In recent years, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has been widely recognized for her work as a novelist. Among her most popular works are The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale, and Oryx and Crake. The latter two novels have been called, sometimes controversially, works of science fiction. Atwood herself has suggested that there is an important difference in plausibility between her works and works that are usually classified as sci-fi. The overall structure of Oryx and Crake, at least, very closely follows established science fiction plotlines.
The lack of narrative originality in Oryx and Crake is significant, and might make a first-time reader of Atwood wonder why she has enjoyed such an uncommon level of acclaim. Individuals who have not yet read Oryx and Crake should be advised that the remainder of this article contains significant spoilers. Those who hope to avoid spoilers should stop reading now.
Back and Forth Between Two Settings
The basic structure of Oryx and Crake is a familiar one: the book bounces back and forth between a time just after the near-collapse of the human race and the years immediately preceding that collapse. The protagonist is the same person in both cases, but with two different names. This alternation of temporal perspective has been called a "two nows" structure, and it has been exceedingly popular in the past decade or so, but jumping back and forth between two or more settings is hardly a new idea.
Atwood Saves the Interesting Part for Last
It could be argued that authors can use familiar narrative structures to present ideas to the reader with clarity and directness. In Oryx and Crake, however, clarity is the last thing Atwood achieves. It is not until approximately the last quarter of the novel that the reader gets a clear idea of the story's central theme. Withholding crucial plotline information until the very end is, again, a narrative gambit that has made the literary rounds. Sometimes this device can be used to great effect. For example, in Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro withholds the detail of his dystopian world in order to focus on the interpersonal relationships between characters and in order to create a sense of disconnectedness in the reader. This disconnectedness is important because it mirrors the characters' own experiences.
Margaret Atwood, in contrast with Ishiguro, keeps the reader guessing to little or no positive effect. For most of the book, the reader is rendered powerless to understand the protagonist's action, both before and after the collapse of humanity. In the sections about Jimmy, which takes place before disease kills most humans, the reader must attempt to stay interested in events for their own sake, having no contextual compass to guide the perception of the often inflated level of detail Atwood gives. In the sections about Snowman, which is Jimmy's post-collapse moniker, the reader is forced into apathy, having no alternative but to take Atwood's word for the fact that Snowman and Jimmy are plausibly continuous in light of whatever it was that happened.
Originality Doesn't Sell
As is the case with many greatly popular novels, Oryx and Crake is riddled with clichés and boring language. Of course, this type of writing works very much to Atwood's benefit, and fits right in with her choice of overused structural gambits. In order for a fiction author to become popular, the author must cater to a large extent to the public's expectations. Writing that is too surprising or new will not find a popular audience. Given Atwood's lack of originality, her popularity is not especially surprising.
Recycled Sci-fi Themes
Atwood's conservatism holds true in the realm of theme and content, as well. At long last, the reader is let in on the joke: one of the primary characters has deliberately created a supervirus to kill off humanity so that his genetically engineered superhumans (who are, of course, resistant to the disease) can thrive and presumably the world will be a better place. Genetic modification of humanity and its ethical implications? Well-intentioned psychosis of a scientific genius? These themes have been around forever, and Atwood has little to add. Perhaps the inclusion of global warming, which is only alluded to in the book, is slightly new, but Atwood gives it a backseat in favor of the less interesting.