I recently started listening to the audiobook version of MaddAddam but then stopped after the first disc. I had read Oryx and Crake when it first came out 11 or so years ago (as well as The Year of the Flood when it first came out), and I realized I needed a refresher in Margaret Atwood’s trilogy — who was this Snowman again? What was his relationship to other characters?
So I went back to Oryx and Crake, as read by Campbell Scott, which is a rather simple story. A man nicknamed Snowman appears to be the last human in a post-apocalyptic world. He has been left to care for genetically modified humanoid creatures amid a ravaged landscape – no electricity — that has been taken over by other genetically modified creatures that have gone wild: giant and smart pigoons (pigs with human cells), and the friendly and sweet looking dog-like creatures that are actually fierce and killer wolves deep down inside, thus the name wolvogs.
The plot goes something like this: Snowman tells stories to the humanlike creatures, thus giving them a creation story about Oryx and Crake (these are both names of extinct animals taken as nicknames by a brilliant scientist and one-time friend of Snowman’s — that’s Crake — and a woman who is a love interest for both men, Oryx). One day, Snowman (his real name is Jimmy) goes in search of food and then returns to find that other humans may be around. The end.
That’s the gist of what I’ve come to call the “now of the narrative” – the action of the story’s “now” (even if the “now” is written in the past tense).
The bulk of the novel is told in flashback, in which Atwood builds the world and its characters before it all fell apart. The world is divided between plush and luxurious “compounds” for employees and their families of tech firms (as well as the elite universities that are attended by the children of many of the compound’s white-collar workers), and the noisy, dirty and crowded “pleeblands” where everyone else lives and works.
Snowman is a “compound kid,” who, as a boy named Jimmy, didn’t really understand when his mother left his father and the compound — and even took his docile pet rakunk (a cross between a raccoon and skunk) and perhaps joined the pleebland protestors against the kind of genetic bioengineering her husband was doing (and that made the compounds such oases of wealth).
Snowman, though, wasn’t all that bright, or at least not as bright as his one close friend, a bright but loner boy who went by the name Crake. In one of the many brilliant touches of world-building, the smarter Crake goes to the Watson-Crick Institute to study bioengineering, while Snowman attends Martha Graham Academy and majors in “applied rhetoric,” which leads to a job writing ad copy for products developed by the smarter scientists in the compounds.
The novel is from Snowman’s point of view, and as such it feels (on second reading) much more claustrophobic than I had remembered. Snowman isn’t really a likable character, or actually all that reliable, so that creates a sense of double distancing from the strange world Atwood has created. So even though the claustrophobia may be a way of exacerbating the post-apocalyptic mood of the story, it does also feel like a limitation. This is probably because Atwood doesn’t really expand on the complexities of the pleeblands until the second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, which becomes a much richer experience.
Nonetheless, the novel retains much of its power in how its satire adheres to today’s possible future. That’s what stood out for me the first time I read it back in 2003, and that is what stands out when I listened to the audiobook version. There is a huge difference between the lives of people who work in major companies (think Google and Apple, for example) and people who are apart from those worlds — except as end-users.
As for the audiobook version, I usually enjoy Campbell Scott’s work (as in Tom Perrotta’s “The Abstinence Teacher” and Elmore Leonard’s “Be Cool”); however, this time, Scott’s low-key deadpan voice only exacerbated the claustrophobia of Snowman’s point of view, which made it even more difficult to empathize with Snowman.