Oryx and Crake

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Scientific Progress & Its Costs Theme Analysis

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Scientific Progress & Its Costs Theme Icon
Corporate Power & Commodification Theme Icon
Humans & Animals Theme Icon
The State of Human Relationships Theme Icon
History, Language & the Humanities  Theme Icon
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Atwood has described Oryx and Crake as ‘speculative fiction’, meaning that it is a novel that takes current trends and extrapolates them to explore what the future might look like. The world of Oryx and Crake extrapolates upon the rapid advances around the turn of the 21st century in biological and genetic engineering and the questions raised about the moral and ethical responsibilities of science and scientists when they became capable of creating new kinds of life and manipulating natural processes.

Many characters in the novel fail to exercise their power over nature responsibly. Crake is the most extreme example of this kind of transgression. His genetic experiments on the Crakers (they are made from stolen embryos which are then genetically altered) and his introduction of a terrible virus into the human population are the nightmarish product of the advanced biological science in Oryx and Crake. But the general experimentation on plants, animals, and humans performed by many different scientists throughout the novel is rife with immoral conduct. HealthWyzer spends a great deal of resources and manpower secretly devising new viruses and releasing them into the population, so that new cures can be sold. Sharon (Jimmy’s mother) and Jimmy’s father argue frequently about the work that Jimmy’s father does in genetic manipulation of animals, and it is implied that Sharon knows about and objects to the abuse of knowledge and power happening at HealthWyzer (and at other corporations). Jimmy’s mother ultimately decides to leave and join various rebellious efforts against the corporations in the Pleeblands, while Jimmy’s father chooses to continue to work in spite of the obvious abuse of power occurring at his company and others.

The world of Oryx and Crake is not just a comment on the responsibilities and costs of advanced biological science, it is also imagines the cultural ascension of science in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, accompanied by the decline in prestige and cultural impact of the humanities, to have continued unabated. The book imagines a world where humanistic questions (regarding ethics, morality, and responsible decision making) have been pushed aside in the name of scientific progress. The resulting suggestion is that scientific progress absent humanistic thinking leads to perverse uses of scientific power and knowledge, affects our moral decision-making, and has a dehumanizing effect on culture generally.

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Scientific Progress & Its Costs Quotes in Oryx and Crake

Below you will find the important quotes in Oryx and Crake related to the theme of Scientific Progress & Its Costs.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“Leave Daddy alone,” said his mother. “Daddy is thinking. That’s what they pay him for. He doesn’t have time for you.

Related Characters: Sharon (speaker), Jimmy (Snowman), Jimmy’s father
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In the flashback scenes that begin in this chapter, we see Snowman's early life, back when he was called Jimmy--a life that was characterized by absentee parents and emotional emptiness. Jimmy's parents worked for a major corporation, although Jimmy's mother, Sharon, eventually abandoned the corporation because she objected to what she saw as its immoral uses of science and technology.

Sharon is a complex character in the novel, because she's a moral authority (she seems to be one of the only people who realizes how evil the corporation is), and yet she's not a very loving mother to Jimmy. In this scene, for instance, she speaks to her child harshly--she tells Jimmy to stop bothering her father, who works for the corporation. There's a strong note of contempt in Sharon's words here--she seems to be suggesting that she is just as ignored and undervalued by Jimmy's father as Jimmy himself is. But Sharon seems not to show much love for Jimmy either, and she also recognizes the value of capitalism and commodification in her society--even her husband's "thinking" is something to be bought and sold. In short, the passage shows that Jimmy grew up in an emotionally empty place dominated by the need to work and make money.


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He thought of pigoons as creatures much like himself. Neither he nor they had a lot of say in what was going on.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Snowman/Jimmy thinks back on the pigoons--genetically engineered creatures that combined the DNA of a pig and a human being. A corporation called OrganInc bred and sold pigoons so that sick humans could obtain organs for transplants. Although the corporation insisted that it was only using the pigoons for transplants, not consumption, it was eventually forced to go back on its promise, harvesting the pigoons for meat (due to the famine throughout the country).

Jimmy felt for the pigoons--he didn't want them to be eaten, because he identified with them. The pigoons are partly human, which may account for Jimmy's sense of empathy. And yet Jimmy's sadness seems deeper and more visceral--he sympathizes with the pigoons because they're living creatures, not just because they're partly human. Atwood suggests that Jimmy is an unusually sensitive and moral young man--despite the fact that he's raised in an increasingly corrupt and amoral world, and so he's silenced (much like the poor pigoons themselves).

Chapter 3 Quotes

Strange to think of the endless labor, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Snowman contemplates the slow deterioration of civilization. Human beings themselves are long-gone (except for Snowman, seemingly). And yet the emblems of their civilization are still around: cities, statues, paintings, machines, etc. Now, the second phase of human extinction is beginning: the slow deterioration of the things humans built.

The passage is lyrically poetic: it compares the slow destruction of material culture to the destruction of a sandcastle, suggesting that, for all their impressiveness, even the great buildings and machines of mankind are "mortal." The labor and ingenuity that went into building such devices, while not exactly wasted, didn't protect the devices from the elements or the slow destruction of time.

Chapter 4 Quotes

There’d been a lot of fooling around in those days: create-an-animal was so much fun, said the guys doing it. It made you feel like God.

Related Characters: Jimmy’s father
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

On his birthday, Jimmy receives a pet from his father: a rakunk, a combination of a skunk and a raccoon. As Snowman, in the present, remembers the rakunk, he thinks about the genetic engineering that went on during his childhood. Scientists seemed to enjoy the engineering projects not so much because of their utility but because they encouraged the scientists to feel powerful: creating new forms of life, after all, is practically the definition of being a god.

The passage introduces a religious flavor to the novel: it's suggested that mankind has been punished for daring to overstep its bounds and rise to a god's level (one of the oldest and most familiar themes of science fiction and fantasy stories, and even mythology). If Snowman is now living in a post-apocalyptic time, then perhaps the apocalypse was a punishment for this kind of hubris and recklessness.

“We give people Hope. Hope isn’t ripping off!”
“At Nooskins’ price it is. You hype your wares and take all their money, and then it's no more treatments for them…Don’t you remember the way you used to talk?...you had ideals, then.”
[…] “There’s nothing sacred about cells and tissue.”

Related Characters: Sharon (speaker), Jimmy’s father (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jimmy's parents have an argument about the morality of Jimmy's father's genetic research. Jimmy's father works for a corporation called NooSkin that's pretty clearly corrupt and immoral: it charges people huge sums of money in return for a "new skin" that won't get old or show signs of aging over time. The corporation also researches its technology by experimenting with human DNA, combining it with animal DNA in various unusual ways.

Sharon's attack on her husband's research is twofold: first, she finds it immoral that a company would cheat people into buying new skins for such large sums; second, she seems to find something immoral and even unholy about mixing human DNA with animal DNA. It's the second objection that Jimmy's father focuses on--and perhaps it's a more debatable moral objection than the first. The implication of the passage, however, seems to be that Jimmy's father, in working with DNA so frequently, has lost all sight of morality, basic humanity, and the wonders of life: to him, life is now just a product to be modified and sold for money.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Homo Sapiens Sapiens was once so ingenious with language, and not only with language. Ingenious in every direction at once.”

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy thinks back on humanity's past greatness: a greatness that has been squandered, resulting in a post-apocalyptic society. Jimmy, an eloquent man who loves words and language, is particularly impressed with humanity's grasp of language, and is mournful for this loss. He also acknowledges that mankind was impressive in many different ways: it achieved scientific, technological, and musical greatness, to name only a few examples.

And yet Jimmy's tone seems rueful and regretful. Mankind was ingenious, yes, but its ingenuity couldn't save it from destruction: in fact, its ingenuity brought about its own destruction. Again, Atwood suggests Biblical or religious themes: mankind, in daring to be great, has brought on the punishment of the universe. Its ingenuity outstripped its morality, its sciences overwhelmed its humanity (and its "humanities"), and thus it sowed the seeds of its own ruin.

On some non-conscious level, Snowman must serve as a reminder to these people, and not a pleasant one: he’s what they may have been once.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman), The Crakers
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Snowman is again interacting with the Crakers, the genetically modified human-like creatures that Crake built. The Crakers share certain traits with humans, but they are more advanced in some ways and primitive in others. Snowman is like a god and a father-figure to the Crakers: his job is to take care of them, to make sure that they don't destroy themselves.

In this passage, Snowman realizes that the mythology and stories he's been teaching the Crakers is a kind of warning: Snowman is a survivor of the old world, and so paradoxically, his presence among the Crakers is a warning that the Crakers are flawed--they share DNA with an ugly, imperfect being. Ironically, Snowman, because he's one of the only survivors of the pre-apocalyptic human civilization, is taken as representative of that civilization, despite the fact that he's always hated it.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Crake thought he’d done away with all that…God is a cluster of neurons, he’d maintained…They’re up to something though. Something Crake didn’t anticipate. They’re conversing with the invisible. They’ve developed reverence.

Related Characters: Crake, The Crakers
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman thinks about the new society that's arisen on Earth, after the decline of humanity. The Crakers have been bred by Crake to be uncreative, emotionless, and basically atheistic. And yet the Crakers are still drawn to art, mythology, and religion: they have a strong religious instinct, apparent in their embrace of the mythology Snowman has invented for them. The Crakers, against all the odds and their own genetic makeup, have maintained a human capacity to worship the divine.

The passage is interesting because it suggests the rivalry between Jimmy (Snowman) and Crake: Jimmy seems to be getting revenge on Crake by teaching the Crakers to worship everything that Crake hated (religion, stories, myths, etc.). Crake, we can tell, was an atheistic person with a highly scientific turn of mind: he didn't believe in "myth" of any kind, whether it was religion, poetry, or fiction.

Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides or murders. Now it’s more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.

Related Characters: Crake, The Crakers
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

In the post-apocalyptic world, the Crakers are what remains. The Crakers are like humans in some ways, but they lack humans' capacity for jealousy, sexual rivalry, and love: thus, they have sex, but only as a means of reproduction. Jimmy notes that the Crakers' habits have some advantages over humans: unlike humans, Crakers don't have any jealousy or sexual violence to speak of--sex is just a regular act for them, like an athletic "demonstration." (And this was Crake's intention in creating them--to free them from all the potential suffering and conflict that arises from sexual desire.)

The passage is interesting because it seems to allude to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Before the fall of man, some religious scholars suggest, Adam and Eve did have sex, but only out of an abstract necessity--they hadn't yet found "fallen" sexual passion. The notion of the fall of man is highly relevant to the novel, since it shows that by discovering the mysteries of life and death, mankind has fallen out of paradise. Thus, the passage is a subtle signal that with the Crakers, we've returned to the Garden of Eden: ignorant of the knowledge of death and life, and of sexual passion, too.

Chapter 8 Quotes

How could I have missed it? Snowman thinks. What he was telling me? How could I have been so stupid?...
There had been something willed about it, though, his ignorance…he’d grown up in walled spaces, and then he’d become one. He had shut things out.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman), Crake
Related Symbols: Inside, Outside
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman thinks back on his friendship with Crake, the mysterious young man with whom he grew up. Crake's father died in a car accident, supposedly a suicide. Jimmy remembers Crake remarking that his father was "uncoordinated." Years later, Jimmy realizes the truth: Crake was trying to say that his father was out of joint with the other people in his corporation--he refused to go along with the corporate dogma, and so he was murdered for his disobedience. Jimmy is furious with himself for missing the obvious truth about Crake and Crake's father: he's been willfully ignorant.

The passage is interesting because it shows Crake, not Jimmy, being adept at manipulating language in subtle ways. Jimmy is the writer and wordsmith, and yet he misses Crake's hint about Crake's father's supposed suicide. It also shows Crake as being connected with ideas of "walled spaces"--the divide between "inside" and "outside" is an important one in the novel, and we see Crake's secrecy and efficiency as related to himself maintaining his "inside" and keeping everything else out.

So a lot of what went on at Martha Graham was like studying book binding or Latin: pleasant to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything, though every once in a while the college president would subject them to some yawner about the vital arts and their irresistible reserved seat in the big red-velvet amphitheater of the beating human heart.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Related Symbols: Inside
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy doesn't go to a very prestigious school: Martha Graham is a run-down school devoted to the humanities, an area of human knowledge that few, if any, people continue to value in his society. Jimmy is perfectly aware that his society no longer values what he's interested in studying: the subjects at Martha Graham seem esoteric and "useless" compared to most of what Jimmy has seen in the professional world (Jimmy grew up around scientists and businessmen, after all). Even Jimmy himself doesn't seem very enthused when the president of his college makes a speech about the importance of the humanities to the human heart and one's inner life--Jimmy likes the arts, but he has no illusions about their importance to society.

The passage could be interpreted as Margaret Atwood's assessment of the place of the humanities in her own society. As the world becomes more technologically advanced and consumer-oriented, art and literature seem to be growing more and more unimportant--it's possible that someday they'll be considered as esoteric as book binding.

Chapter 9 Quotes

The striped-pyjamas guy upstairs must have been a word person, then: a RejoovenEsense speechwriter, an ideological plumber, a spin doctor, a hairsplitter for hire. Poor bugger, thinks Snowman.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman surveys the ruins of what was once the headquarters of a mighty corporation. Snowman discovers the corpse of a former employee of the corporation--and on closer inspection, he discovers that the employee owned poetry books, suggesting that he was a humanities person, just like Snowman. The employee must have spent his life writing copy for the corporation--selling his verbal talents for money.

The passage conveys some of the pitfalls of the futuristic humanities major (or, for that matter, the present-day humanities major). People who study English and writing don't have many job opportunities--and as a result, they often end up working for large corporations. The advantage of working for such a corporation is that one has a job--the disadvantage is that one's writing is strictly controlled; it has to be centered around the same basic message, "Buy our products." In short, the passage reminds us that Jimmy's world didn't place much stock in words or the humanities in general, unless they were in the service of making money.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Maybe the guards tried to get out of RejoovenEsense just like everyone else. Maybe they, too, hoped they could outrun contagion.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Inside, Outside
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Snowman revisits the guard tower of a major corporate building. He realizes that there are no dead bodies inside the building, suggesting that even the guards were trying to run away from the mysterious "contagion"--the disease that, it's implied, killed most of the human population.

As we go on, we learn more about what, precisely, caused the global apocalypse. Here, we realize that it was a virus that did humanity in; furthermore, the virus may have been developed within or close to a major corporate building. The passage conveys the pathetic quality of humanity's struggle for survival: nothing humanity does can save it from the horrors of disease and amoral, all-consuming greed.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“People come here from all over the world—they shop around. Gender, sexual orientation, height, colour of skin and eyes—it’s all on order, it can all be done or redone.”

Related Characters: Crake (speaker), Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Crake takes Jimmy through the stunningly beautiful RejoovenEsense compound. Here Crake works on genetic modifications, marketed to whomever is wealthy enough to afford them. Crake can use his scientific knowledge to craft anyone's appearance--their eye color, sexual orientation, etc. He can also change a person's genetic makeup for the proper fee. In short, RejoovenEsense--a hugely powerful corporation--is a place where scientists like Crake change people's very identities.

The casual way that Crake talks about changing people's DNA suggests that it's an ordinary part of his life--he's lost any sense that his work is miraculous, sinful, or otherwise out of the ordinary. As Atwood has suggested elsewhere, though, Crake's work is downright unholy; it trivializes human life, treating the human body as a mere product to be retooled, perfected, and then sold for a profit. Atwood links the sexual crimes of Crake's society with the casual way Crake talks about "redoing" a person's appearance: both the scientists and the sexual predators of the future suffer from the same problem, a basic lack of respect for the human body and for human life.

“If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out the fear and you’ll be…”
“Sounds like Applied Rhetoric 101.”

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman) (speaker), Crake (speaker)
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Jimmy first meets the Crakers, the genetically modified beings that Crake has created. Here Crake claims that the Crakers have been programmed to die when they're 30 years old. But Crake also explains that they are "immortal" in the sense that they don't have any concept of death (like Adam and Eve before their fall, in another possible Bible reference).

In this passage we get a better idea of just what Crake values and doesn't value about humanity. He doesn't have a problem with death--or at least he doesn't yet know how to avoid it--he just has a problem with thinking about death. Thus his "perfect" being (the Crakers) aren't necessarily long-lived, they just lack the capacity to wrestle with larger issues like love and mortality (essentially, what art and the humanities are all about). The Crakers don't have to suffer over sex, love, or death, but they can't achieve any kind of joy, fulfillment, or enlightenment either.

Chapter 13 Quotes

Here are Crake and Oryx, what’s left of them. They’ve been vulturized, they’re scattered here and there, small and large bones mingled into disarray…He’s grinning with all the teeth in his head. As for Oryx, she’s face down, she’s turned her head away from him as if in mourning. The ribbon in her hair is as pink as ever.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman), Crake, Oryx
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman, patrolling the ruins of old corporate headquarters, come to the dead bodies of Crake and Oryx: the scientist and his supposed lover. Even in death, we can tell a lot about Oryx and Crake: Crake is still grinning, as if in recognition of the fact that his plan to kill the world has "succeeded" (even if his version of "success" is pretty morbid). For her part, Oryx is an object, through and through: she's been exploited for her beauty and her sexuality again and again. Thus, Oryx's face is turned away from Snowman: she remains a mystery, both to Snowman and to us. (The turned head could also symbolize Oryx turning her back on the destruction Crake has masterminded and she has unknowingly assisted in.)

Oryx  is undeniably, transcendently beautiful, to the point where she seems to stand outside the deterioration of time--a fact symbolized by the beautiful pink ribbon in her hair. The ribbon could also evoke Oryx's creativity and hopefulness--even when the world is in ruins all around her, she radiates joy and beauty, something that transcends mere survival.

Had he been a lunatic or an intellectually honourable man who’d thought things through to their logical conclusion? And was there any difference?

Related Characters: Crake
Page Number: 343
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman/Jimmy tries to make sense of Crake, perhaps the most complex character in the novel. Jimmy wonders if it's right to classify Crake as a madman--or if he deserves to be called a genius. Jimmy also wonders if his madness and genius are one and the same.

Based on what we know about Crake, it's possible to agree with Jimmy that his friend is a madman. Crake seems insensitive to the thoughts and feelings of other people, and he's singularly fixated on working for his corporate employers (even if his "plot" to kill off the world is ultimately a kind of rebellion against corporate culture) and improving the human race to make it more "elegant." Crake, one could also argue, is misunderstood: he doesn't really understand the human heart, can't really love, and actually thinks he is doing the right thing in ridding the earth of "superfluous" humanity.

On a more abstract level, Jimmy's observations about the similarity between genius and madness tells us a lot about Jimmy's civilization. Jimmy grew up in a world in which values were deteriorating even as science was constantly advancing. Humanity's genius was never in question--and yet humanity wad clearly losing its collective mind, selling cures for diseases it had just invented, and tricking consumers into buying new skins and extra kidneys. The best proof of the proximity of madness and genius is civilization itself.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Our arboreal ancestors, Crake used to say. Used to shit on their enemies from above while perched in trees. All planes and rockets are simply elaborations on that primate instinct.

Related Characters: Crake (speaker)
Page Number: 358
Explanation and Analysis:

Snowman remembers that Crake used to talk about mankind's "arboreal ancestors"--i.e., the common ancestor shared with monkeys and apes, the evolutionary forebears of human beings. Crake notes that monkeys (like our ancestors, presumably) defecate on one another, using height to their advantage. By defecating on the animals below them, Crake argues, monkeys anticipated rockets and planes thousands of years later--a bombing from above isn't really so different.

Crake's observation might suggest that humans are hard-wired for aggression and assertions of power: they celebrate their own state by abusing the people below them, just like their evolutionary ancestors defecating on anyone unfortunate enough to be below them. The passage, then, might symbolize the stratification of Jimmy and Crake's world: a world in which the people at the top feel absolutely no need to look out for the "pleebs" at the bottom of the pile. One could generalize the concept even more and say that humanity has always contained the seeds of its own undoing: the aggression, arrogance, and delusions of grandeur that eventually lead to a global plague can be traced all the way back to "arboreal ancestors."

“We made a picture of you, to help us send out our voices to you.”
Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble.

Related Characters: Crake (speaker), The Crakers (speaker), Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Snowman returns to the Crakers to find that they've made a picture of him. The picture, Snowman realizes, is a form of art--disproving what Crake had predicted about the Crakers (Crake had claimed that the Crakers would show no interest in art, and also warned that art was dangerous to the human species).

It's important to keep in mind that the "art" that we see in this scene isn't just art--it's also religion. The Crakers make an image of their god-figure and leader, Jimmy, to summon him back--a clear echo of the talismans and icons common to nearly all the religions of the world. Try as he might, Crake has been unable to "stamp out" the religious and creative instinct in his genetic creations: the Crakers seem to be just as hard-wired for creativity and wonderment as human beings.

Is Crake justified in claiming that art is the first sign of trouble? Atwood has shown that it's also possible that science and immoral scientific experimentation can eventually lead to destruction.The creative instinct, and the religious instinct, it would seem, are flawed, but they're fundamental parts of what it means to be human, and ultimately they're longer-lived than any scientific advance could ever be.