The SciFri Book Club Talks ‘Oryx and Crake’

22:40 minutes

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

Three weeks ago, we asked you to read Margaret Atwood’s 2003 biotech dystopia, Oryx and Crake, as part of the SciFri Book Club. Now we’re convening to share our thoughts about the story.

In the weeks since we issued your reading assignment, we have colored in the animals of the future and also revisited an earlier conversation with Margaret Atwood about the thinking that went into her novel. We also explored real scientific breakthroughs that are strikingly similar to concepts described in the book.

Joining us in our wrap-up discussion are two guest readers: UC-Berkeley bioengineering professor Terry Johnson and Ars Technica editor Annalee Newitz. We’ll talk pigoons, Crakers, the real science of a fake apocalypse, and more.

Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson is a professor of bioengineering at University of California-Berkeley and author of How to Defeat Your Own Clone: And Other Tips for Surviving the Biotech Revolution. He’s based in Berkeley, California.

Christie Taylor

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.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. In a fictional future United States, the climate near Boston resembles Florida, voting doesn’t matter anymore, and while everything and everyone else scrambles to survive, scientists live and work in isolated, amenity-rich compounds on biotech projects that re-engineer life, ranging from pigs and chickens to humans.

The SciFri Book Club read all about it in Margaret Atwood’s 2003 dystopia Oryx and Crake this month. We followed Jimmy/Snowman, Crake and Oryx, literally, to the end of the world. We even talked about it with Margaret Atwood herself earlier this week.

And now it’s time to bring the club to order and talk about it with you. If you’ve been reading along, how about sharing? Share your favorite or your most frightening Oryx and Crake moments. Give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us @SciFri.

Let me introduce my guests, guest readers. Annalee Newitz is tech culture editor at Ars Technica, author of the book Scatter, Adapt and Remember, How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. She also has her own dystopian novel, Autonomous, coming out in the fall. Welcome back, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Terry Johnson is an associate professor teaching bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s also the coauthor of How to Defeat Your Own Clone– we need to know that– and Other Tips for Surviving the Biotech Revolution. Welcome to “Science Friday.”

TERRY JOHNSON: Oh, it’s a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: And our producer Christie Taylor is back too. Hi, Christie.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk– for book club newbies, give us a little thumbnail of what Oryx and Crake is about.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. So as you sort of introduced yourself, this is a biotech dystopia, where scientists are doing some crazy things, re-engineering human beings, even to the point where we allegedly don’t have religion anymore, but also dying in large numbers from a mysterious virus that has shook the world.

And so we meet Jimmy, who is the last man on Earth, kind of pathetically crawling through survival. And he reminisces about growing up with his best buddy Crake, who ends up being quite the brilliant scientist. And we follow along through that world, and question, ultimately, whether it was worth saving or whether the destruction was a good idea.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Terry Johnson, you said this book gave you a lot to think about, as someone who teaches young scientists, because the main character, Crake, in there is a scientist who sort of changes the whole world to the way he wants it.

TERRY JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. I find it– it’s a dystopia in many ways, but it’s definitely an educational dystopia. You have the numbers people being separated away from other pursuits that make them unable to think about problems. They think about problems in one way, via numbers, and they’re separated from the sorts of people and the sorts of experiences that would round them out as human beings and engineers and scientists.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so instead of trying to integrate the humanities with the sciences, he separates them right out and makes them–


IRA FLATOW: –a different class. Annalee, you reread Oryx and Crake for us. What parts of it have repeatedly stood out most to you?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: The thing to me that’s so interesting about this novel is that it’s really a utopia wrapped in a dystopia and you don’t see that a lot in classic dystopian fiction. If you think about stuff like 1984, or even more recently, The Road, usually these are novels that don’t really leave you with much hope. And even if there is a moment of hope, it’s sort of strangled out of the main character, and it’s crushed.

And this novel ends, and I think it’s OK to give a spoiler since we’ve all read it, but this novel ends with kind of this clumsy effort to rebuild humanity by re-engineering our bodies, which I think is very problematic and we can talk more about that. But it is a sense of hope.

And this is the first novel in a trilogy. I highly urge people to read the next two books in the trilogy, The Flood and MaddAddam, because the utopian elements go in this really weird direction and I think that’s something that we really just need to think about as readers. Like, what is the utopia that Atwood is suggesting that we kind of come away with here?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We were lucky enough to have Margaret Atwood in New York to sit down with me and talk about the book and talk about some of the science and the hope in it, and she talked about that also, that has changed since she wrote it. Christie, you organized it.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, I helped. We had a great team put this event together. But yeah, Margaret was here. We got to talk to her and she had some reflections about how science, since 2003, has made– she thinks CRISPR, for example, makes someone like a Crake more likely. It makes it a little easier for someone to make– remake humans.

And then we also had a really great listener question, Kristen in Brooklyn, who works in biotech herself. She had a question about geneticist Craig Venter’s forays into synthetic biology.

KRISTEN: He was recently back in the news talking about synthesizing an entire human genome from scratch. And I was curious about whether you’d heard about that, what your thoughts are about it, and whether you think that we are responsible enough as a society and as scientists to wield that kind of power in synthetic biology at this point.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Are we responsible enough? No. Is that going to stop us? No. This is Pandora’s Box. It’s already open.

So any time you give human beings a new toy, they play with it. And they often play with it very creatively, and sometimes with unintended consequences.

TERRY JOHNSON: That wasn’t good, hold on.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Terry Johnson, ethics aside, did the science– investigative gene splicing, giving human animals’ traits, growing organs in pigs– did it sound technically feasible, possible? Does CRISPR make this happen?

TERRY JOHNSON: Well, it’s definitely based on real science, but the real science is a lot more difficult. CRISPR is a really powerful tool for editing DNA, but it doesn’t tell you how you would edit the DNA to create an organism with particular traits. And that’s something that we know fairly little about. We’re learning more every day. But it’s still a extremely difficult problem.

IRA FLATOW: Terry, are you as worried as Margaret was about the future?

TERRY JOHNSON: I think that when you develop a powerful tool, you need to think very carefully about how you use it. And I’m definitely somebody who thinks that this is something that we should be talking about. And by we, I don’t mean just scientists, but scientists, policymakers, and people in the public.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Annalee, your book is subtitled, Scatter, Adapt and Remember, How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. So I would imagine you’re a little closer to being fearful about–

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yes and no. Because, of course, I’m also interested in how you survive a terrible event. The thing about this novel’s dystopia is that I think it’s easy to say it’s a dystopia about biotechnology. Because that’s how they destroy the world is by creating this kind of ridiculous pill, BlyssPlus, that everyone wants to take and then it turns them into goo after they take it.

But it’s really, I think, much more a nightmare about what happens when corporations control the future of science. And it’s because what we really see as the ultimate dystopia here is that growing divide between– or just massive divide between the rich and the poor. The rich people who live in these domed cities full of plenitude and then the people in the pleeblands who have very impoverished lives, no access to the biotechnology that’s available to the rich people.

And a lot of the satire and the dark humor in the book is really aimed at how corporations monetize biotech. Consumer biotech, like pharmaceuticals, that you take to be pretty, or pharmaceuticals you take to feel nice, things that aren’t strictly necessary to survive.

And I think, to me, that is the part that’s really terrifying. It feels very real, even though it’s, of course, exaggerated and comic. It just– it feels, especially with how pharmaceutical companies have been behaving lately in terms of kind of jacking up the price on pills just for fun, it feels dangerously close to happening.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. Talking about Oryx and Crake and what you might have thought about the book.

Terry, and both of you, what struck me most about the humans Crake made is their absence of things that I would consider crucial to humanity. Art, romantic love, symbolic thinking of all kinds. Are those really the roots– I mean, problems with what is the individuals that are being created, and as you see it?

TERRY JOHNSON: The line where Crake raises a glass at the idea that he’s engineered humor out of the Crakers was probably the most chilling line in the book for me. I think Crake is treating life like one of his video games and he’s trying to figure out what the win condition is.

And the Crakers are described as these humans that have all of these modifications that have been put in. It’s like he’s throwing genetic modification as cheat codes and trying to create something that will last forever, because he’s taken out all of the things that he sees as causing problems, the things that human beings struggle with.

And I’m less sure that there’s a utopia wrapped in a dystopia. I think that either Crake has failed and the Crakers are going to have the same sorts of problems that we have, or maybe even more likely, that they’re genuinely different and they’re going to discover problems that he couldn’t even imagine, partially because he’s human, but also because he lives in a society that hasn’t prepared him to think about those things.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, I wanted– oh, go ahead.


CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, actually, Terry, I really liked something you said to me when we were talking about this book earlier. Crake, as a scientist, shows remarkably little thought to evolution where the Crakers are concerned. They’re not going to change.

TERRY JOHNSON: Right. He’s designed something and just assumed that he won. That there’s no reason for them to change. That their environment’s not going to change.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Right. And he’s also really neglected the fact that there’s going to be a huge cultural impact on them. And that’s one of the things I love about that scene where he shows off the Crakers to Jimmy, because it is so– rereading it, I was struck by how naive he really is, where he says, well, we’ve engineered out racism, because they don’t see color, which just sounds like a complete– I mean, it’s just Margaret Atwood being a goof. She’s satirizing that idea.

And the idea that they won’t have sexual anxiety, because they go into heat, which to me, seems like it would just raise all kinds of new anxieties. They also eat their own poop, which I was– and that’s just supposed to be– and to Crake, who’s thinking in this very kind of techie mindset, he’s thinking, well, of course, that’s very sustainable and that will allow them to understand the environment better.

And even as he’s saying this stuff, at the end of the book, we’ve already read enough of the book to know that, of course, none of these things have really helped them avoid the problems that humans had, and they’re already evolving their own culture.

And so because of the fact that Crake has been put into this environment where, as Terry said earlier, he’s not exposed to any thought from the humanities. He’s not exposed to sociology. He hasn’t even considered, well, what happens when you put a bunch of intelligent primates together? They start inventing culture and they start doing things in a ritualistic way. And it doesn’t help that you’ve made them eat their own poop, because they’ll figure out some other way to destroy the environment.

IRA FLATOW: Hate to drop in on that sentence. I’m Ira Flatow. This is “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking about Oryx and Crake with Annalee Newitz, Terry Johnson, and Christie Taylor.

Christie, you were there. Did Margaret want to scare us with this book, do you think, into thinking extinction is the only way to fix our problems? Getting rid of everybody else. Starting over again.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, she didn’t say that. She thinks that this is something to think about. And I think we can listen to her say that herself.

IRA FLATOW: Did you think of Crake as a sort of a messianic figure?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, he thinks of himself that way.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, he does.

MARGARET ATWOOD: You may not agree with him. You may think that we might solve our problems in a less radical way. And I certainly hope you will think that. This is not my desired model of how we should be spending the next 30 years.

IRA FLATOW: Then was it something to scare us? This is the opposite of the model that you want.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I don’t think people get radically scared by books of fiction. I think they may ponder. They may think. I don’t think they’re going to run screaming out into the street.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t think so, but it got them– it gets people to think. Annalee, what is the appeal or the importance of reading dystopia for you?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think it’s really important for a lot of the reasons that Atwood described in that talk that she gave, where it allows you to think through problems that we’re encountering, emerging problems in our civilization. It serves as a warning. And this book is very much a warning about if we continue to allow business to control science, if we continue to see a gap between rich and poor that grows larger and larger, this is the kind of future that we’re likely to see.

At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, I think, she does suggest that even in the darkest moment of our civilization, there will be people bumbling toward trying to create a better world. They might do it in a way that we wouldn’t prefer, but things are going to continue. Humans are going to continue in some form, at the end of this book. And may not be better, but it certainly won’t be worse.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Terry, the reading, dystopia, to you? What does it do for you?

TERRY JOHNSON: I think that reading dystopia isn’t about the particular future or avoiding it, but really reaching out to individuals who might, without the book, move us in that general direction. I think making people ponder– if there’s people that read that book and are considering a project, or investing in something, or supporting something, and they think, is this a little too Oryx and Crake? Then that has done its job.

IRA FLATOW: Do you make your students read it?

TERRY JOHNSON: I’ll consider it.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, if they’re going into science and bioengineering. You’re a professor of bioengineering. And this is what we’re talking about, isn’t it?

TERRY JOHNSON: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Do they think about the consequences of the field they’re going into?

TERRY JOHNSON: Definitely. We just had my first class for the first year engineers, and just asked them about technologies that had ethical issues associated with it that they think about, and that could take up multiple class periods. The people– young people have plenty to say about the field that they’re going into and the things that they think about it.

IRA FLATOW: And they do think about it, yeah.

TERRY JOHNSON: Absolutely, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. All right, we’re going to come back and think more about it after this short break. Coming back with Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica, Terry Johnson, associate professor of bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley, and Christie Taylor, our SciFri producer. Stay with us.

Our number is 844-724-8255. Hopefully, we can get to a few calls before we have to conclude this segment. You can also tweet us @SciFri, S-C-I-F-R-I. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about Margaret Atwood’s biotech dystopia, Oryx and Crake, as we continue this meeting of the SciFri Book Club, with Annalee Newitz, tech culture and editor at Ars Technica, Terry Johnson, associate professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, and Christie Taylor, our SciFi producer. Our number, 844-724-8255.

We have some tweets coming in, a couple of phone calls. Let’s see if we can get to them. Tweets. Jerry German says, In the 1950s, we had dystopia views of science gone awry, with giant spiders and dragons. I see the roots of [INAUDIBLE] as Crake here. Oh, yeah, I remember, a lot of radioactive things going on for a different kind of dystopia that was on everybody’s mind in those days.

Annalee, was there something about the book you didn’t like? Parts of it. Aspects.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So I think it’s a fantastic book and it’s really stuck in my head for many years, but I think there are a few flaws in it. And the one that stood out to me the most is that I feel like Atwood’s worldbuilding around the future of the internet is weirdly kind of flat and cartoonish and not very nuanced, as compared to the way she describes the future of biotech, which I think is really complex.

And she gives us this idea that, in the future, it will be perfectly normal for kids to be looking at child porn and have complete access to beheading videos and violent video games. And certainly, you could say, well, kids might have access to that now, but now, there’s a lot of moral outrage about that. I mean, people are really disturbed by that idea. It’s not something that’s accepted. It’s something that’s talked about as a big problem, even violent video games.

And it’s very hard for me to believe that it would be realistic that in just a short period of time, less than a century, that humans would suddenly accept the idea that, oh, it’s totally fine for kids to have this, like, crazy libertarian access to so much media that now we consider to be absolutely beyond the pale and illegal. And these are kids who are growing up in basically the ultimate walled communities, where certainly their internet use would be monitored.

So that, to me, felt very– it kind of fell flat. And it’s important to the story, because our characters’ mindsets are being created by this sort of terrible den of scum and villainy on the internet. And I wanted it to be a little bit more realistic. A little bit more subtle, maybe.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s see if we can go to the phones before we [INAUDIBLE]. Our number, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Jessica in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Hi, Jessica.

JESSICA: Hi. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, so I’m also a scientist. And from that point of view, I wanted to say, I thought the science is pretty believable. But beyond that, I really appreciated, just as a work of literature, I felt that Ms. Atwood was just using it as a story about storytelling, and how the fundamental requirement of humans to be able to describe their world through story sort of couldn’t be engineered out of the human being. So– as particularly in the third book, which seemed to be explicitly a story about storytelling.


JESSICA: I think most of your people there have read all three books.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just follow up on that. Did you– Annalee, did you– you commented about one of the shortcomings. I found one of the shortcomings, when I was reading, was I knew so little about Oryx. She’s not very well developed, character-wise, at all in that book.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, and it’s surprising, because I don’t think of Margaret Atwood as someone who doesn’t really know how to write female characters. But Oryx, she’s a cipher. She’s very much of a stereotype. She’s basically an Asian sex slave and doesn’t really get to be much more than that, even when she’s an adult and she kind of is playing a role in this apocalyptic plan.

And so that’s disappointing. And it would have been, I think, more satisfying to have her developed more. But in the later books, there are characters somewhat like her who do get a lot more time and we kind of get to know them better.

IRA FLATOW: We recommend everybody to read Oryx and Crake and catch up on the later books. And I want to thank our panelists here, our readers, at closing our Summer “Science Friday” Book Club reading. Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica and author of the forthcoming dystopia, Autonomous. We’ll have you back, Annalee, to talk about Autonomous. Terry Johnson, associate–

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: –teaching professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, author of How to Defeat Your Own Clone. Everybody should read that one. And SciFi producer Christie Taylor. Thank you, all.


IRA FLATOW: And you can catch up with the club online and hear a recording of our special live event with Margaret Atwood in New York, if you want to hear that as a podcast. It’s sciencefriday.com/bookclub.

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Meet the Producer

About Christie Taylor

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.

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