Oryx & Crake & how bad leadership really is the end of the world
Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood, 2003
I'd had this book on my shelf for years before I finally took the dust jacket off and discovered the v e r y c o o l fluorescent rabbits underneath. Life is full of surprises, friends.
I picked it up looking for pure escapism. But, like all the best speculative fiction*, Oryx & Crake has as much to say about the real world as it does about its imagined one. Atwood's narrator Snowman (real name Jimmy) is a mediocre copywriter who finds himself caretaking a community of post-humans in the wake of a deadly apocalypse. The narrative flits between Snowman's present - a world of baking sun and vicious genetically modified predators - and his childhood through to early adulthood. It's here, as Snowman looks back with some nostalgia at his dystopian childhood, that we first meet his best friend, Crake.
Crake is a self-proclaimed genius. Like the tech 'geniuses' and political dictators of our world, he curates himself a slick, enigmatic persona and builds up an almost literal cult of die-hard followers. He looks down on the rest of humanity from this pedestal, believing that only he has the intelligence and foresight to make decisions for the whole of the human race.
For me, the strength of Oryx & Crake isn't in showing the horror that inevitably comes from placing a man like Crake in a position of power. We've got more than enough real world examples of that already. Instead, Atwood shows us the equally catastrophic results that come from a man who craves validation over anything else. Snowman wilfully ignores the warning signs that suggest his friend's capabilities, preferring to remain in his circle of influence and enjoy the luxuries it affords. He wants so desperately to be Crake's best friend that he will avert his gaze from his evil, just as he wants the girl from the photograph so badly that he will imagine a whole identity for her and project it onto Oryx. Snowman is a man who will do, say and be anything for the privilege of standing in Crake's shadow. The disadvantage of being a Snowman of course is that, as soon as the shade is gone, the warm light of day becomes a death sentence.
*As a side note, Margaret Atwood doesn't consider Oryx & Crake to be sci-fi because she doesn't reference any scientific, technological or cultural advances (or problems) that haven't already started to happen in the real world. That in itself is obviously a bit disturbing. This got me thinking more generally about climate fiction and the privilege of being able to read it as in any way imagined. Probably a longer post to come on that...