Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Oryx and Crake” is a beautifully written book set in a dystopian future where genetic engineering has gone wrong.

The book follows two plot lines. “Snowman” finds himself alone; slowly starving to death and doubting his sanity in a world that has been devastated by plague. His days are spent scavenging and hiding from mutant pigs (“pigoons”) and nasty wolf / dog hybrids (“wolvogs”). There are also the “Crakers”, gentle, genetically engineered humans that seem to be designed for this post-apocalyptic world. The Crakers see Snowman as a sort of mentor. We find more about Snowman’s relationship with the Crakers as the book progresses.

The second plot strand is set in the past. This is before the plague when Snowman was known as Jimmy. Corporations run fabulously appointed enclaves (called Compounds). Jimmy grows up in one of these compounds, alienated from his scientist father and coming to terms with being abandoned by his mother. The world outside the compounds, the “pleeblands”, is rife with poverty, crime and those people who are not lucky enough to work for one of the compounds.

Jimmy meets Crake, a strange and brilliant teenager while in high school. We follow their lives through to adulthood. The world, as described by Ms. Atwood, is teetering on the brink. Almost everything is available for sale, and the Compounds follow some ethically and morally questionable business practices. We come to understand how Snowman’s world came about. We also meet Oryx, a woman who both Jimmy and Crake fall for and who has a compelling and tragic story herself.

“Oryx and Crake” is the first installment of the “MaddAdam” trilogy. While I enjoyed reading the book and marvelled at Ms. Atwood’s writing; it was clear that Ms. Atwood does not approve of genetic engineering and does not hold the capitalistic motive in high regard. This results in a slightly laboured and cynical book. I might change my mind after reading the other two books in the MaddAdam trilogy. But for now, “Oryx and Crake” gets an average rating.

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Review: The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Water Knife is a lives up to its title: it’s a sharp, mean and violent story set in a grim near future US on the verge of civil war over water. The story unfolds in Phoenix, Arizona as the water runs out and the city is taken over by psychotic gang bangers, corrupt company men and desperate refugees from Texas (the “Merry Perrys”).

We follow three characters as they make their way through the dust choked ruins of Phoenix. Angel is a “Water Knife” for Las Vegas. His job is to make sure the taps do not run dry in his boss’s lush futuristic condos in the Vegas desert. We also meet Lucy, a journalist documenting the collapse of Phoenix (she even has her own #PhoenixDownTheTubes hash tag). Finally we spend some time with Maria, a Texan teenager living in one of many refugee camps policed by sociopathic gangsters (they keep Hyenas!). The three character arcs are connected by, of course, water. Or more specifically papers that will bestow senior rights to a serious amount of water in Arizona.

The Water Knife is kinetic, violent, and very grim. There are graphical descriptions of death, torture and mutilation. I am a big fan of Paolo Bacilagupi’s adult fiction and really enjoyed The Windup Girl. This book is in a similar dystopian vein, but left me disappointed. The writing is good, and the plot kept me going. However, I felt like I was reading a script of an apocalyptic science fiction film, perhaps a futuristic remake of Chinatown, as opposed to reading a book. Key plot points are telegraphed and the book lacked suspense or tension between the bullet and blood strewn set pieces.

I liked the book despite the criticisms above. Fans of The Windup Girl and the short stories in Pump Six will find much to enjoy here, but I can’t help but feel that there was much more to explore in this dystopian setting.

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Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Station Eleven is a book that cannot be categorised easily. Is it science fiction? Is is literary fiction? Is it post-apocalyptic fiction? It is all of the above, and yet it does not conform to the tropes of genre fiction.

The apocalyptic event – a pandemic caused by a highly infectious and deadly strain of flu straddles the two main plot arcs in Station Eleven. Before the end of the world as we know it, we follow the life (in reverse) of Arthur Leander, a famous actor, now in his middle ages and playing Lear on stage. The second, post collapse arc, follows Kirsten Raymonde an actor with the Travelling Symphony as it moves between small settlements on the shores of Lake Michigan performing Shakespeare, playing classical music and avoiding trouble as best as they can.

Reviews on Goodreads, and on other similar sites are full of quotes from the book, and for good reason. Emily St. John Mandel’s prose has a simple, descriptive style that manages to convey both the beauty and the desolation of her post apocalyptic world. We find beauty and grace in burnt out houses, dark forbidding forests and abandoned rust streaked airplanes parked nose to tail at the airport, going nowhere. There is danger in the form of “The Prophet” and his followers as they stalk the Travelling Symphony. Yet, this book is not like The Stand or perhaps Justin Cronin’s The Passage. The minutiae of survival and self defence are ignored as the book focuses on the emotional impact of societal collapse on those that lived through it and those that were too young to remember the world as it was but are surrounded by the decaying scaffolding of civilisation.

The book is a meditation on art and, in a sense, of mortality. Arthur Leander, in some ways the central character of this book is not remembered for his films or his wealth. He lives on through small acts of generosity, giving the eponymous “Station Eleven” comic book to Kirsten when she was a child, or through photographs and articles in decaying gossip magazines.

So why 4 out of 5 stars? Despite the beautiful writing, I found myself skimming passages. Arthur Leander was a fabulously wealthy, successful actor and serial divorcee, but not a particularly interesting character. There are almost too many characters and side plots that don’t seem to add much to the story. I found myself impatient to go back to the Travelling Symphony and to Kirsten as they made their way around post-apocalyptic Michigan.

A strong recommend from me for fans of literary fiction who want to dip their toes into the burgeoning post-apocalyptic literature genre, and for fans of science fiction curious about the tropes of literary fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful and inspiring book.

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