By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Oryx and Crake is a part of Margaret Atwood ‘s the MaddAddam trilogy, which also includes The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, published between 2003 and 2013. In Oryx and Crake, these two terms are code names used by hackers and genetic engineers committed to deep ecology.
Oryx: A Symbol of Deep Ecology
Oryx in the novel is the hacker name of a girl whose real name we never learn—Margaret Atwood likes that trope. Our main point-of-view character, Jimmy, first saw this girl during high school when he and his best friend Glenn were watching child pornography, something they often did when they got tired of playing video games.
Oryx and Crake treats child pornography very casually. It’s a powerful move on Atwood’s part. This dystopic society is so consumer-driven that nothing is sacred anymore, nothing is protected.
Years later, when the antelope Oryx is completely extinct, Jimmy and his friend actually find the girl or at least they think it’s her and she becomes Crake’s girlfriend and Jimmy’s lover. The antelope Oryx, at once ordinary and extraordinary, can be seen as a beautiful, tough, ephemeral creature that stands as a symbol of both the pros and cons of deep ecology.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Who is Crake?
Crake is Jimmy’s best friend, Glenn. For the bird-lovers out there, the red-necked crake may be familiar, a New Guinea bird whose conservation status is currently least concern. It’s, therefore, a simple but powerful symbol for Glenn, who masterminds an upgrade to humans that he dubs ‘the Crakers’.
The Crakers are designed to have a minimal impact on the environment. They only eat grass and leaves, so will never develop agriculture. Their sunblock is built into their skin and they have no concept of clothing, so will never develop fashion.
Learn more about science fiction-based worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Sexuality, Paternity, and Estrus
They Crakers are designed to have no interest in hierarchy or possessions, and like many mammals, their sexuality functions through estrus. When a female goes into estrus, once per month, she turns partially blue. At this point she chooses four males, who also indicate their desire through blue genitalia, and the five mate, with no notion of paternity to create competition between the males.
The Crakers sing a lot and ask a lot of questions but they have no sense of humor. They are simple, loving, and physically beautiful. They die, without fuss, at the age of thirty.
Bio-engineering a Pandemic
Worryingly, the Crakers are exactly the kind of beings who would be destroyed one way or another through enslavement, commodification, perhaps contamination by humans, with our propensity for all kinds of cultural colonizations.
Given this understanding of human nature, Crake does what he thinks he must do. He bio-engineers a pandemic that he delivers to the human population through the BlissPluss Pill; this virus is briefly named JUVE, Jetspeed Ultra Virus Extraordinary, before the deaths of everyone who is talking about it.
The Extinction of Human Beings
By moving humans into the extinct category, just as humans have done to hundreds of other species, Crake can make space for the Crakers and other species that will be less destructive to the Earth.
Bio-engineering the extinction of the human race. It sounds awfully somber, doesn’t it? But it’s actually an example of what Atwood has called ustopia, although that name hasn’t come into standard usage because many of us think utopia does the same work by indicating that utopia is undergirded by dystopian realities, just as every dystopia contains utopian potential.
Earth as a Video Game
Crake is a committed video game player, and he is treating the Earth as a kind of game, with humans and resources treated as game pieces, where killing the human game pieces could be the key to saving the Earth.
This leaves readers with a number of possible reactions to Crake, each quite complex. We might see him as a monster, a young man whose emotional and ethical abilities have been dulled by the world in which he grew up—a world many might argue looks a lot like our world.
Jimmy and Crake
We might see Crake as a visionary, willing to make the Big Move—the Deep Ecology Move—that is necessary to create a new future. This is tough, though, because although Crake’s bio-engineered humans have solved many problems ranging from sunburn to sexual assault, they’re also, laughable, with their blue genitals and their complete lack of humor.
And Jimmy is, if anything, even slipperier than Crake. He has early developed a strong sense of humor to counter what might seem like a difficult childhood, although his benign neglect by busy parents—his father is a scientist, his mother an activist—is in sharp contrast to what is frequently experienced by Pleeblands children, sexual slavery.
Learn more about defining utopian futures.
Dystopia, Apocalypse, and Utopia
Jimmy, Crake, and Oryx—the characters are great. Yet, they aren’t at the center of this project. And although the novels are delightfully balanced at the intersections of dystopia, apocalypse, and utopia, the genre is not the most important element to understanding this project either.
Oryx and Crake is a dark book, but it’s also a wonderful example of utopian vision, of hope. The dystopian society is satirically horrific, with some people literally praying to the Church of Petro-Oleum, since oil is a holy product in the Bible.
And yet, as reader’s, we are not sure whether to take Atwood seriously or not. We are constantly trying to figure out which parts are legitimate cultural critiques—the increasing economic polarization of the society, for example; which parts are hilarious riffs on real commercial products and practices, such as, the pigoons, the giant pigs spliced with baboon and human DNA, designed to grow six kidneys at once for human organ transplants; and which parts are earnest attempts to understand both our possible futures and the ways we make sense of our past.
Common Questions about Oryx and Crake: An Environmental Dystopia
In Oryx and Crake, Oryx is the hacker name of a girl whose real name we never learn.
In Oryx and Crake, the Crakers are designed to have a minimal impact on the environment. They only eat grass and leaves, so will never develop agriculture. Their sunblock is built into their skin and they have no concept of clothing, so will never develop fashion.
In Oryx and Crake, Crake bio-engineers a pandemic that he delivers to the human population through the BlissPluss Pill. This virus is briefly named JUVE, Jetspeed Ultra Virus Extraordinary, before the deaths of everyone who is talking about it.