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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
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    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445

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Oryx and Crake

by

Oryx and Crake Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

Q: Most of your previous novels have female protagonists. Was it a conscious decision to have a male protagonist for Oryx and Crake, or did Snowman simply present himself to you?

A: Snowman did present himself to me, yes, dirty bedsheet and all.

For this novel, a woman would have been less possible. Or let's say that the story would have been quite different.

If we are writers, we all have multiple selves. Also, I've known a lot of male people in my life, so I had a lot to draw on.

Q: When The Handmaid's Tale was published, Contemporary Authors listed your religion as "Pessimistic Pantheist," which you defined as the belief that "God is everywhere, but losing." Is this still an accurate description of your spiritual philosophy?

A: I expect you don't have the foggiest what I meant in the first place. On bad days, neither do I. But let's argue it through.

In the Biblical version - Genesis-God created the heaven and the earth- out of nothing, we presume. Or else out of God, since there was nothing else around that God could use as substance.

Big Bang theory says much the same, without using the word "God." That is: once there was nothing, or else "a singularity." Then poof. Big Bang. Result: the universe.

So since the universe can't be made of anything else, it must be made of singularity-stuff, or God-stuff - whatever term you wish to employ. Whether this God-stuff was a thought form such as a series of mathematical formulae, an energy form, or some sort of extremely condensed cosmic plasma, is open to discussion.

Therefore everything has "God" in it.

The forms of "God," both inorganic and organic, have since multiplied exceedingly. You might say that each new combination of atoms, molecules, amino acids, and DNA is a different expression of "God." Therefore each time we terminate a species, "God" becomes more limited.

The human race is terminating species at an alarming rate. It is thereby diminishing "God," or the expressions of "God."

If I were the Biblical God, I would be very annoyed. He made the thing and saw that it was good. And now people are scribbling all over the artwork.

It is noteworthy that the covenant made by God after the flood was not just with Noah, but with every living thing. I assume that the "God's Gardeners" organization in Oryx and Crake used this kind of insight as a cornerstone of their theology.

Is that any clearer?

Q: You grew up among biologists; the "boys at the lab" mentioned in the novel's acknowledgments are the grad students and post-docs who worked with your father at his forest-insect research station in northern Quebec. Does being a novelist make you an anomaly in your family?

A: My brother and I were both good at science, and we were both good at English literature. Either one of us could have gone either way. My father was a great reader, of fiction, poetry, history - many biologists are. So I wouldn't say I was an anomaly in the family. We all did both. We were omnivores. (I read then - and still read - everything, including cereal packages. No factoid too trivial!)

Science and fiction both begin with similar questions: What if? Why? How does it all work? But they focus on different areas of life on earth. The experiments of science should be replicable, and those of literature should not be (why write the same book twice?).

Please don't make the mistake of thinking that Oryx and Crake is anti-science. Science is a way of knowing, and a tool. Like all ways of knowing and tools, it can be turned to bad uses. And it can be bought and sold, and it often is. But it is not in itself bad. Like electricity, it's neutral.

The driving force in the world today is the human heart - that is, human emotions. (Yeats, Blake - every poet, come to think of it - has always told us that.) Our tools have become very powerful. Hate, not bombs, destroys cities. Desire, not bricks, rebuilds them. Do we as a species have the emotional maturity and the wisdom to use our powerful tools well? Hands up, all who think the answer is Yes.

Q: You've mentioned the fact that while you were writing about fictional catastrophes in Oryx and Crake, a real one occurred on September 11. Did that experience cause you to change the storyline in any way?

A: No, I didn't change the plot. I was too far along for that. But I almost abandoned the book. Real life was getting creepily too close to my inventions - not so much the Twin Towers as the anthrax scare. That turned out to be limited in extent, but only because of the limitations of the agent used.

It's an old plot, of course - poisoning the wells. As for blowing things up, the Anarchists were at it for fifty years in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Joseph Conrad has a novel about it (The Secret Agent). So does Michael Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion). And the Resistance in World War Two devoted itself to such things. The main object of these kinds of actions is to sow panic and dismay.

Q: Though the book's premise is serious, you included many wordplays and moments of deadpan humour. Was this difficult to achieve, or did it arrive naturally during the storytelling process?

A: My relatives are all from Nova Scotia. That's sort of like being from Maine. The deadpan humour and the skepticism about human motives are similar.

The French have an expression, "Anglo-Saxon humour." It isn't the same as wit. It's dark; it's when something is funny and awful at the same time. "Gallows humour" is called that partly because highwaymen about to be hanged were much admired if they could crack a joke in the face of death.

When things are really dismal, you can laugh or you can cave in completely. Jimmy tries to laugh, though some of the time he's out of control, as most of us would be in his position. But if you can laugh, you're still alive. You haven't given up yet.

Q: What advice do you have for readers who would like to prevent your cautionary tale from coming true?

A: I've included a small list of books at the end of this Companion. There's lots of advice in there. If you're going to read just one book, and just one chapter of that one, try the last chapter of The Future of Life, by Edmund Osborne Wilson. It's kind of encouraging. I didn't read this book in its entirety until after I'd finished Oryx and Crake, but it's a very good summation of our current position on Earth as a species.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Average customer rating based on 23 comments:

Kathryn Linthicum, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Kathryn Linthicum)
I know that this book has been out for a while, but I just discovered it. I'm a total dystopian fangirl, and Oryx and Crake definitely stood out in my mind as one of the best I have ever read. I love the combination of science, psychology, and imagination that creates the world. Already I'm devouring the second book in the MaddAdams trilogy. I can't seem to get this book out of my head, in all of the best ways. I would say more, but I'm not into spoilers. Definitely the best book I read in 2012.
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Zulaikha, December 21, 2012 (view all comments by Zulaikha)
One of the (many) things that has always struck me as ridiculous about the concept of creationism - sorry, sorry, "intelligent design" - is the idea that an infinitely kind and intelligent god designed human beings, and yet this is the best he could do. Give me some ultimate power, and I could design a better species. One not so prone to runny noses and cancer, for starters. One where the trachea and esophagus don't share an opening - that might cut down on that pesky "choking" thing. And, you know, maybe weed out those genes for sickle-cell anemia, autism, SIDS, and myopia. That's just off the top of my head, and I'm far from being infinitely kind or intelligent.
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Penni4, May 5, 2012 (view all comments by Penni4)
I Love this book. So much that I am reading it again and cannot wait for the 3rd book in the series to be finished and released. Read Dianah's Staff Pick of this book it is a good depiction of the story that lies ahead. Do you like dystopian novels? Do yo want to be entertained and also slightly frightened by the closeness to reality it could be? Get this book now and then get Year of The Flood.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780385721677
Author:
Atwood, Margaret
Publisher:
Anchor Books
Subject:
General
Subject:
Science Fiction - General
Subject:
New york (state)
Subject:
Science fiction
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Science / General
Subject:
Science Fiction and Fantasy-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20040331
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
416
Dimensions:
8.06x5.22x.85 in. .62 lbs.

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Oryx and Crake Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$10.95 In Stock
Product details 416 pages Anchor Books - English 9780385721677 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Reading a dystopian novel that so closely matches the current political and cultural situation seems like an exercise in depression, yet part of the truly visceral response to this novel seems due to the realization that it could so easily happen in real life. Oryx and Crake are two larger-than-life characters who are connected to Snowman, the narrator of this post-apocalyptic story. The unraveling of their story and the crisis at the culmination of it are a testament to Atwood's talent.  Bleak, uncomfortable, and eerie, Oryx and Crake is a cautionary tale of science and progress.  Atwood's Year of the Flood is a companion book, and, when read together, they show a deeply layered picture of a frightening world.

"Review A Day" by , "The genre of doom-laden futuristic fiction has its share of classics ? such as H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ? and these works are now joined by Margaret Atwood's splendid novel." (read the entire New Republic review)
"Review" by , "[I]ngenious and disturbing....A landmark work of speculative fiction, comparable to A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Russian revolutionary Zamyatin's We. Atwood has surpassed herself."
"Review" by , "Towering and intrepid....Atwood does Orwell one better."
"Review" by , "Set in a future some two generations hence, Oryx and Crake can hold its own against any of the 20th century's most potent dystopias — Brave New World, 1984, The Space Merchants — with regard to both dramatic impact and fertility of invention, while it leaves such lesser recent contenders as Paul Theroux and Doris Lessing in the dust."
"Review" by , "Atwood has long since established herself as one of the best writers in English today, but Oryx and Crake may well be her best work yet.... Brilliant, provocative, sumptuous and downright terrifying."
"Review" by , "A book too marvelous to miss."
"Review" by , "Rigorous in its chilling insights and riveting in its fast-paced 'what if' dramatization, Atwood's superb novel is as brilliantly provocative as it is profoundly engaging."
"Review" by , "[R]iveting, disturbing....Chesterton once wrote of the 'thousand romances that lie secreted in The Origin of Species.' Atwood has extracted one of the most hair-raising of them, and one of the most brilliant."
"Review" by , "Her shuddering post-apocalyptic vision of the world . . . summons up echoes of George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Aldous Huxley. . . . Oryx and Crake [is] in the forefront of visionary fiction."
"Review" by , “Brilliantly constructed. . . . Jimmy and Crake grip like characters out of Greek tragedy. . . . Atwood herself is one of our finest linguistic engineers. Her carefully calibrated sentences are formulated to hook and paralyse the reader.”
"Review" by , “Atwood does not disappoint.”
"Review" by , “Biting, black humor and absorbing storytelling.... Atwood entices.”
"Synopsis" by , Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey — with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake — through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
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