Margaret Atwood on the Science Behind ‘Oryx and Crake’

33:36 minutes

“This is a fun-filled, joke-packed adventure novel about the possible downfall of the human race.”

Margaret Atwood had a sense of humor about her post-apocalyptic story Oryx and Crake when she first spoke with Ira Flatow about it in April 2004. The book, which she preferred to call “speculative fiction” rather than sci-fi, may be about “bleak times,” as she put it, “but lots of times have been bleak,” she said. “And one of the things we can do as human beings is we make jokes and we laugh.”

The book is told from the perspective of Snowman, the seemingly lone human survivor of a mysterious catastrophe that has wiped out mankind. But Snowman isn’t exactly alone. He lives near a group of human-like, genetically-modified creatures called “Crakers,” named for their creator, the brilliant scientist (and Snowman’s childhood friend) Crake.

Margaret Atwood (c) Jean Malek
Margaret Atwood (c) Jean Malek

“They’re genetically engineered to be better than we,” Atwood explained. “For instance, they’ve got built-in sunblock—that would be a plus. They’ve got built-in mosquito repellant—another plus. They’re completely vegetarian, and they can eat grass and leaves, unlike us,” she said. “But best of all, they will never have any sexual jealousy, because unlike us—we’re serially monogamous—they are seasonal, like lots of other animals and fish and birds.”

While Crakers still exhibit many of the traits we think of as quintessentially human—they dream, make music, and encounter theological issues—Atwood explained that, “Crake designed them to avoid the problems that we have as a species. So they’re not unhappy over all of the things that we ourselves get unhappy about. We get unhappy over limited resources. Well, they don’t need a lot of resources.”

The prospect of limited resources was forefront in Atwood’s mind when she pictured the future. “I think, for the first time in human history, we see where we might go,” she said. “We can see far enough into the future to know that we can’t go on the way we’ve been going forever without inventing, possibly, a lot of new and different things”—specifically alternative energy sources.

The Booker Prize-winner was also quick to point out that many of her novel’s seemingly far-fetched inventions had, in fact, already become reality.

“The things in the book that people may think are very weird—and they may think that I just made them up—some of them already existed when I was writing the book,” she said. “For instance, the luminous green rabbit—that was made for a magician who wanted to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but he wanted the rabbit to glow in the dark. So now it does.” The book’s “spider goat” was also “up and running,” she said. “It makes silk in its milk—very good for bulletproof vests.” (In fact, Science Friday visited a taxidermied BioSteel™ goat on display at the Center for PostNatural History in 2015.)

Atwood’s scientific research for the book filled up two big, brown boxes in her cellar, she said.

The Canadian-born author grew up with science in her blood—her father was an entomologist. “He had a little insect research station in northern Quebec, and that’s where I spent a lot of time as a child,” said Atwood. Her brother became a neurophysiologist. Atwood joked that her father “used to shake his head and say, ‘Botany lost a fine botanist in you.'”

But the desire to write ultimately drove Atwood’s course.

“You write the novels you can’t avoid writing, especially if you’re a congenitally lazy person such as myself,” Atwood joked to Ira. “If you absolutely can’t avoid it, and you know that you’re going to be thinking about it all the time unless you do it, then you have to do it.”

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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays.

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Alone in a Post-Apocalyptic World

Margaret Atwood's novel "Oryx and Crake" is told from the perspective of the lone human survivor of a mysterious catastrophe.

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