What happens in Oryx and Crake?

Snowman lives in a post-apocalyptic world populated by genetically-modified humanoids called Crakers. His best friend, Crake, engineered the Crakers at RejoovenEsense, a corporate Compound like the ones where their fathers used to work. Back then, Snowman was known as Jimmy and Crake was called Glenn.

  • Early on, it becomes clear that Jimmy is a "word person" and Crake is a "numbers person." Crake enrolls at the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, and Jimmy attends the rundown Martha Graham Academy. After graduation, Jimmy goes to work at an advertising agency, while Crake becomes a scientist at a corporation that manufacturers diseases and their cures.
  • Jimmy descends into a life of boredom and womanizing. Later, Crake lures Jimmy into working for him at the lab, where Crake reveals that he has been genetically modifying human embryos to remove their faults. His engineered children are called Crakers and have glowing green eyes.
  • Crake has also hired a woman named Oryx, a former child porn star, to act as the Crakers' teacher. Jimmy falls in love with Oryx, but, after Crake releases a deadly contagion, Jimmy kills both Oryx and Crake. Somehow, he survives the plague, becoming the lone human survivor. He spends the rest of his life telling stories to the Crakers in exchange for fish.

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a futuristic dystopia in which she places her protagonist, Snowman. Although Snowman has managed to survive some kind of catastrophe, the specifics surrounding the event are not revealed until the end of the work. The only other forms of life that Snowman meets on the barren seaside landscape are humanoids and animals that have resulted from bioengineering. The humanoids are called Crakers, innocent beings that are tractable and resistant to diseases. These green-eyed mutants manifest selected traits; they are uninterested in sex and violence, and their skin is impervious to ultraviolet light.

Along with the narrative of Snowman’s daily existence, the reader learns of his youth via flashbacks. As a child he was called Jimmy (he has renamed himself Snowman), and his best friend was named Glenn, who later adopts the name Crake. Both lived in a compound built by a bioengineering firm for its employees. The compound was isolated from other cities. Crake, a scientific whiz, and Jimmy were raised in dysfunctional families. Jimmy’s mother left the family because of her moral resistance to her husband’s work; he was responsible for creating genetic hybrids.

Crake’s father appears to have been murdered in the wake of a scandal with the firm. Crake grows from a youth who spends his time surfing the Web to a scientific mastermind in charge of a secret project. First he studies at the Watson-Crick Institute, which has a reputation like that of Harvard University—before Harvard ceased to exist. Jimmy attends Martha Graham Academy, a more liberal setting with a focus on the humanities. Even though Crake is fundamental to the story, his character is never fully developed, and he proves to be more of an instrument for the plot.

As the gap between the friends grows, and time passes, Jimmy does little more than hold menial employment and seduce women. The naïve Jimmy finally reconnects with Crake, who employs him. Crake reveals that he is altering human embryos to eliminate their faulty features; in a sense, Crake is playing a godlike role. Jimmy also comes into contact with Oryx, a captivating woman whom Jimmy recognizes from pornography. Oryx imparts snippets of her life to Jimmy, although she remains a hazy figure throughout.

Finally, it is revealed that the apocalyptic event was not a nuclear war; the cause was a potent and fatal plague. When the deadly virus took hold, it spanned the earth from Hong Kong to Toronto. Snowman perpetuates the myth of Oryx and Crake to keep the green-eyed mutants alive. At the end of the novel, there is a suggestion that a new humanity has evolved; the...

(The entire section is 1,190 words.)