The Catastrophic Effect of Science & Technology in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

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The Catastrophic Effects of Science and Technology in Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”

By – D. Priyanka Priyavarshini (introduction at the end of the paper) Issue.XXVII, April 2017
Research Advisor: R. Visalakshi, M.A, M.Phil, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, PRIST University, Tanjore



    This paper examines the disastrous effects of advanced technology and science in Margaret Atwood’s science fiction “Oryx and Crake”. Atwood is a Canadian novelist and her novels are well known for their forward thinking and thought provoking content. Atwood has strong views on environmental issues and she uses a great deal of technology in her books. “Oryx and Crake” is Margaret Atwood’s most influential work, focusing on the current trends and extrapolates them to explore what the future might look like. I consider, the heavy use of science in the novel, as a clear genre marker of science fiction. The speculative fiction deals with transgenic biotechnology and scientific innovations that run amuck throughout the novel. Atwood ingeniously narrates the apocalyptic end of the world, to which, we humans are dedicating ourselves in scientifically destructive ways. In the opinion of many readers of the novel, “Oryx and Crake” is characterized as an extraordinary work of imagination.


Key words: Margaret Atwood; Environmental Issues; Future; Speculative Fiction; Transgenic Biotechnology; Technology


     “Oryx and Crake” portrays the role of gene modification and transplant science or transgenic biotechnology in deteriorating human kind and the environment. The complex relationship between the environment and technology creates a sense of dilemma in the novel, in which I observe its devastating as well as constructive effects on the society. Apart from its positive impacts, technology can be a serious threat to environment, society, and mankind. The novel shows that technology can be, actually a curse to mankind. It can be very clearly observed from the genetically modified organisms (GMOs), their creators, the pharmaceutical companies and their totalitarian behaviour in the novel.

     The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future, and most part of the novel is narrated in the form of Snowman alias Jimmy’s backstory about his past and everything relating to his past. The GMOs, the totalitarian pharmaceutical companies and everything depicted in the novel is portrayed from Jimmy’s perspective. I personally feel that these themes depicted in the novel to be inspired by current real-life situations, since they are reflections of the contemporary society.

   There are a few pharmaceutical companies shown in the novel, and those who have comfortable jobs with the major pharmaceutical companies, live in a disease-free, highly guarded compounds. The compounds are owned and operated by multinational corporations that seem to have taken on all the government responsibilities including education, law enforcement, and even military intelligence called the CorpSeCorps. These compounds were less responsible and more totalitarian. And those who are not affiliated with such companies live in the disease-stricken “pleeblands”. Those who reside in the compounds avoid entering pleeblands, or they take special precautions to enter them safely. People living in the compounds enjoy almost all the privileges of life, whereas those living in the pleeblands lack even the basic amenities, including clean purified air to breathe. These compounds are guarded by a mysterious government force called the CorpSeCorps, they run a ruthless operation regarding the surveillance of the compounds. They appear throughout the novel and they have a strong, undeniable control over the characters in the novel.

     The very first pharmaceutical company shown is the “OrganInc Farms”. Jimmy’s father worked for the same, he was one of the best genographer in the field. There were a few projects going on, and the most prominent among them was the “Pigoon project”. The pigoons were much bigger and fatter than ordinary pigs. The main motive of this project was to grow a variety of infallible human-tissue organs in a transgenic pig host. These organs would transplant smoothly. A certain gene was crossed in, so that the pigoon kidneys, livers and hearts would be soon ready, and now the pigoons could grow five or six kidneys. The pigoon organs could also be customized, using cells from individual human donors, and the organs could be frozen until needed. A great deal of investment had been put into these projects held at “OrganInc Farms”. These pigoons were also taken for meat in the compound’s cafeteria. But in the post -apocalyptic world they pose a serious threat, as they are let loose out of the compound where they were bred. Their genetically engineered brain make them dangerously clever. This is evident when the pigoons surround and corner Snowman in a such a way that he could not escape them.

    “Rakunk” was another genetically modified animal, which is a cross between a skunk and racoon. These rakunks had been started as an after-hours hobby in one of the OrganInc biolabs. Basically there was no purpose for the creation of rakunk. They created an animal and felt it was so much fun and they said “they feel like God”. There were a number of experiments which had been terminated, as they were too dangerous, which includes “a cane toad with chameleon’s tail which could climb walls” and then there was “snat”, a cross between snake and rat which was dangerous as well. But the rakunks were calm and cute looking, and so they caught an as pets. Moreover as they did not come from the world outside the compound, they were safe for the pigoons.

    Soon Jimmy’s father was headhunted by the “NooSkins”, a subsidiary of “HelthWyzer”, and Jimmy’s family made a shift to the “HelthWyzer Compound”. It was only in HelthWyzer High school Jimmy got to meet Crake, the anti-hero of the novel, they became good friends then onwards. There were pigoons in NooSkins as well, but they were smaller in size compared to those in “OrganInc Farm”. These pigoons were used to develop skin-related biotechnologies. Though there were other projects going on at the “NooSkins”, their actual idea was to replace the older epidermis with a fresh one, which would be wrinkle free and blemish free.

    Next Atwood shows the “Watson-Crick Institute”, it is a pharmaceutical edu compound, where Crake pursues his degree. We get to see numerous GMOs in this compound. Goat crossed with spider to produce spider silk filaments in milk. A range of drought and flood resistant tropical blends with flowers or leaves. Huge fake rocks called the “Rockulators”, they absorbed water during periods of humidity and released it in times of drought. Butterflies which had wings the size of pancakes. “Smart Wallpaper” with a sublayer of algae nutrients. “Chickie Nobs” are those creepy looking creatures which just had the breasts and had no heads, there is only a mouth-like opening to dump food, they were used as a substitute for chicken meat. And finally the “Wolvogs” different sized dog like animals, with different breeds, they are ferocious with pit-bull components in them, funded by the CorpseCorps, these wolvogs are bred to be fatal. All of these are created to lead a sophisticated lifestyle, which could turn life threatening at any moment.

    Atwood depicts the ‘RejoovenEsense” as the best among the pharmaceutical compounds, where Jimmy and Crake work. Crake indulges in research and Jimmy works for the advertising department. We find “organic-botanic greenhouse” in the main compound. In the compound’s cafeteria we can find a different kind of meat being served , they have spliced between the kangaroo and sheep only for the purpose of meat which is called the “kanga-lamb”. Apart from the other projects running in the main compound, Crake has two other secret projects running in his personal work place, “Paradice”. In Paradice we find a team of Crake’s people working on “BlyssPluss Pill”. The concept of BlyssPluss was to provide the user, protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STD), reduce frustration, eliminate feelings of low self-worth, prolonged youth and also it would act as “a sure-fire one-time-does-it-all birth-control pill, for male and female alike, thus automatically lowering the population level”(p:347). The next secret projects of crake are the “Crakers”. Crakers are genetically modified human like beings, of different sizes and colours. They were nude as they had no shame, they were free from all destructive features, like racism and territoriality. They harmed no one, they ate nothing but leaves, grass and roots. Now, the pharmaceutical companies would be able to create totally chosen babies, in which they could incorporate any physical or mental features, that the buyers wish to select. But the hidden motive behind this secret project of Crake was to incorporate a virus in BlyssPluss pills wiping out the whole human population on earth and to substitute them with the “Crakers” who are more environment-friendly and free of destructive features.

   Apart from these, there were other genetically modified organisms which include, “Bobkittens” that were smaller in size than bobcats, but somehow they escaped from the compounds and harmed small dogs and babies in the pleeblands. “Happicuppa”, a genetically modified coffee bean, threw small growers out of business and reduced them to starvation and poverty, there were a number of riots and protests against “Happicuppa”. And gym suits that cleaned itself due to sweat-eating bacteria.

    These are all the gen-modified creatures or substances that we get to find in the novel. Most of them are those that largely do exist in today’s society. Scientists have already been able to combine genomes to create stronger plants. Atwood has taken such concepts, expanded the application and modified such already existing technologies. Though technology improves our lifestyle and is advantageous in many aspects, they could bring in life-threatening situations. We do find such situations in the novel. The pigoons, wolvogs, and bobkittens, they do cause serious fatal injuries when let loose in situations of emergency. Genetically modified foods such as “Chickie nobs, Happicuppa, and Kanga-Lamb” could cause fatal effects when consumed often, and moreover it feels creepy to consume a headless and organless lump of meat. The most destructive effects were caused by the BlyssPluss pills creating a global pandemic wiping off almost all the human beings. The BlyssPluss pills contained hidden deadly virus which is airborne once it has started to spread. Thus Atwood has clearly specified that, anyone trying to make the world a better place is simultaneously contributing to its downfall, be it through science or activism. Based on the plot of “Oryx and Crake”, certain characters like Crake contribute to the ecological collapse intentionally, believing destruction to be necessary for creation.

    Moving on to the totalitarian compounds prevalent in the novel, we get to notice their totalitarian regime through the death of certain characters and situations leading to their death. The death of Crake’s father, Crake’s mother, Uncle Pete and Jimmy’s mother plays a crucial role in bringing out the totalitarian regime which is ubiquitous throughout the novel. The “HelthWyzer” and the other pharmaceutical compounds made money out of drugs and procedures that cured sick people. After a certain point the company, to remain functioning, needed more illness to cure. However they started creating diseases so that they can keep on making money out of sick people. When Crake’s father came to know about such practices going on Helthwyzer, he felt it was evil. And he began to collect evidence on it, knowing which the CorpSeCorps men murdered him calling it a suicidal death, “This would be really evil, said Jimmy. That’s what my father thought, said Crake. He knew? Jimmy really was paying attention now. He found out. That’s how come they pushed him off a bridge”(p:248). Jimmy’s mother who had always been against these evil practices prevalent in the compound, was also shot dead. She was killed in a mass execution carried out by the CorpSeCorps. Crake’s mother and Uncle Pete died due to some virus encounter in their lab. Infact their death is a complete mystery throughout the novel. They died in spite of being given world class treatment and this happened to be a seriously fatal incident that took place in the compound, regarding which the CorpSeCorps is not ready to reveal. This incident kindles a doubt, that they could have been under some clinical trial and ended up losing their life due to some wrong experiments on them. We get to find similar situations in some parts of the novel, where Crake himself reveals that a couple of test subjects have ended up dead, due to errors or false direction during the trial. And he also states that they get clinical trials from the poorer countries, he says paying a few dollars would get them test subjects from sex clinics, whorehouses and prisons. “From the poorer countries. Pay them a few dollars, they don’t even know what they’re taking. Sex clinics, of course – they’re happy to help. Whorehouses. Prisons. And from the ranks of the desperate, as usual”(p:349). The pharmaceutical companies had no value for life and showed no mercy at all. They had their focus only on the money to be made.

    On the whole, the technology and science that came to rescue Homo sapiens from becoming extinct, themselves became the ultimate reason for the human beings to become extinct in the novel. Technology could be a boon when handled positively, and the same could become a curse when mishandled and cause devastating effects. In the novel “Oryx and Crake” Margaret Atwood shows how the pharmaceutical companies have misled and mishandled technology creating a complete catastrophe, and they have ultimately paved the way for the impending apocalypse.



Works Cited:

  1. Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. London: Virago, 2014. Print.
  2. Bostrom, Nick, and Milan M. Cirkovic. Global Catastrophic risks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.


Introduction to the Author:

Priyanka Priyavarshini is an M.Phil research scholar, department of English, PRIST University, Tanjore. She has great passion for creative as well as academic writing. She is a person with feminist thoughts. Her area of interest lies in Eco-Literature, Feminism and Psychoanalysis.

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