Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake  
First edition cover
Author(s) Margaret Atwood
Country Canada
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel, Speculative fiction, Dystopian
Publisher McClelland and Stewart (Canada), Bloomsbury (UK), Doubleday (U.S.)
Publication date May 2003 (first edition, hardcover)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback), Audio Book (cassette, audio download) and e-book
Pages 378 pp (first edition, hardcover)
ISBN ISBN 0-7710-0868-6 (first edition, hardcover), ISBN 0-385-50385-7 (American hardcover edition), ISBN 0-385-72167-6 (American paperback edition)
OCLC Number 52726798
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 22
LC Classification PR9199.3.A8 O79 2003b
Followed by The Year of the Flood

Oryx and Crake is a novel by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Atwood has at times disputed the novel being science fiction, preferring to label it speculative fiction and "adventure romance" because it does not deal with 'things that have not been invented yet'[1] and goes beyond the realism she associates with the novel form.[2] Oryx and Crake was first published by McClelland and Stewart in 2003 and was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction that same year.

The events of Atwood's The Year of the Flood (2009) are contemporaneous with those of Oryx and Crake and contain some of the same characters.


Thematic elements

Returning to the dystopic themes of Atwood's earlier novel The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake presents a very different scenario than that novel's theocracy. Oryx and Crake explores developments in science and technology such as xenotransplantation and genetic engineering, particularly the creation of transgenic animals such as "wolvogs" (with the appearance of domestic dogs, the viciousness of rottweilers, and the feral nature of wolves), "rakunks" (pet-like hybrids of raccoons and skunks), and "pigoons" (pigs with bodies shaped like balloons bred to grow extra organs for human transplantation). This society promoted an extreme commercialization of life, the commodification of sex and all forms of pornography, and exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. Oryx and Crake examines the social, economic, scientific, and ethical consequences of such technology.

Plot summary

The novel begins after the collapse of civilization by an event that is not immediately identified. The protagonist is Snowman, a post-apocalyptic hermit character. He resides near a group of what he refers to as Crakers—strange human-like creatures. They bring Snowman food and consult him on matters that surpass their understanding. In addition, strange hybrid beasts such as wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks roam freely. As the story develops, these assorted lifeforms are revealed to be the products of genetic engineering.

In flashbacks, we learn that Snowman was once a young boy named Jimmy, who grew up in the near, yet undefined past. His world was dominated by multinational corporations which kept their employees' families in privileged compounds separated from a global lower moiety of pleeblands. Shortly after Jimmy's family moved to the HelthWyzer corporate compound (where his father worked as a genographer) Jimmy met and befriended Glenn (referred to throughout the novel as Crake), a brilliant science student.

Jimmy and Crake spend a lot of their leisure time playing online computer games such as Kwiktime Osama (a reference to Osama bin Laden) and Blood and Roses, smoking "skunkweed" (in the book it is never specifically called marijuana), or watching live executions, Noodie News, frog squashing, graphic surgery and child pornography.[3][4][5]

One of Crake's favourite pastimes is an online game called Extinctathon, a trivia game which requires immense knowledge of extinct animal and plant species. Using the codenames Thickney (Jimmy) and Crake (Glenn), they both play as teenagers. It is not until they are both in university that Jimmy discovers that Crake has advanced through the game to become a Grandmaster of Extinctathon.

On another trip through the dark underbelly of the Web, they come across an Asian child pornography website, where Jimmy is struck and haunted by the eyes of a young girl. Unknown to Jimmy, Crake is similarly affected by the sight of this young girl.

The two male characters pursue different educational paths: Crake attends the highly respected Watson-Crick Institute where he studies advanced bioengineering, but Jimmy ends up at the loathed Martha Graham Academy, where students study literature and the humanities, which are not valued fields of study except for their commercial and/or propaganda applications. After finishing school, Jimmy ends up writing ad copy, while Crake becomes a bioengineer.

Crake uses his prominent position at the biotechnology corporation to launch a project to create the Crakers. His goal is to create a peaceful society where people will live harmoniously with each other and nature. These genetically engineered humans are leaf and grass-eating herbivores who only have sexual intercourse during limited breeding seasons when they are polyandrous.

Crake eventually finds the girl from the child pornography website (or a woman who could be her) and hires her, as both a prostitute for himself, and a teacher for the Crakers. She takes the pseudonym Oryx, derived from the entry for Oryx beisa in Extinctathon. Jimmy identifies the haunting memory of the young girl with Oryx, though it is never made clear whether or not the two are the same person. Oryx eventually becomes intimately involved in the lives of Jimmy and Crake, and both fall in love with her. Oryx, however, views their relationship as strictly professional and only admires Crake as a scientist and "great man". For fun and affection she turns to Jimmy, though her feelings for him are not as clear. The two hide their relationship from Crake, and Jimmy is often plagued with the thought of Crake finding out about his betrayal.

At the same time, Crake creates a virulent genetic pandemic disguised as a prophylactic agent that, apparently, killed off most humans except for Jimmy. Jimmy was unknowingly vaccinated by Crake with the intention of acting as a guardian for the Crakers. Crake's rationale is that he is heroically saving intelligent life from an inevitably dying society. In the story's climax, Crake's perfected "hot bioform", present in one of his company's products, is activated and spreads throughout the world. When called to account for his actions by Jimmy, Crake kills Oryx by slitting her throat. Jimmy shoots Crake, resulting in his being left to obsess over his vanished world and unanswered questions.

Jimmy contemplates abandoning the Crakers but is constantly haunted by the voice of Oryx, and reminded of his promise to her to watch over them. Snowman instills the Crakers with his own invented religion revolving around Crake and Oryx. Oryx becomes the guardian of the animals and Crake the creator god.

During Snowman's journey to scavenge supplies, he is uncomfortable wearing shoes now that his feet have become toughened without them. He cuts his foot on a tiny sliver of glass. Infected by some descendant of transgenic experiments, his body cannot fight back, and his foot becomes inflamed.

Returning to the Crakers, he learns that three ragged true humans have camped nearby. He follows the smoke from the fire and watches as they cook a rakunk. Uncertain of how he should approach them (Blast them to bits to protect the Crakers? Approach with open arms?) he checks his now not-working watch and thinks, "Time to go," leaving the reader to speculate as to what his actions and future will be.

Main characters

  • Snowman, whose original name is Jimmy, is the main protagonist; the story is told from his perspective. The name "Snowman" is short for "abominable Snowman," a reference to the Yeti, a mythical ape-like creature of the Himalaya. For the online-game Extinctathon, Jimmy temporarily also has the animal code name "Thickney(Bush Thick-knee or The Bush Stone-curlew, Burhinus grallarius)," which Crake chooses for Jimmy from an Australian bird known for inhabiting cemeteries (p. 81).
  • Crake is Jimmy's childhood friend; an excellent student in high school, he becomes a brilliant geneticist and turns into a version of the mad scientist when he devises a plan to rid the earth of homo sapiens and to replace this destructive species with a more peaceful and environmentally friendly human-like creature: the "Crakers." His code-name for Extinctathon is from the Red-necked Crake, a small Australian bird, and this remains his name for the rest of the book, although we do know from Jimmy that his first name is Glenn. In Robin Elliott's essay on Atwood, he explains the parallels between Glenn and the famous pianist Glenn Gould. Not only are their names the same, but also in the novel it is said that he is named after a famous pianist. Furthermore, Atwood has explained that Glenn has Asperger syndrome, just like the genius pianist.[6] His surname is never given. (p. 81).[7]
  • Oryx is a mysterious woman, the third protagonist and symbolically related to the waif-like girl from an online child-pornography site that begins to haunt Jimmy as an adolescent; Crake first hires her for sexual services and as a teacher to the Crakers, but she becomes Crake's (and Jimmy's) lover. After the catastrophe, she remains present to Snowman as a haunting memory. Her name is from the Oryx, an African antelope: "It's not even her real name, which he'd never known anyway; it's only a word. It's a mantra" (110).

Beginnings of Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood started writing the novel much earlier than she expected, while still on a book tour for her previous novel, The Blind Assassin. In March 2001, Atwood found herself in the Northern region of Australia, birdwatching with her partner during a break from the book tour. Here, while watching the Red-necked Crakes in their natural habitat, she was struck with inspiration for the story. However, Atwood explains that the work was also a product of her lingering thoughts on such a scenario throughout her life, as well as spending a great amount of time with scientists throughout her childhood. She explains,

"Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the Universe."[8]

Atwood continued to write the novel through the summer of 2001 while visiting the Arctic North, witnessing global warming's effect on the region. However, shaken by the September 11 attacks, she stopped writing for a few weeks in the autumn, saying, "It's deeply unsettling when you're writing about a fictional catastrophe and then a real one happens".[8] However, with the looming questions of the end, Atwood finished the novel for release in 2003. These questions in Oryx and Crake, Atwood explains, are "simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?"[8]

Allusions/references to other works

Oryx and Crake includes two epigraphs; the first is from Gulliver's Travels and puts emphasis on the claim that the speculation about the near future in Oryx and Crake serves to make a point about the present state of the world. Swift's speaker, as quoted by Atwood, says, "my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you" (Oryx and Crake, Epigraph). The second quotation, from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, refers to the absence of safety and guides in the world, pointing to Snowman's existence in the world after Crake's catastrophe. Additionally, the novel references Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five,when the Americans arrive at the work camp the British officer states this line to the new prisoners, on p. 4:

"It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity"

The novel shares similar plot and philosophical considerations to those found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

The cover of some editions contains a portion of the left panel of Hieronymous Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Coral Ann Howells argues that Oryx and Crake is in some ways a sequel to Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in that it carries the national catastrophe in the earlier novel to global level.[9] A major reference seems to be to the "Last Man" topos in science fiction, which was inaugurated by Mary Shelley's The Last Man, also a post-apocalyptic novel, whose main character is the only survivor of a plague that has killed off all other humans.

Joyce Carol Oates sees Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein (from Frankenstein (1818/1831)) in the character of Crake.[10] Howells, too, sees Frankenstein, and also the influence of Jonathan Swift.[11]

Allusions/references to popular culture

In "Margaret Atwood, Transhumanism, and the Singularity," Sobriquet Magazine identifies several possible pop cultural references in Oryx and Crake:

"the world Atwood imagines in Oryx and Crake is hardly that far-fetched, especially online. The exhibitionistic website At Home With Anna K, for instance, is almost certainly a reference to Ana Voog's AnaCam and the lifecasting movement pioneered by Jennifer Ringley and her now-defunct JenniCam website. Likewise, many of the other fictional websites Jimmy and Crake visit in the novel have real-life analogues: Felicia's Frog Squash is essentially a crush porn portal, the premise of dirtysockpuppets.com recalls ITV's Spitting Image programme, Queek Geek sounds an awful lot like Fear Factor, and the concept of watching assisted suicides on nitee-nite.com was actualized in our world when Craig Ewert allowed his death in Switzerland to be documented by Sky TV for their controversial Right to Die documentary. Even the seemingly far-fetched idea of broadcasting live executions (which Jimmy and Crake watch on shortcircuit.com, brainfrizz.com, and deathrowlive.com) has already been discussed, with an alarmingly high percentage of the U.S. population receptive to the concept.

And the similarities between Atwood's future and our present are hardly limited to the Internet. In laboratories, for example, scientists have been developing "soggy pork," artificially engineered meat that is eerily similar to the ChickieNobs Jimmy initially finds so repulsive in Oryx and Crake."[12]

Critical reception

The book received mostly favourable reviews in the press. Helen Brown, for the Daily Telegraph, wrote "The bioengineered apocalypse she imagines is impeccably researched and sickeningly possible: a direct consequence of short-term science outstripping long-term responsibility. And just like the post-nuclear totalitarian vision of The Handmaid's Tale, this story is set in a society readers will recognise as only a few steps ahead of our own."[13]

Joan Smith, writing for The Observer, faulted the novel's uneven construction and lack of emotional depth. She concluded: "In the end, Oryx and Crake is a parable, an imaginative text for the anti-globalisation movement that does not quite work as a novel."[14]

Reviews in major Canadian publications were generally very positive. The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and The Toronto Star all praised the author's talents and ranked the novel high among Atwood's works.

For The New Yorker, Lorrie Moore called the novel "towering and intrepid". Moore writes, "Tonally, 'Oryx and Crake' is a roller-coaster ride. The book proceeds from terrifying grimness, through lonely mournfulness, until, midway, a morbid silliness begins sporadically to assert itself, like someone, exhausted by bad news, hysterically succumbing to giggles at a funeral."[15]

Joyce Carol Oates noted that the novel is "more ambitious and darkly prophetic" than The Handmaid's Tale. Oates calls the work an "ambitiously concerned, skillfully executed performance".[10]

In a review of The Year of the Flood, Ursula K. Le Guin defended the novel against criticism of its characters by suggesting the novel experiments with components of morality plays.[16]


The Year of the Flood was released on September 7, 2009, in the United Kingdom, and September 22, 2009 in the United States. Though chronicling a different set of characters, the follow-up does expand upon and clarify the relationships of Crake with Oryx and Jimmy with his high school girlfriend Ren. It also identifies the three characters introduced at the end of the original, and finishes the cliffhanger ending.

See also


  1. ^ Atwood, 2004: 513.
  2. ^ Atwood, 2004: 517.
  3. ^ Coral Ann Howells, "The Cambridge companion to Margaret Atwood", Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-83966-1, p.186
  4. ^ John Moss, Tobi Kozakewich, "Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye", Re-appraisals, Canadian writers, volume 30, University of Ottawa Press, 2006, ISBN 0776606131, p.398
  5. ^ Sharon Rose Wilson, "Myths and fairy tales in contemporary women's fiction: from Atwood to Morrison", Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, ISBN 0230605540, pp.43,49
  6. ^ Robin Elliott, "Margaret Atwood and Music." University of Toronto Quarterly 75, no. 3 (summer 2006): 821–832.
  7. ^ Atwood conceived of Oryx and Crake on a birding expedition in Australia (Atwood, 2004: 517).
  8. ^ a b c Atwood, Margaret (January, 2003). "Writing Oryx and Crake.". randomhouse.com/features/atwood. Random House. http://www.randomhouse.com/features/atwood/essay.html. Retrieved 13 December 2008. 
  9. ^ Howells, 2006: 161
  10. ^ a b Oates, Joyce Carol (2006-11-02). "Margaret Atwood's Tale — The New York Review of Books". Nybooks.com. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19495. Retrieved 2009-12-08. 
  11. ^ Howells, 2006: 164.
  12. ^ "Margaret Atwood, Transhumanism, and the Singularity". Sobriquet Magazine. 2011-02-20. http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com/sobriquet/2011/02/sobriquet-701.html. 
  13. ^ Brown, Helen (2003-05-11). "Does it hurt if I do this?". London: Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3594275/Does-it-hurt-if-I-do-this.html. Retrieved 2009-12-08. 
  14. ^ Smith, Joan (2003-05-11). "Observer review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood | Books | The Observer". London: Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/11/fiction.margaretatwood. Retrieved 2009-12-08. 
  15. ^ Moore, Lorrie (2009-01-07). "Bioperversity". The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/05/19/030519crbo_books2. Retrieved 2009-12-08. 
  16. ^ "The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood". The Guardian (London). 2009-08-29. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood. 


  • Atwood, Margaret. "The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context." PMLA 119 (2004): 513.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. "Survival in Margaret Atwood's Novel Oryx and Crake." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 45.2 (2004): 162–175.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. "Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Visions: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake." The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Ed. Coral Ann Howells. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 161-75. ISBN 978-0-521-83966-2 (hardback) ISBN 0-521-83966-1 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-521-54851-9 (pbk.) ISBN 0-521-54851-9 (pbk.)
  • Mundler, Helen E. "Heritage, Pseudo-Heritage and Survival in a Spurious Wor(L)D: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood." Commonwealth Essays and Studies 27.1 (2004): 89–98.
  • DiMarco, Dannette. "Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: Homo Faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake." 41 (2005). 15 Oct. 2008.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. "Survival in Margaret Atwood's Novel Oryx and Crake." Extrapolation 2 (2004): 162–175. Gale Literary Databases. 11 Oct. 2008.

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