The Snowman is, so far as he is aware, the last homo sapiens sapiens left in a world where the sun fries his skin, there is a daily thunderstorm, and the environment is populated by genetic mutations like vicious woolvogs, cute rakunks, sinister pigoons and snats (half snake, half rat). He lives in a tree by the sea shore near the Children of Crake, a new (genetically modified) human. The Snowman is their prophet, telling them all about Crake, their creator (literally in this case, Crake being the scientist who designed their genetic blueprint) and Oryx their teacher. Having run out of ammunition for his spray gun, he has to travel back to the research compound where he used to work, and live, to find supplies.
On the journey he travels back in his memory to his childhood, when he was Jimmy, his schooldays when he first met Crake and they both first saw Oryx, a child actor on an internet porn site, and his days when he worked as an advertiser for the research company for which Crake also worked. Commercial interests forced the world down the slippery slope of genetic modification and the law of unintended consequences was, as it always is, supreme.
And the ending is cliff-hanger perfect. What happens next?
It is, of course, the wonderful prose and the superb images it conjures, which put Margaret Atwood's science fiction megaparsecs ahead of the competition. This is literary fiction, justly shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 (it was quite a year, Vernon God Little won, Brick Lane and Notes on a Scandal were both on the shortlist).
Right from page one, Atwood's descriptions are precise and perfect:
- "The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette ... rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon" (p 1)
- "the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks" (p 1)
- "the sky a bleached blue, except for the hole burnt in it by the sun" (p 13)
- "a picture of a pretty girl ... glaring out through smudgy charcoal eyes with a mean stare and her hair standing up stiff like quills" (p 19)
- "She took very small bites, and managed to chew up the lettuce without crunching." (p 28)
- "She talked like a shower-gel babe in an ad" (p 28)
- "it began to mildew, and to smell tantalizingly of tomato soup" (p 43)
- "This hearty way of talking was getting worse, as if his father was auditioning for the role of Dad, but without much hope." (p 58)
- "Their singing is ... like ferns unscrolling - something old, carboniferous, nut at the same time newborn, fragrant, verdant. It reduces him." (p 122)
- "She had a triangular face - big eyes, a small jaw - a Hymenoptera face, a mantid face, the face of a Siamese cat." (p 133)
- "contemplating the pizza as if it were a jigsaw puzzle." (p 136)
- "he'd roll around in their sympathy, soak in it, massage himself with it. It was a whole spa experience in itself." (p 224)
- "Thumbsucking posterboy." (p 293)
- "The virus ... looked like the usual melting gumdrop with spines." (pp 397 - 398)
Then there are her one-liners and thought-provoking ideas:
- "Nobody nowhere knows what time it is" (p 1); I loved the assonance of no, no, no, like a diminuendo into misery
- "'Two can play at that game,' said the man. 'Any number can play,' said Jimmy's father." (p 21)
- "Old enough ... Such a dumb concept. Old enough for what? To drink, to fuck, to know better? What fathead was in charge of making those decisions?" (p 26)
- "she just didn't want to put her neuron power into long sentences" (p 28)
- "His time, what a bankrupt idea, as if he's been given a box of time belonging to him alone, stuffed to the brim with hours and minutes that he can spend like money. Trouble is, the box has holes in it" (p 44)
- "If he wants to be an asshole, it's a free country. Millions before him have made the same life choice." (p 83)
- "The body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance." (p 98)
- "But if tomorrow is another day, what's today? The same day as it always is." (p 175)
- She "pushed herself over the edge - actually, over the windowsill of her ten-storey-up apartment." (p 290)
- He was "the joker among the twos and threes they'd been dealt in their real lives." (p 294)
- "So this was the rest of his life. It felt like a party to which he's been invited, but at an address he couldn't actually locate. Someone must be having fun at it, this life of his; only, right at the moment, it wasn't him." (p 296)
- "He liked to have a hand on Oryx: on her shoulder, her arm, her small waist, her perfect butt. Mine, mine, that hand was saying." (p 368)
- "Good thing about sticks, they grow on trees." (p 390)
- "Simon, you said a mouthful." (p 397)
- "When the water's moving faster than the boat, you can't control a thing." (p 398)
There are moments when the dialogue is a master class in, err, dialogue. In this extract, Jimmy shows Oryx a picture of her in a porn movie when she was a little girl. (p 105)
"I don't think this is me," was what she'd said at first.
"It has to be!" said Jimmy. "Look! It's your eyes."
"A lot of girls have eyes," she said. "A lot of girls did these things. Very many." Then, seeing his disappointment, she said, "It might be me. Maybe it is. Would that make you happy, Jimmy?"
"No," said Jimmy. Was that a lie?
"Why did you keep it?"
"What were you thinking?" ...
"You think I was thinking?" she said. "Oh Jimmy! You always think everyone is thinking. Maybe I wasn't thinking anything."
This perfectly captures the sweet wistful voice of Oryx as well as the complexity of their sexual relationship; Jimmy's obsession with her past and her determination to live in the present.
Wonderful writing providing quality to a first class yarn: August 2016, 433 pages