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Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Oryx And Crake
Margaret Atwood
Newsnight Review discussed Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx And Crake.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

I have to raise my hand and say I don't like sci-fis, they are really hard to read. She calls this speculative fiction, but there is still stuff that is set in the future, that is a hard one for me. What I did try to do is read this as an epic poem and see if I could get into it that way, but it was very difficult. What I can say about what I liked, her technique which is quite, quite formidable. She has an ability to talk about something that is ordinary, like a bowl of corn flakes or a garden, and then she pulls back from the scene and you are in a futuristic compound and the mother is a scientist that has been taken out of her job. It's quite mighty in that sense, but for me it was a very, very difficult read, very difficult to penetrate.

Bonnie Greer said she doesn't like science fiction, I don't go a bundle on Margaret Atwood, but when I began to read the work and saw the themes, it's anti-corporate theme and the green theme and stuff, my heart sank. In fact, actually, I found it in form more traditional than that, I thought it was a compelling narrative, up there with Robinson Crusoe and Day of the Triffids, both of which it draws on. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The delineation of the two male characters in it, the narrator Snowman and his boyhood friend Crake was acute and painfully observed in the way in which male adolescence in all their horror bear.

It's surprisingly conservative in the end of this book?

Yes, one of the points as far as I can see she is trying to make, fiddle about with humanity as you will and modify genes as you hope to, ultimately human nature is so irreducibly bouncy and it will return and human beings will return to their traditions and their rituals and will reinvent those things that make them distinctive and recognisably to us human.

It's true. She sort of implies that experimentation does lead to the end of everything. I'm a huge science fiction fan to the extent that I don't calling it sci-fi! I like when it's distopian and utopian. This is very anti- Star Trek. This basically suggests that within a matter of years it will end in ways that are seeded in the realities of the moment. We can see the signs everywhere, diseases happening and the wonderful splicing of creatures. I was fascinated with the goat spider splicing that happened last year. There's one in here that will give me nightmares forever, the snat the snake and the rat which crawls through in the distance. I came off having seen the opera of The Handmaid's Tale, so desperate to get back to her pure prose, it's incredibly entertaining. As a fan of Ballard, I thought it was a wonderful kind of book that Ballard doesn't write anymore.

There is always that sardonic tone. It's odd, because there is a deep nostalgia, it's very much more about the past?

It is. Yeah, in that sense it's Wyndham-esque. There is the distopian Brave New World, 1984 element and it's as good as those books. It's up there as that sort of prediction. It has that quaintness that comes out of the fifties and sixties.

I have to admit something. To listen to you, I always think about Margaret Atwood's writing. What puts me off a little bit is there is something pedestrian at its base that bothers me. I think there is the poet on top and there is something in her inner writing, yearning to get off, to lift. It never, ever quite does it.

That matter of fact Ballardian nature that I find seductive. If you don't like Ballard, you won't like that.

There is this raw narrative power which is gripping and frightening and the ambition, it's rare to get both?

It certainly is. I think that actually it's a very, very successfully constructed narrative. The part of the book where the narrator returns to the site where science went wrong and Atwood intervenes his journey and a revelation of why the world fell apart is tightly drawn and pacy. In that respect, I know that Bonnie is looking for fine writing primarily from Margaret Atwood, for those who are not Atwood fans will enjoy it.

Yeah, it's very readable.

It's a shame that it's not filed as science fiction, because it can show that science fiction at it's best is great literature

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07 Apr 03 | Review
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