-building tension with braided threads
-transitioning between threads by using objects
Oryx and Crake (2003), Margaret Atwood’s second work of science/speculative fiction (depending on how you define the genres) and first in her MaddAddam trilogy, intertwines postapocalyptic and apocalyptic plot threads, both revolving around the same main character, in a structure that ultimately replicates a loop. The apocalyptic thread unspools to reveal the events that led to the postapocalyptic environment in which the novel opens, and in which action is also ongoing. More specifically, in the postapocalyptic thread, the characters of Oryx and Crake represent a kind of reverse Adam and Eve. The main character is a third party who has dubbed himself “Snowman,” his own private joke in that 1) he considers himself abominable and 2) snow no longer exists. In the apocalyptic thread, Snowman is Jimmy, his former self, and we learn the specific nature of his former relationships to the eponymous pair who are apparently the forebears of all things living in this postapocalyptic landscape. Atwood subdivides her 15 numbered chapters into sections she titles (mostly) with one-word nouns that will make an appearance in those pages. The chapters themselves alternate every other one between the postapocalytpic-Snowman thread with the apocalyptic-Jimmy thread (though the latter chapters consist of more sections, more action unfolding in the past than the present).
As the novel opens, Snowman wakes in a tree on a seashore and climbs down to eat some stashed mangos. He’s approached by some children (strange to us but less so to him) who ask him about some objects they’ve found, items from “before” that mix both unfamiliar and familiar elements of the world we the readers are familiar with:
A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket O’Nubbins, ditto. A computer mouse, or the busted remains of one, with a long wiry tail.
(That BlyssPluss container will end up to have contained the virus that ended life as Snowman once knew it, as Snowman does in fact know at this point, but the reader won’t find out until near the end.) As Snowman interacts with the children he thinks both about Crake, their apparent creator, and the lore they’ve generated about himself “over such a short time – two months, three?” For protection Snowman wears a one-eyed pair of sunglasses. He hears women’s voices from his past in his head and yells for Crake to no avail.
We then get the start of the apocalyptic thread, going back to Jimmy’s earliest memory–a bonfire burning a huge pile of livestock that’s apparently been contaminated by some kind of bug, perhaps even intentionally. Jimmy lives on a “Compound,” first for OrganInc Farms, then later for HelthWyzer, companies his father works for as a genetic scientist experimenting on “pigoons,” animals grown to grow extra organs (including human brain tissue). Jimmy’s mother also used to do such work before she has an apparent crisis of conscience and her discontentment with life on the Compound grows. The need for such Compounds seems to have arisen from the acceleration of dire environmental circumstances:
…time went on and the coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by…
Eventually Jimmy’s mother flees for the world outside the Compound known as the pleeblands, possibly with experimental data stolen from her husband; Jimmy will continue to be periodically interrogated about her whereabouts. In the meantime he’s become friends with a highly intelligent boy from school, Crake (though he doesn’t go by that name then). Together they surf disturbing internet sites Crake has accessed by hacking into his uncle’s account, including “HottTots,” where they are both captivated by the stare of an eight-year-old who will turn out to be Oryx; they also play computer games, including “Extinctathon,” in which players compete to see who can wipe out all living creatures first–and where his handle “Crake” derives. After high school, Jimmy attends the middling arts-oriented Martha Graham Academy and visits Crake at the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, where he tours the students’ elaborate genetic experiments (including the development of ChickieNobs and wolvogs, bred to look like friendly dogs so you’ll approach and they can attack you). Crake claims to have discovered, via email hacks, a HelthWyzer plot to unleash diseases via its own products that it can then profit from peddling the vaccines for, and, further, that his own father was murdered for attempting to expose it. Jimmy also learns that Crake is still playing Extinctathon and has become a Grandmaster.
After graduating, Jimmy writes ad copy for AnooYoo while Crake works for the biggest and most influential Compound, RejoovenEsense. After Jimmy’s periodic interrogators show him a video of his mother being executed in a pleebland prison, Crake offers Jimmy a job. Crake has also hired as his staff the Grandmasters from Extinctathon, a group known as “MaddAddam,” who had been engaged in genetic vandalism against the Compounds’ creations before Crake persuaded them to work for him. (All the staff, including Crake, are using their Extinctathon names.) Crake has also hired Oryx as the teacher for his “Crakers”–genetically engineered humans bred to drop dead at 30. Though Crake apparently uses Oryx for sex, she carries on an affair with Jimmy, telling him how she was sold from her childhood village to a man who put her to work conning potential johns; after he died she wound up doing pornographic film work. Eventually a doctor who may or may not have had benevolent intentions flew her to America, and she (re)encountered Crake through the sex service Watson-Crick sponsored for its students. In addition to teaching the Crakers, Crake is having her fly all over the world distributing the new BlyssPluss pills, designed to increase libido, vaccinate from all STDs, and, in what Crake discloses to Jimmy as an unadvertised feature, sterilize its users.
One night before going out for pizza, Oryx makes Jimmy promise he’ll take care of the Crakers if anything happens to her. Jimmy, who Crake has made second-in-command, is called to the Compound command center and watches as outbreaks start simultaneously erupting in cities all over the world. He gets a tearful call from Oryx that they’re the same ones she distributed BlyssPluss to before she’s cut off. The next day Crake shows up outside the module where Jimmy’s locked himself; Jimmy lets him in when he says he has Oryx with him. When Crake slits Oryx’s throat, Jimmy shoots him. After waiting out the Red Death’s ravaging of the population, Jimmy decides to take the Crakers to the seashore.
In the ongoing postapocalyptic thread that picks up here in time but that’s alternated with the extended backstory of the apocalyptic thread, Snowman’s spraygun is out of virtual bullets, and the wolvogs are closing in. In addition, he’s slowly starving to death. He dodges the daily thunderstorm and laments pitfalls in the “laws” he laid out for the Crakers at the outset (designating rabbit as sacred instead of edible for instance, or bringing him only one fish a week), and gets angry they’re adopting some semblance of religion with Crake as god, which Crake himself would have hated, though Snowman realizes it’s his own fault from what he’s told them:
The Children of Oryx, the Children of Crake. He’d had to think of something. Get your story straight, keep it simple, don’t falter: this used to be the expert advice given by lawyers to criminals in the dock. Crake made the bones of the Children of Crake out of the coral on the beach, and then he made their flesh out of a mango. But the Children of Oryx hatched out of an egg, a giant egg laid by Oryx herself. Actually she laid two eggs: one full of animals and birds and fish, and the other one full of words. But the egg full of words hatched first, and the Children of Crake had already been created by then, and they’d eaten up all the words because they were hungry, and so there were no words left over when the second egg hatched out. And that is why the animals can’t talk.
The Crakers become increasingly hungry for Crake lore. Snowman pretends to the Crakers that he can communicate with Crake through his broken watch (which Oryx had described her former boss doing in a story from her childhood). He leaves his area to make a supply run out to the Rejoov Compound, visiting a house that eerily recalls to him his childhood home, and getting stalked and almost killed by some crafty pigoons along the way. He discovers a radio through which he can hear another human is still alive (though he forgets the radio when he makes his escape), and spies a column of smoke nearby he knows can’t be the Crakers’. He also finds a new pair of old sunglasses to replace his old ones with the one lens. A cut on his foot (from a sliver of glass from a bottle of bourbon he throws at a land crab) starts to become a problem.
Returning to the room where he shot Crake and where Oryx’s and Crake’s bones still are, he reads a note that he, Jimmy, wrote in the immediate aftermath expressing his suspicions about what Crake has masterminded (including experiments with bioforms on his own mother and Uncle Pete, who both died suddenly); he believes Crake got Jimmy to kill him intentionally. Snowman makes his way back to the shore, where the Crakers are having a very religious seeming ceremony in which they’ve made an effigy of Snowman to call him back. They tell him others like him have been there, and he considers parting advice to leave the Crakers with before going on his own to find them. Overcome with fever thanks to his foot, he locates three people at an encampment, and the book ends with him debating whether he should kill them or not.
While the structure of alternating chapters between the past and present threads is a simple way to differentiate them (and makes for a cool climactic section in chapter 13 when the pattern is broken due to Snowman entering for the first time a literal location Jimmy had once been), Atwood employs a more complicated craft technique within this structure to transition between threads: establishing the transition with physical external objects. Atwood is careful throughout to establish that she is not just unspooling Jimmy’s backstory for the reader’s benefit–it’s being unspooled because Snowman is thinking about it in his present postapocalyptic thread. Take the beginning of chapter 12, whose first section “Pleebcrawl” picks up physically where the previous chapter (a Snowman chapter as opposed to a Jimmy chapter) left off, with Snowman scuttling along a rampart trying to escape some pigoons. Instead of simply cutting to the next part of the Jimmy thread she needs to pick up in this chapter (when Crake is about to hire him to advertise BlyssPluss for RejoovenEsense), Atwood transitions there more naturally by having Snowman in the present mentally hit on an image that reminds him of this period:
No point thinking about it, not in this heat, with his brain turning to melted cheese. Not melted cheese: better to avoid food images. To putty, to glue, to hair product, in creme form, in a tube. He once used that. He can picture its exact position on the shelf, lined up next to his razor: he’d liked neatness, in a shelf. He has a sudden clear image of himself, freshly showered, running the creme hair product through his damp hair with his hands. In Paradice, waiting for Oryx.
While Snowman’s thoughts intrude on the telling of Jimmy’s story, they might do so in a way designed to provoke narrative tension rather than in a way that replicates the way thought actually works, such that looking back one wonders if Atwood is almost coy in her withholding, though such coyness remains concealed at the time and becomes apparent only once the reader’s finished the book and can thus be in the same position Snowman is–actually knowing everything that’s already happened. Take for instance the introduction of Ramona, who will eventually become Jimmy’s stepmother:
“Don’t pay any attention to them, sweetheart,” said Ramona. “They’re only teasing, you know?” Ramona was one of his dad’s lab technicians. She often ate lunch with the two of them, him and his dad. She was young, younger than his father and even his mother…
This moment is given entirely from young Jimmy’s perspective–no Snowman intrusion at all. And yet through such removal we still feel Snowman’s judgment of his younger self, as in a passage that underscores both Crake’s fascination with destroying civilization and Jimmy’s utter obliviousness to it:
“Let’s suppose for the sake of argument,” said Crake one evening, “that civilization as we know it gets destroyed. Want some popcorn?”
“Is that real butter?” said Jimmy.
“Nothing but the best at Watson-Crick,” said Crake. “Once it’s flattened, it could never be rebuilt.”
“Because why? Got any salt?”
“Because all the available surface metals have already been mined,” said Crake. “Without which, no iron age, no bronze age, no age of steel, and all the rest of it. There’s metals farther down, but the advanced technology we need for extracting those would have been obliterated.”
“It could be put back together,” said Jimmy, chewing. It was so long since he’d tasted popcorn this good. “They’d still have the instructions.”
“Actually not,” said Crake. “It’s not like the wheel, it’s too complex now. Suppose the instructions survived, suppose there were any people left with the knowledge to read them. Those people would be few and far between, and they wouldn’t have the tools. Remember, no electricity. Then once those people died, that would be it. They’d have no apprentices, they’d have no successors. Want a beer?”
“Is it cold?”
“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”
“Speaking of games,” said Jimmy, “it’s your move.”
The use of the beer and popcorn here, that juxtaposition of the mundane with the extreme, is the drumbeat of Jimmy’s obliviousness. (She also cleverly slips in that everything Crake is doing is, to him, the equivalent of a game.) The structure of the threads and their intersection to close the loop at the end (the past and present threads travel in different directions from the same starting point but then wind around to the same place–the airlock containing the eponymous pair) are designed to force Snowman to confront his guilt over what he did as Jimmy, the unwitting role he played in the apocalypse, which is all the worse for being unwitting:
Crake’s emergency storeroom. Crake’s wonderful plan. Crake’s cutting-edge ideas. Crake, King of the Crakery, because Crake is still there, still in possession, still the ruler of his own domain, however dark that bubble of light has now become. Darker than dark, and some of that darkness is Snowman’s. He helped with it.
“Let’s not go there,” says Snowman.
Sweetie, you’re already there. You’ve never left.
That is to say, the chronic tension is Jimmy’s role in the apocalypse, and the acute tension is his figuring out/dealing with what that role was. The acute tension culminates with his potential choice between wiping out the remainder of the human race he’s come across, or allying himself with it.
Oryx and Crake are reverse Adam and Eves not only in gender but also in their relationship to life itself–they take their names from extinct animals. In the outset of the present thread, the introduction of the “Children of Oryx” and the “Children of Crake” make it seem as though we’re in a world that is being ruled over by some strange new deities, but we come to find out that these deities were no more than human.
Atwood leaves the resolutions of both past and present threads open-ended to an extent. The question in the present thread of who these people are Snowman has found or what he will choose to do with them seems to leave things open for the sequel. As for the past apocalyptic thread, we’ve come to understand where the Crakers have come from and how they all wound up on the seashore, and all signs point to Crake having calculatedly plotted to destroy civilization by distributing the JUVE virus in a pill supposedly designed to solve all human problems. What’s left open-ended here to an extent thread is Crake’s motivation:
Although various staff members of the BlyssPluss project contributed to JUVE on a piecework basis, it is my belief that none, with the exception of Crake, was cognizant of what that effect would be. As for Crake’s motives, I can only speculate. Perhaps . . .
Here the handwriting stops. Whatever Jimmy’s speculations might have been on the subject of Crake’s motives, they had not been recorded.
But there’s plenty of room and evidence for speculation. It seems he ultimately wanted to destroy the human race so his Crakers, the perfect bioform he’d envisioned and designed, could then take over the earth, but why exactly he should be willing to die for this is somewhat puzzling. (There is the evidence that he disdains old age in his programming of the Crakers to drop dead at 30, and the fact that he was supposedly working on “immortality.”) Perhaps the sequels will provide further answers. But we’re left after the first book with the uncomfortable possibility that we ourselves are a version of Crakers–that the (cough*religious*cough) stories we’ve been told about our own origins might be the product of genetic predispositions rather than the truth.