Read ‘Oryx and Crake’ With the #SciFriBookClub
Where can you find cuddly raccoon-skunk hybrids, fluorescent rabbits, and vicious “pigoons” out for blood? In the pages of the #SciFriBookClub’s summer pick! This August, join Ira and the SciFri team as we read Margaret Atwood’s speculative-fiction tale of bioengineering run amok, Oryx and Crake.
First published in 2003, Oryx and Crake opens on a dystopian future. Humans have been wiped out by a mysterious pandemic, and the landscape has been reclaimed by our creations: exotic animal splices like “pigoons” and “rakunks.” Our protagonist is Snowman, seemingly the lone human survivor of this global catastrophe. But Snowman is not alone. He shares his world with “Crakers”—genetically modified humans created by his childhood friend Crake, a brilliant scientist who went too far.
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*A note for parents: Oryx and Crake contains descriptions of sex and violence that might not be appropriate for younger readers!
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Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
IRA FLATOW: Time to page all bookworms. Time to reconvene the SciFri Book Club. This winter, we read Oliver Sacks’ On the Move, the late neurologist’s autobiography.
And now we’re going to turn to fiction, science fiction, and dive into a world with wildly bioengineered animals, a completely new kind of human, and look at how the world as we know it could maybe end. All that and more in Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake. It’s been out quite a while. And it all sounds kind of bleak, but it is fascinating.
And please join in and tell us what you think. We’re going to kick off our book club, and our SciFri savant Christie Taylor is here to explain how. Welcome, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, there, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us about this month’s book pick.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. Well, personally, it’s one of my favorite works of– Margaret Atwood would call it speculative fiction herself. But Oryx and Crake, the title characters, are actually not really around for most of the book. Our main character is this guy named Jimmy, who we meet at the end of the world. He’s pretty much alone except for these specially engineered humans that you mentioned. And he’s reflecting on the not too distant past, which is one of climate change, wild gene splicing, pigs growing human organs, raccoons crossed with skunks. Sort of a crazy, wonderful biotech world.
And it’s kind of a funny book despite being pretty bleak. Margaret Atwood was pretty adamant about this herself, when you talked to her in 2004 about it. She made a pretty big point about that.
IRA FLATOW: So is the bleak future in Oryx and Crake, is that a warning or is that a prediction?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, let us just say that this is a fun-filled, joke-packed adventure novel about the possible downfall of the human race. So we could say bleak times, but lots of times have been bleak. And one of the things we can do as human beings is we make jokes and we laugh. And while you’re laughing, you’re still alive, let’s just put it that way.
IRA FLATOW: Margaret Atwood back in 2004 on Science Friday. And this is Science Friday for PRI, Public Radio International.
Now, I already had the read this book with Margaret back then. Why pick this to read again?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, it’s a really great book, first of all. But also, if Margaret’s description didn’t do it for you, there’s a lot of science that’s actually changed in the last 12 years. We’ve had the CRISPR revolution. Just the other day, the NIH announced that they are looking at proposing rules under which we can get federal funding for research that involves crossing humans and animals.
IRA FLATOW: Just like Margaret said in the book.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, and she even said, again, in that interview that we didn’t air, she said everything that she put in that book was something someone was working on somewhere. She had two big boxes of research. She does not just make things up, which is why she calls it speculative fiction. So there’s a lot to look at from our modern perspective that I think we can enjoy or find–
IRA FLATOW: So we’ll all meet back here in three weeks. We’ll be reading the book.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: August 26, with two very special guests readers. Terry Johnson, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley and author of a book about some of these same subjects, and then Annalee Newitz, founder of io9, tech cultural editor at Ars Technica, and author herself of a book about surviving mass extinction.
IRA FLATOW: And our listeners can read along with us. And how can they get involved in all this?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, it all starts at ScienceFriday.com, our website. And for getting your own book, this is a very special giveaway we have with Powell’s Books. We have 40 free copies to give away today.
So if you just go to our website, ScienceFriday.com, you will see a banner. That is open until 10:00 PM Eastern time today. And we will sort out a random selection of 40 people who will get a copy of the book sent to them.
Thanks again to Powell’s Books. They’ve been doing this with us for about five book clubs now. So we really appreciate that. And if you don’t get into the drawing, we have 30% off copies also through Powell’s Books, also on ScienceFriday.com.
And then they should be tweeting at us. Add the hashtag #SciFriBookClub. We have that old interview with Margaret Atwood up on our website as well. Adult coloring book pages, thanks to a very great artist that’s been working with us. We have a plethora of things to do.
IRA FLATOW: It’s a lot more than we had when we read it in 2004.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: The future is a beautiful place, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: And it’s interesting, because, as you say, she does say that she’s not a science fiction writer, right?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right. She really is clear that it’s speculative fiction. This is stuff that she thinks, if not it’s a definite future, it’s something that could happen just based on what people are doing today.
IRA FLATOW: And it’s a really quick read, isn’t it? You can go right through this book very quickly.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I am not always a fast reader, and I still got through this book in about a week. On the train, mostly.
IRA FLATOW: And if you like dystopian novels, this one is for you.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yes. I would call this my top comfort read of all-time.
IRA FLATOW: This is a comfort read? Tell me about that.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: If you like dystopian novels.
IRA FLATOW: Well, OK, so we’ll be back here in what? What week are we going to–
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Three weeks from now, August 26. Read the book. Call in when we do the show. Tweet at us, hashtag #SciFriBookClub. And get your free copy of the book from Powell’s Books by going to our website.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s our hashtag #SciFriBookClub. And go to our website, and you get that free book from Powell’s Books. You can win that. But you get 30% off buying a book anyhow.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’ll be great. Thank you, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Christie Taylor, associate producer here at Science Friday.