Oryx and Crake

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Oryx and Crake
First edition
Author Margaret Atwood
Country Canada
Language English
Genre Speculative fiction, Dystopian
Publisher McClelland and Stewart (Canada), Bloomsbury (UK), Doubleday (U.S.)
Publication date
May 2003 (first edition, hardcover)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback), Audio Book (cassette, audio download) and e-book
Pages 378 pp (first edition, hardcover)
ISBN ISBN 0-7710-0868-6 (first edition, hardcover), ISBN 0-385-50385-7 (American hardcover edition), ISBN 0-385-72167-6 (American paperback edition)
OCLC 52726798
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 22
LC Class PR9199.3.A8 O79 2003b
Followed by The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam

Oryx and Crake is a novel by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Atwood has at times disputed the novel being science fiction, preferring to label it speculative fiction and "adventure romance" because it does not deal with "things that have not been invented yet"[1] and goes beyond the realism she associates with the novel form.[2] Oryx and Crake was first published by McClelland and Stewart in 2003. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction that same year, and for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction.

The events of Atwood's The Year of the Flood (2009) are concurrent with those of Oryx and Crake and contain some of the same characters.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel begins after the collapse of civilization by an event that is not immediately identified. The protagonist is Snowman, who is a post-apocalyptic hermit character. He resides near a group of what he refers to as Crakers—strange human-like creatures. They bring Snowman food and consult him on matters that surpass their understanding. In addition, strange hybrid beasts such as wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks roam freely. As the story develops, these assorted lifeforms are revealed to be the products of genetic engineering.

In flashbacks, we learn that Snowman was once a young boy named Jimmy, who grew up in the near, yet undefined past. His world was dominated by multinational corporations which kept their employees' families in privileged compounds separated from a global lower moiety of pleeblands. Shortly after Jimmy's family moved to the HelthWyzer corporate compound (where his father worked as a genographer) Jimmy met and befriended Glenn (referred to throughout the novel as Crake), a brilliant science student.

Jimmy and Crake spend a lot of their leisure time playing online computer games such as Kwiktime Osama (a reference to Osama bin Laden) and Blood and Roses, smoking "skunkweed", or watching live executions, Noodie News, frog squashing, graphic surgery and child pornography.[3][4][5]

One of Crake's favourite pastimes is an online game called Extinctathon, a trivia game which requires immense knowledge of extinct animal and plant species. Using the codenames "Thickney" (Jimmy) and "Crake" (Glenn), they both play as teenagers. It is not until they are both in university that Jimmy discovers that Crake has advanced through the game to become a Grandmaster of Extinctathon.

On another trip through the dark underbelly of the Web, they come across an Asian child pornography website, where Jimmy is struck and haunted by the eyes of a young girl.

The two male characters pursue different educational paths: Crake attends the highly respected Watson-Crick Institute where he studies advanced bioengineering, but Jimmy ends up at the loathed Martha Graham Academy, where students study literature and the humanities, which are not valued fields of study except for their commercial and/or propaganda applications. After finishing school, Jimmy ends up writing ad copy, while Crake becomes a bioengineer.

Crake uses his prominent position at the biotechnology corporation to launch a project to create the Crakers. His stated goal is to create "floor models" of all the possible options a family could choose in the genetic manipulation of their future children. These genetically engineered humans are leaf and grass-eating herbivores who only have sexual intercourse during limited breeding seasons when they are polyandrous. These "floor models" are actually Crake's attempt at creating a perfect post human race.

Crake eventually finds the girl from the child pornography website (or a woman who could be her) and hires her, as both a prostitute for himself, and a teacher for the Crakers.

She takes the pseudonym Oryx, derived from the entry for Oryx beisa in Extinctathon. Jimmy identifies the haunting memory of the young girl with Oryx, though it is never made clear whether the two are the same person. Oryx eventually becomes intimately involved in the lives of Jimmy and Crake, and both fall in love with her. Oryx, however, views her relationship with Crake as strictly professional and only admires Crake as a scientist and "great man". For fun and affection she turns to Jimmy, though her feelings for him are not as clear. The two hide their relationship from Crake, and Jimmy is often plagued with the thought of Crake finding out about his betrayal.

At the same time, Crake creates a virulent genetic pandemic disguised as a prophylactic agent that, apparently, killed off most humans except for Jimmy. Jimmy was unknowingly vaccinated by Crake with the intention of acting as a guardian for the Crakers. Crake's rationale is that he is heroically saving intelligent life from an inevitably dying society. In the story's climax, Crake's perfected "hot bioform", present in one of his company's products, is activated and spreads throughout the world. During the chaos, Crake presents himself to Jimmy, then kills Oryx by slitting her throat. Jimmy shoots Crake, resulting in his being left to obsess over his vanished world and unanswered questions.

Jimmy contemplates abandoning the Crakers but is constantly haunted by the voice of Oryx, and reminded of his promise to her to watch over them. Snowman instills the Crakers with his own invented religion revolving around Crake and Oryx. Oryx becomes the guardian of the animals and Crake the creator god.

During Snowman's journey to scavenge supplies, he is uncomfortable wearing shoes now that his feet have become toughened without them. He cuts his foot on a tiny sliver of glass. Infected by some descendant of transgenic experiments, his body cannot fight back, and his foot becomes inflamed.

Returning to the Crakers, he learns that three ragged true humans have camped nearby. He follows the smoke from the fire and watches as they cook a rakunk. Uncertain of how he should approach them (Blast them to bits to protect the Crakers? Approach with open arms?) he checks his now not-working watch and thinks, "Time to go", leaving the reader to speculate as to what his actions and future will be.

Main characters[edit]

  • Snowman, whose original name is Jimmy, is the main protagonist; the story is told from his perspective. The name "Snowman" is short for "abominable Snowman", a reference to the Yeti, a mythical ape-like creature of the Himalaya. For the online-game Extinctathon, Jimmy temporarily also has the animal code name "Thickney" (Bush Thick-knee or Bush Stone-curlew, Burhinus grallarius), which Crake chooses for Jimmy from an Australian bird known for inhabiting cemeteries (p. 81).
  • Crake is Jimmy's childhood friend; an excellent student in high school, he becomes a brilliant geneticist and turns into a version of the mad scientist when he devises a plan to rid the earth of Homo sapiens and to replace this destructive species with a more peaceful and environmentally friendly human-like creature: the "Crakers". His code-name for Extinctathon is from the Red-necked Crake, a small Australian bird, and this remains his name for the rest of the book, although we do know from Jimmy that his first name is Glenn. In Robin Elliott's essay on Atwood, he explains the parallels between Glenn and the famous pianist Glenn Gould. Not only are their names the same, but also in the novel it is said that he is named after a famous pianist. Furthermore, Atwood has explained that Glenn has Asperger syndrome, just like the genius pianist.[6] His surname is never given. (p. 81).[7]
  • Oryx is a mysterious woman, the third protagonist and symbolically related to the waif-like girl from an online child-pornography site that begins to haunt Jimmy as an adolescent; Crake first hires her for sexual services and as a teacher to the Crakers, but she becomes Crake's (and Jimmy's) lover. After the catastrophe, she remains present to Snowman as a haunting memory. Her name is from the Oryx, an African antelope: "It's not even her real name, which he'd never known anyway; it's only a word. It's a mantra" (110). She is described as likely originating from the South or South-East Asian region.
  • Sharon is Jimmy's mother. She once worked at OrganInc like her husband, but stopped due to an untreated nervous breakdown. She is depressed and fights with Jimmy's father often. Jimmy vies for his mother's attention, but she spends much of her time sitting in her bathrobe and smoking. Eventually, Sharon runs away from the OrganInc compound, abandoning her son and taking his pet rakunk Killer, whom Jimmy treasures greatly, with her. Jimmy is haunted by his mother's absence, and is visited often by CorpSeCorps inspectors attempting to track her whereabouts.
  • Jimmy's father, unnamed in the book, works first for OrganInc and later HelthWyzer as a scientist. He is heavily involved in the development of pigoons. He is more pragmatic about the morality of genetic splicing than his wife. After Jimmy's mother deserts the compound, he pursues a relationship with his laboratory technician, Ramona, and they eventually marry.
  • Ramona is introduced as Jimmy's father's co-worker at OrganInc. As one of Jimmy's father's lab technicians, she spends a lot of time with him both inside and outside of work. Ramona, Jimmy, and Jimmy's father frequently go out to eat together. When Jimmy's father leaves OrganInc to accept a new position at HealthWyzer, Ramona makes the move with him. After Jimmy's mother's mysterious departure, Ramona moves in and takes on a motherly role in Jimmy's life.

Beginnings of Oryx and Crake[edit]

Margaret Atwood started writing the novel much earlier than she expected, while still on a book tour for her previous novel, The Blind Assassin. In March 2001, Atwood found herself in the Northern region of Australia, birdwatching with her partner during a break from the book tour. Here, while watching the Red-necked Crakes in their natural habitat, she was struck with inspiration for the story. However, Atwood explains that the work was also a product of her lingering thoughts on such a scenario throughout her life, as well as spending a great amount of time with scientists throughout her childhood. She explains

Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the Universe.[8]

Atwood continued to write the novel through the summer of 2001 while visiting the Arctic North, witnessing global warming's effect on the region. However, shaken by the September 11 attacks, she stopped writing for a few weeks in the autumn, saying, "It's deeply unsettling when you're writing about a fictional catastrophe and then a real one happens".[8] However, with the looming questions of the end, Atwood finished the novel for release in 2003. These questions in Oryx and Crake, Atwood explains, are "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?"[8]

Allusions/references to other works[edit]

The cover of some editions contains a portion of the left panel of Hieronymous Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. The cover of other editions contains a modified portion of Lucas Cranach the Elder's painting The Fall.

In the first chapter, Snowman utters a reference from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five:

"It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity," he says out loud. He has the feeling he's quoting from a book, some obsolete, ponderous directive written in aid of European colonials running plantations of one kind or another.

One of Snowman's musings, "Now I'm alone [...] All, all alone. Alone on a wide, wide sea"[9] is an allusion to part four of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.[10]

Atwood includes two epigraphs. The first is from Gulliver's Travels: "my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you," suggesting Oryx and Crake could be interpreted as a cautionary tale or social critique. The second is from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.[citation needed]

Allusions/references to popular culture[edit]

In "Margaret Atwood, Transhumanism, and the Singularity", Sobriquet Magazine identifies several possible pop cultural references in Oryx and Crake:

the world Atwood imagines in Oryx and Crake is hardly that far-fetched, especially online. The exhibitionistic website At Home With Anna K, for instance, is almost certainly a reference to Ana Voog's AnaCam and the lifecasting movement pioneered by Jennifer Ringley and her now-defunct JenniCam website. Likewise, many of the other fictional websites Jimmy and Crake visit in the novel have real-life analogues: Felicia's Frog Squash is essentially a crush porn portal, the premise of dirtysockpuppets.com recalls ITV's Spitting Image programme, Queek Geek sounds an awful lot like Fear Factor, and the concept of watching assisted suicides on nitee-nite.com was actualized in our world when Craig Ewert allowed his death in Switzerland to be documented by Sky TV for their controversial Right to Die documentary. Even the seemingly far-fetched idea of broadcasting live executions (which Jimmy and Crake watch on shortcircuit.com, brainfrizz.com, and deathrowlive.com) has already been discussed, with a high percentage of the U.S. population receptive to the concept.[11]

Critical reception[edit]

The book received mostly favourable reviews in the press. Helen Brown, for the Daily Telegraph, wrote "The bioengineered apocalypse she imagines is impeccably researched and sickeningly possible: a direct consequence of short-term science outstripping long-term responsibility. And just like the post-nuclear totalitarian vision of The Handmaid's Tale, this story is set in a society readers will recognise as only a few steps ahead of our own."[12]

Joan Smith, writing for The Observer, faulted the novel's uneven construction and lack of emotional depth. She concluded: "In the end, Oryx and Crake is a parable, an imaginative text for the anti-globalisation movement that does not quite work as a novel."[13]

Reviews in major Canadian publications were generally very positive. The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and The Toronto Star all praised the author's talents and ranked the novel high among Atwood's works.

For The New Yorker, Lorrie Moore called the novel "towering and intrepid". Moore writes, "Tonally, 'Oryx and Crake' is a roller-coaster ride. The book proceeds from terrifying grimness, through lonely mournfulness, until, midway, a morbid silliness begins sporadically to assert itself, like someone, exhausted by bad news, hysterically succumbing to giggles at a funeral."[14]

Joyce Carol Oates noted that the novel is "more ambitious and darkly prophetic" than The Handmaid's Tale. Oates calls the work an "ambitiously concerned, skillfully executed performance".[15]

In a review of The Year of the Flood, Ursula K. Le Guin defended the novel against criticism of its characters by suggesting the novel experiments with components of morality plays.[16]


The Year of the Flood was released on 7 September 2009 in the United Kingdom, and 22 September 2009 in Canada and the United States. Though chronicling a different set of characters, the follow-up does expand upon and clarify the relationships of Crake with Oryx and Jimmy with his high school girlfriend Ren. It also identifies the three characters introduced at the end of the original, and finishes the cliffhanger ending.

The third book in the series, MaddAddam, was published in August 2013.[17]

Cultural references[edit]

Two tracks on The Knife's 2013 album Shaking the Habitual are named "Oryx" and "Crake". However, they are sequenced in the opposite order on the tracklist.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Atwood, 2004: 513.
  2. ^ Atwood, 2004: 517.
  3. ^ Coral Ann Howells, "The Cambridge companion to Margaret Atwood", Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-83966-1, p.186
  4. ^ John Moss, Tobi Kozakewich, "Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye", Re-appraisals, Canadian writers, volume 30, University of Ottawa Press, 2006, ISBN 0-7766-0613-1, p.398
  5. ^ Sharon Rose Wilson, "Myths and fairy tales in contemporary women's fiction: from Atwood to Morrison", Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, ISBN 0-230-60554-0, pp.43,49
  6. ^ Robin Elliott, "Margaret Atwood and Music". University of Toronto Quarterly 75, no. 3 (summer 2006): 821–832.
  7. ^ Atwood conceived of Oryx and Crake on a birding expedition in Australia (Atwood, 2004: 517).
  8. ^ a b c Atwood, Margaret (January 2003). "Writing Oryx and Crake.". randomhouse.com/features/atwood. Random House. Retrieved 13 December 2008. 
  9. ^ Atwood, 2003: 13
  10. ^ Machat, 2013: 92
  11. ^ "Margaret Atwood, Transhumanism, and the Singularity". Sobriquet Magazine. 20 February 2011. 
  12. ^ Brown, Helen (11 May 2003). "Does it hurt if I do this?". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  13. ^ Smith, Joan (11 May 2003). "Observer review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood | Books | The Observer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  14. ^ Moore, Lorrie (7 January 2009). "Bioperversity". The New Yorker. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  15. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol (2 November 2006). "Margaret Atwood's Tale — The New York Review of Books". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  16. ^ "The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood". The Guardian (London). 29 August 2009. 
  17. ^ http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17262203-maddaddam


  • Adami, Valentina. "Bioethics through Literature: Margaret Atwood's Cautionary Tales". WVR, 2011.
  • Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. McClelland and Stewart, 2003.
  • Atwood, Margaret. "The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context". PMLA 119, 2004.
  • DiMarco, Dannette. "Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: Homo Faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake". Papers on Language and Literature 41(2), 2005.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. "Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Visions: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake". In Coral Ann Howells (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (161–75). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 161-75. ISBN 978-0-521-83966-2 (hardback) ISBN 0-521-83966-1 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-521-54851-9 (pbk.) ISBN 0-521-54851-9 (pbk.)
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. "Survival in Margaret Atwood's Novel Oryx and Crake". Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 45.2 (2004): 162–175.
  • Machat, Sibylle. In the Ruins of Civilizations: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel. WVT, Trier, 2013. ISBN 978-3-86821-431-4 (pbk.)
  • Mundler, Helen E. "Heritage, Pseudo-Heritage and Survival in a Spurious Wor(L)D: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood". Commonwealth Essays and Studies 27(1), 89–98, 2004.

External links[edit]