106 pages 3 hours read

Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Oryx and Crake is a dystopian science-fiction novel that deals with extreme genetic engineering. The plot does not unfold in a linear fashion, nor are the facts established from the outset. Rather, the novel moves back and forward in time, often on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and the reader gradually pieces together what has happened.

The novel begins by establishing its central character, “Snowman,” who we find sitting near the sea. He is dishevelled and gaunt, and it is clear that he is the last of his kind—humankind. There are other people nearby, known as the Children of Crake, but he cannot relate to them. The novel therefore sets out by piquing the reader’s curiosity. Who are these people? And what has happened that has caused Snowman to feel like a relic? Moreover, who is this mysterious “Crake” who seems to have decreed that this should have happened?

We then find out that Snowman’s real name is Jimmy and that his parents worked in the field of genetic engineering. However, they argued frequently, with Jimmy’s mother feeling that companies were no longer acting in an ethical manner. She felt so strongly about this that she not only left business but ran away and became a revolutionary. Later, Jimmy finds that she has been executed.

While he was at school, Jimmy met a transfer student called Glenn, and this event changed the course of not only his life but humanity as a whole. The two boys were of differing personalities (Jimmy was imaginative and artistic while Glenn was scientific and logical), but they became friends and spent much of their free time watching online videos of executions, pornography, and assisted suicide. One of the child pornography videos featured a girl, later known as Oryx, who captured Jimmy’s attention. When she looked into the camera with a gaze that seemed to be one of contempt, Jimmy felt both ashamed and fascinated.

They also started playing a game called Extinctathon, which involved identifying extinct animals. It was while playing this game that Glenn took on the codename Crake, and Snowman cannot think of him under any other guise—it is as though Glenn were a mask.

Jimmy and Crake went on to different colleges, but, upon paying a visit to his old school friend, Jimmy was surprised to find that Crake was still playing Extinctathon and had become a Grandmaster. This granted him access to a secret playroom, which he accessed by clicking on a saved image of Oryx; much to Jimmy’s unease. However, this was clearly not a mere game anymore. This playroom acted as a meeting place for some of the top minds in genetic engineering and, in particular, the development of synthetic viruses.

After graduating from college, Jimmy worked in marketing and was subsequently recruited by Crake to work on one of his projects. As befitting his scientific background, Crake was now working in genetic engineering and focused his energy on the “Paradice” project. This involved the creation of “BlyssPluss” pills that would divert human energies away from destructive tendencies and promote energy and wellbeing. Unbeknown to the public, however, they would also act as a form of birth control. Here, we learn Crake’s motivation: he had concluded that humanity was in a sink-or-swim situation, with resources dwindling and the population increasing in an unchecked manner. He had consequently sought to implement a more efficient arrangement, and the pills were one aspect of this.

The other aspect of Crake’s plan was a biodome inhabited by a race of beings created by and his engineers. These beings, known as “the Children of Crake” or “Crakers”, had no destructive tendencies, no capacity to discriminate, more efficient digestive and reproductive systems, and dropped dead painlessly aged 30. Crake claimed that there were merely intended to demonstrate what genetic engineering was capable of (he refers to them as floor models), but we later find that he has not been truthful about this project.

Jimmy was also startled to find that Crake had sought out Oryx while he was at college and not only was she now working for him as teacher to the Crakers, but they were in a relationship. Still, Oryx went on to seduce Jimmy and they embarked on an affair. Whether Crake knew about this is left unanswered.

The story reaches its dramatic peak when it is revealed that the BlyssPluss pills contained a virus that Crake had unleashed in order to destroy humanity and usher in the Crakers as a replacement. Oryx had distributed these pills but did not know their true nature and was distraught to find out what she had been a part of.

Jimmy was safe inside the biodome during the outbreak alongside the Crakers, while Oryx was outside. When Crake arrived back at the compound, he Jimmy saw Crake slit Oryx’s throat, thus prompting Jimmy to shoot him. Ultimately, it appears that Crake had engineered not only the Crakers but a master plan whereby Jimmy would be left to look after the Crakers. His reasoning was that Jimmy alone had the required empathy.

As the days went by, Jimmy witnessed the extinction of humanity via the media while dealing with his feelings of shock, despair, and loneliness. However, he also knew that neither he nor the Crakers could stay in the dome forever, as resources and mechanisms would begin to shut down. He therefore decided to lead them to a park where there was lot of edible foliage, while he took up residence at a nearby beach. To cut himself off from his past identity (which had, understandably, come to have distressing connotations), he gave himself the name Snowman, in a nod the mysterious figure of the Abominable Snowman.

The novel catches up to where we first met Snowman, and concludes by looking to what will happen to Snowman henceforth. Though Snowman has done his best to look after the Crakers, he feels lonely and alienated. He wishes that there were still some other human beings around, and his prayers are answered one day when the Crakers reveal that they have seen others like him.

Snowman feels a note of concern, as there is nothing to say that the other survivors are benign. However, he cannot put aside the knowledge that he is not alone. The novel concludes with Snowman following some footprints in the sand to find three people sitting around a fire. He decides to approach them, and, here, this story ends. Are these people benevolent? How did they survive? And how will they respond to both Jimmy and the Crakers? Rather than wrapping everything up neatly, the novel finishes in an open-ended fashion.

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