about to be hanged were much admired if they could crack a joke in the face of death.
When things are really dismal, you can laugh or you can cave in completely. Jimmy tries to laugh, though some of the time he's out of control, as most of us would be in his position. But if you can laugh, you're still alive. You haven't given up yet.
Q: What advice do you have for readers who would like to prevent your cautionary tale from coming true?
A: I've included a small list of books at the end of this Companion. There's lots of advice in there. If you're going to read just one book, and just one chapter of that one, try the last chapter of The Future of Life, by Edmund Osborne Wilson. It's kind of encouraging. I didn't read this book in its entirety until after I'd finished Oryx and Crake, but it's a very good summation of our current position on Earth as a species.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Oryx and Crake includes many details that seem futuristic, but are in fact already apparent in our world. What parallels were you able to draw between the events and surroundings in the world of the novel and those in your own?
2. Margaret Atwood coined many words and brand names while writing the novel. In what way has technology changed your vocabulary over the past five years?
3. The game “Extinctathon” emerges as a key component in the novel. Jimmy and Crake also play “Barbarian Stomp” and “Blood and Roses.” What comparable video games exist today? What is your opinion of arcades that feature virtual violence? Discuss the advantages and dangers of virtual reality. Is the novel form itself a sort of virtual reality?
4. If you were creating the game “Blood and Roses,” what other “Blood” items would you add? What other “Rose” items?
5. If you had the chance to fabricate an improved (and biologically viable) human being, would you do it? If so, what features would you incorporate, and why?
6. The pre-catastrophic society in Oryx and Crake is fixated on physical perfection and longevity, much as our own society is. Discuss the irony of these quests, both within the novel and in our society.
7. One aspect of the novel’s society is the elimination of the middle class. Economic and intellectual disparities, as well as the disappearance of safe public space, allow for few alternatives: People live either in the tightly controlled Compounds of the elites, or in the more open but seedier and more dangerous Pleeblands. Where would your community find itself in the world of Oryx and Crake?
8. Snowman soon discovers that despite himself he’s invented a new creation myth, simply by trying to think up comforting answers to the “why” questions of the Children of Crake. In Part Seven in the chapter entitled “Purring,” Crake claims that “God is a cluster of neurons,” though he’s had trouble eradicating religious experiences without producing zombies. Do you agree with Crake? Do Snowman’s origin stories negate or enhance your views on spirituality and how it evolves in various cultures?
9. How might the novel change if narrated by Oryx? Do any similarities exist between her early life and Snowman’s? Do you always believe what she says?
10. Why does Snowman feel compelled to protect the benign Crakers, who can’t understand him and can never be his close friends? Do you believe the Crakers could survive in our society?
11. In the world of Oryx and Crake, almost everything is for sale, and a great deal of power is in the hands of large corporations and their private security forces. There are more private police forces in North America than there are public ones. What are the advantages of such a system? What are the dangers?
12. The book has two epigraphs, one from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and one from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Why do you think these were chosen?
13. The ending of the novel is open, allowing for tantalizing speculation. How do you envision Snowman’s future? What about the future of humanity—both within the novel, and outside its pages?
14. What is the difference between speculative fiction—which Atwood claims to write—and science fiction proper? In what ways does the dystopia of Oryx and Crake compare to those depicted in novels such as Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?