Book Review : Two Books by Margaret Atwood

Andrew Stephens, Saturday the 31st of August, 2013

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Cover art for both Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood This post was automatically imported from my old sandfly.net.nz blog. It may look a little weird since it was not originally written for this format.

Sometime in the near future the world is dominated by huge corporations that are above government control. Employees of these corporations live in company compounds that are strictly guarded since business competition increasingly resembles guerrilla warfare. Genetic engineering is behind most technological advancements, bringing wonders (amazing cures) and horrors (virulent diseases) alike. The rest of the population scratch a living in huge grubby cities. Against this backdrop of mistrust, one new plague manages to almost completely annihilate the human race. Almost, but not quite.

Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood tell concurrent and somewhat overlapping stories of the years leading up to the killer plague and the events that follow. They could almost be edited together into a single book.

O&C follows Jimmy, a boy growing up in the compounds of a minor corporation and his association with another boy, Crake, a genius destined for greatness. YotF tells the story of two women, Ren and Toby, who live outside the compounds. Both women belong to a religious survivalist organisation called The God’s Gardeners, who reject modern life and predict a coming world-wide plague. Thus Ren and Toby are well placed to survive one when it conveniently arrives.

The main problem I had with both books is the main characters: Jimmy is a rather whiny and ineffectual as a protagonist, doing almost nothing of his own volition. Although slightly more proactive than Jimmy, both Ren and Toby are outshone in their own story by the more-vivid characters that surround them. All three characters have a rather limited perception of their world, and it is their observations that shape the readers understanding of what is going on. The books play a clever trick of having the reader eventually come to realise more than the characters ever do, but I found it hard going following such mopey people (especially Jimmy who gets a whole book to himself).

The books are well written and well thought out, although some of the nu-speak terms that crop up seemed jarringly tin-eared to me. One thing corporations do well is think up cool names for products and I don’t think terms like “ratunk” would survive the first focus group. The plots unfurl in a roundabout way that can be infuriating, especially since a lot of the real action goes on behind the backs of the main characters, but everything hangs together pretty well.

Of the pair, YotF is the more entertaining book. I think Atwood put more effort into getting the reader into the mindset of the God's Gardeners and they come off as much more sympathetic (albeit crazy) than the jaded compound dwellers of O&C. The best part is the insane sermons and hymns quoted from the God’s Gardeners endless meetings at the beginning of each chapter. These capture the voice of the organisation well, and read better than anything that directly follows the narrative.

This is not a pair of books for fans of resolution, both books end on the same cliffhanger. A third book in the series MaddAddam (released couple of days ago) will hopefully continue the story but who knows.

Recommended but requires commitment.

Related: Some guy named Orville Stoeber has recorded some of the God Gardener's songbook on Youtube. I assume he did it with his tongue in his cheek, but it is a little hard to tell.