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The website that accompanies Margaret Atwood's latest novel helpfully provides a reader's guide, in which can be found a number of questions suitable for debate. For example:
12. In what ways does the dystopia of Oryx and Crake compare to those in twentieth-century works such as Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and even Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? What is the difference between speculative fiction - which Atwood claims to write - and science fiction proper?

See? It's on her website. She wants these questions debated. I'm not a mindless obsessive, I'm a participant in constructive dialogue!

For context, here's a quote from an essay by Atwood on the same site:
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is 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?

One can only assume that if Atwood paid half as much attention to physics news as Oryx and Crake evidently shows she does to bioscience news (about which, more below), then she'd realise that theoretical explorations of intergalactic travel and teleportation have been around for a while. And whilst it's true that there don't seem to be Martians out there, Atwood has no trouble imagining other sentient beings - aliens in all but name. The only difference is, her 'Crakers' are man-made.

A final quote before getting down to the review proper. Thanks to greengolux for this one; it's a review of Oryx and Crake that appeared in the Guardian:
Indeed, although Atwood is one of the most impressively ambitious writers of our time, she is not our greatest stylist. If you compare her prose to that of, say, Donna Tartt or Zadie Smith, it will always seem curiously underworked. She wants to get ideas across to you, not to spend her energy polishing the sentences.

...To which I can only say: Isn't that the exact criticism always levelled at science fiction? And here as it is in many such cases, the criticism is misapplied.

Oryx and Crake is hard science fiction. It is so clearly and unambiguously of the same pedigree as such writers as Kim Stanley Robinson and Stephen Baxter - in terms of both content and style, gratuitous info-dumps and all - that attempts to position it as anything else seem ludicrous.

It's also pretty good hard SF. Not perfect; whilst she's clearly done her homework (although the use of the word 'proteonome' is...idiosyncratic), Atwood sometimes doesn't seem to have quite the same gift for visualising the science as do her in-genre peers. The novel follows one viewpoint (Jimmy, later 'Snowman') through two time-streams: A post-genetic-apocalypse landscape, and a near-future strand that traces the path the world took towards disaster. The latter of these is real, and vividly detailed. I particularly liked the game Blood And Roses, in which great artistic and scientific endeavours are bartered against human atrocities to decide the fate of the world; but then, I've always been a sucker for games in fiction. Unfortunately, the further-future strand often feels surprisingly colourless. Too many times, Atwood seems to be content to let the outlandish creations stalking her world stand by themselves, with no demonstration or description.

The other disappointment is the thematic simplicity of the book. Ecologically, there's nothing here that Kim Stanley Robinson hasn't already covered with more grace. Politically, the novel stands as a stark anti-globalisation diatribe; and more than once, it comes perilously close to Michael Crichton-esque anti-science (or more accurately, anti-scientist) hysteria.

And yet -

I liked it. As I said, I think it's a good book. Aside from the impressiveness of the world-building in the immediate-future segments, there are, I think, two reasons why this is so. The first is the Crakers. These are the designer humans, the variant species that survives the genetic meltdown. The novel's opening finds Snowman acting as a kind of combination caretaker and guru to a population of Crakers which, as I said, are basically the author's answer to aliens. Now, the most common approach to aliens - say, on Star Trek - is to take one human characteristic and exaggerate it, or remove it entirely. With the Crakers, Atwood takes the same approach - but with multiple traits at the same time. The results are deftly handled, human and yet not-human, and altogether fascinating.

The second reason I liked it is something I only noticed towards the end of the novel, and something that intrigues me enough that at some point I want to go back and re-read the whole thing. There are certain parallels between the novel's two principle characters - Jimmy, the viewpoint character, and his immensely gifted friend Crake - and the characters of James Watson and Francis Crick, as reported in Watson's The Double Helix, the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. You can see the similarities in names, but also in the manner of their friendship, and in their characters - the relentless intellectualism of Crake, for instance.

Finally, to return to the question posed on the Oryx and Crake website - in what way is this novel different to twentieth century dystopias? I would argue that it is different in a fundamental way. 1984 et al focus on changed societies; Oryx and Crake focuses on a scientific progression. Its exploration of the post-change world is necessarily limited, because after the change there simply isn't much of the world left to explore. It differs because it shows how we get from here to there - and whilst I disagree with the implications of much of her tale, I can't deny that on the whole, Atwood tells it well.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I believe Margaret Attwood is on at the Union later this term - might have to try and crash it and ask awkward questions. Might also have to read one of her books, too. :)

What on earth does she mean by a proteonome? An alternative for protonome? I'm terrible when reading/watching anything about genetics nowadays, I have the urge to shout corrections a lot.
What on earth does she mean by a proteonome?

An unusual but apparently valid synonym for 'proteome'. I do wonder how she ended up using it...
Indeed, although Atwood is one of the most impressively ambitious writers of our time, she is not our greatest stylist. If you compare her prose to that of, say, Donna Tartt or Zadie Smith, it will always seem curiously underworked. She wants to get ideas across to you, not to spend her energy polishing the sentences.

I haven't managed to read Oryx and Crake yet but on the basis of her other works I'd say this was hugely untrue. Her prose is sparse but in no way 'undercooked'. Her use of descriptive metaphor and similie, for example, is never other than startlingly original and lyrical.

So there Guardian!
Fangirl. :-p

I haven't read anything else by Atwood (although Naomi's promised to lend me her copy of The Handmaid's Tale, and I'm intrigued by the one where one of the characters is a pulp-SF writer), but I'd say the Guardian's comments are accurate for this book.
Pulp-SF? I think you mean The Blind Assassin but if you go in thinking that's what it's about you'll be fearfully disappointed.

Essentially it contains an early twentieth-century fantasy/dystopia pastiche framed within a larger more conventional novel. The pastiche is better than the rest of the book actually but it's not her lack of style or use of language that lets it down.

Good. Interesting. But can't quite see how it won the Booker in 2000.

NB: Please excuse my terminology as I am a non-SF person in a minefield here.

Oh, and The Handmaid's Tale is a must read. Generally considered her best work, I think. I'm not sure that it is wholly successful in execution but the concept is so intriguing it's definitely worth a look.

I'm not really an Atwood fangirl, I just think the woman can write.
I'm not an Atwood fanboy, but I'll freely admit to being a fanboy for The Handmaid's Tale. It's bloody imaginative, and anyone who accuses it of being a rehash of 1984, as most of my school chums did, misses the point utterly.

Oh, and it's not feminist either, just because it has a feminist character in it and a central character who's female.
Oh, and it's not feminist either, just because it has a feminist character in it and a central character who's female.

Well it is and it isn't. *helpful*

By which I mean it's not difficult to make a feminist reading (note: I use 'feminist' in a positive sense not the derogatory way that seems to have become de rigeur in the last few years) but it's about so many more things that to label it a 'feminist tract' as has been done in the past is it do it and Atwood a disservice.
When I say that, I'm agreeing with you in that it's not a 'feminist tract'. The one overtly feminist character, Moira, is shown to be pretty much unsympathetic. If it's feminist at all, it's in the way it carries a female lead character. It satirises through exaggeration the situation of the oppressed woman. But it's not feminist in the militant, flag-waving, bra-burning way that you might expect having heard comments about Atwood or her work.

The novel's far more a criticism of any kind of extremism. Left-wing, right-wing, religious, feminist, all these kinds of extremism and more are exhibited within the book and roundly denounced as being Bad Things. The central message, essentially, is that extremism dehumanises people by turning them into walking soapboxes; anthropomorphised Issues. The moment when we break down the barriers between Commander and Handmaiden is when each begins to realise that the other is a human being, not merely a cipher there to serve a purpose. Those who commit themselves fully to an extremist cause are, effectively, lost - which is what happens to Moira and to Offglen.

It's been upwards of four years since I read it, though, so I may be able to offer a slightly more informed opinion if I reread.
Pulp-SF? I think you mean The Blind Assassin but if you go in thinking that's what it's about you'll be fearfully disappointed.

No, what I've heard is...

Essentially it contains an early twentieth-century fantasy/dystopia pastiche framed within a larger more conventional novel.

...This. Except where you say 'pastiche' I've seen 'pulp SF'. So all the monsters and rockets and things she's said proper SF is full of, presumably. I'm just intrigued to see what she makes of them... :-)
No rockets or monsters. Unless you count people as monsters. Which is of course valid. And you should read it. I'll be interested to know what you make of it.
No rockets or monsters.

Dang. Mislead by the mainstream press once again. *sigh*

I'll read it if I can find someone to lend me a copy; I'm going into 'save money by not buying books' mode now. Possibly making an exception for the new Adam Roberts this weekend. And the new Kim Stanley Robinson next month. And the new Stephen Baxter in September. But other than that, no new books.