One man's struggle to make sense of the dystopian world he has helped create offers a compelling escape – of a kind
I like a bit of dystopian fiction with my sunshine and sangria. As such I couldn't have asked for a more perfect companion on a recent trip to a welcoming, sunkissed Barcelona than Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. The opening scenes introducing the central character Snowman, a lonely figure isolated on the sandy and possibly toxic shores of human civilisation, gave a very different edge to the packed Barceloneta beach under my feet.
Set in the near future, the novel flicks between the story of Snowman's current plight, his mission to survive (for what?) and a sequence of flashbacks alluding to how he ended up as possibly the last human in the world. There's evidence of disasters, both natural, man-made and even man-managed. Atwood has a knack for creating a totally believable Everyman in Snowman – or Jimmy, as he was once known – lost in the wreckage. What would we do as an individual or as a race when faced with a species-ending event? What different moral decisions could we take before or after?
We learn of Snowman's or rather Jimmy's liberal arts education in a world that prizes the study of science and his later work as a copywriter helping to peddle the latest pharmaceutical innovations, most notably the BlyssPluss Pill that promises to reverse the ageing process.
Snowman's past life and his love of words punctuate the book as echoes of a lost time but also reveal an uneasy conscience. He has helped create this new world, shape its narrative and reimagine himself as a quasi-religious figure. Words and stories become his tools to survive the harsh reality he has found himself in and as the reader, you cling to the same constructs to make sense of the scene and events occurring. You recognise the words, but nothing quite makes sense, nothing feels certain.
Vestiges of the ordinary and everyday surrounded by weird science, thoroughly referenced by Atwood at the back of the book, add to this feeling of displacement. The sense that the new world has its roots in the now and is never very far away creates a feeling of threat that is not assuaged when you discover the chain of events that have destroyed much of the world as we would recognise it. Atwood introduces new ideas and concepts that help us understand what has happened, but never overdoes it. The book avoids the temptation to explain everything away, leaving some large unanswered questions.
All good beach reads need a love story of course, and Oryx and Crake manages this too. Snowman's past affairs and deep devotion to Oryx are like their own study of human relationships, lust, love and everything in between. How much of human nature can or should be controlled to further human existence remains a question throughout.
If you want to get away from it all with your beach read, this book won't disappoint – but you might not want to stay where you end up.
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