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Author Topic: Oryx and Crake
Mandos
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posted 18 September 2003 12:58 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Since Margaret Atwood is up for a Booker, and she is evidently the Queen of CanLit, here's a really bad review of her recent book Oryx and Crake from an SF perspective:

Croaked

Note that there are some spoilers, I think. He doesn't expect you to want to read it after his review.

Now I have read other reviews of John Clute, and he is usually extremely hard on books that he dislikes even a little bit, including by authors that are regular favorites of mine--he seems to dislike implied backstory and hidden action, for one thing.

So I disagree with some of his assessment, but I think that his criticisms, when you strip out the heavy sarcasm, have some merit. I think the book is much better than the credit he gives it, but I actually think he missed a lot of the biggest problems with the book, such as its IMO exaggerated presentation of male sexuality from a male POV[1], or the excessively "obvious" nature of humanities decline. But one thing is certain: Oryx and Crake has been Done Before.

[1]In an interview in the Citizen (yeah yeah) a year ago (I think), she mentioned that she avoids doing male POVs because she was sure that she would get some of the psychological details wrong, since she doesn't live in a man's head. I think that she is right about this--at least for her; in this book she tries to do an entire man's life and upbringing from his point of view, and I think she only does it partially OK, but maybe I had a sheltered life and am naive. Scrabble would surely agree.

However, in an recent interview elsewhere, Lois McMaster Bujold said that there's no reason why authors can't "get into the head" of people of other genders, especially if they've lived or worked with them. If they can't it, it must be because they are bad writers. And certainly, most of Bujold's very good SF is focused around one male character (Miles Vorkosigan), who is very well-painted and believable.


From: There, there. | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Timebandit
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posted 18 September 2003 01:10 PM      Profile for Timebandit     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
There are a lot of one-dimensional female characters written by men out there. It is often hard to get into the opposite gender's mindset. Takes a good deal of energy and the ability to question what you've got down on the page, whether it really works as masculine, or just a particularly female take on masculinity. Which, at base, it often has to be -- you can't just stop being female, you know?

quote:
But one thing is certain: Oryx and Crake has been Done Before.

Hasn't everything, though?

We've been recycling plots for thousands of years.

I always think the mark of artistry is not the sheer novelty of the concept, but the handling of it. I can't speak to Oryx and Crake, as I haven't read it yet (time to read... Oh, what luxury!).

quote:
...but maybe I had a sheltered life and am naive.

Noooooo, not our Mandos!

[ 18 September 2003: Message edited by: Zoot Capri ]


From: Urban prairie. | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
Mandos
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posted 18 September 2003 01:30 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
The problem (and the valid complaint) is that Atwood's book only gets attention because it is Atwood, and there is actually much better (and better-written, IMO) fiction in the same subgenre of dystopias that never gets the kind of attention that Atwood's book is getting, which is precisely why Atwood uses a lame definition of "speculative fiction" (which her own book totally violates!) to distance it from icky science fiction, about which she evidently knows very little--marketing, you know. But why don't all these other dystopian authors get Booker nominations? I think (unlike Clute) that her book is quite an enjoyable page-turner (because I don't have his dislike of flashbacks), but it is not outstanding. But it is Atwood.

As for hopping into others' heads, I think some authors do it better than other authors. I have been told that Terry Pratchett does a good job, in the rare instances that he tries, of putting himself into the heads of female characters, and, like I said, Bujold does an excellent job of male characters. My own favorite author (Cherryh) does a good job of male perspectives, but not as good as Bujold, IMO--but it doesn't matter since she doesn't focus on gender conflicts as much as Bujold.


From: There, there. | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Timebandit
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posted 18 September 2003 01:38 PM      Profile for Timebandit     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I have to admit that many of Atwood's novels leave me a bit cold. Others are very good. You're probably right on the sci fi/spec fiction, though, there are other novelists who have done better than Atwood tends to.

quote:
As for hopping into others' heads, I think some authors do it better than other authors. I have been told that Terry Pratchett does a good job, in the rare instances that he tries, of putting himself into the heads of female characters, and, like I said, Bujold does an excellent job of male characters. My own favorite author (Cherryh) does a good job of male perspectives, but not as good as Bujold, IMO--but it doesn't matter since she doesn't focus on gender conflicts as much as Bujold.

Pratchett is actually very good with female characters. Some sing more than others, but in general, he moves quite smoothly between genders.

Yes, it's in the gender conflicts that your gender-bias stands out most (and we all have a bias). I have a friend who is a very talented screenwriter, but he simply does not get women. I fear that he will not move to the next level until he figures it out. However, you can't convince him he doesn't get it, even though it's glaringly obvious to myself and another writer/editor friend, also female.

But then, we're just girls, eh?


From: Urban prairie. | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
scrabble
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posted 18 September 2003 02:22 PM      Profile for scrabble     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
[epi drifts]
quote:
maybe I had a sheltered life and am naive

I'm with Zoot (as usual): who, you, Mandos? My Virgin Princess? What do I know about you but that you are a left-handed momma's boy, sweetheart?

I suppose this should go in the "why I love babble" thread: every so often, someone proffers an excuse to stump on about essentialism - or gender / voice appropriation - or Canopus in Argos.
[/epi drifting]


From: dappled shade in the forest | Registered: Jul 2002  |  IP: Logged
andrean
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posted 18 September 2003 02:24 PM      Profile for andrean     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
We've been recycling plots for thousands of years.

My creative writing professor used to tell us that there are only two plots: a stranger comes to town or somebody takes a trip.


From: etobicoke-lakeshore | Registered: Apr 2001  |  IP: Logged
marcy
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posted 19 September 2003 11:01 PM      Profile for marcy   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Maggie's cold mastery of prose is not debatable but I've never found her work or her protagonists engaging. I'll admit that it probably comes down to personal taste, but I've always found her fiction pretty bloodless. After zooming through The Handmaid's Tale (that other dystopia) in four hours, I was left profoundly unmoved and unable to care at all about Offred. I must confess I haven't read anything of hers since Alias Grace, and although I thought it was interesting as a piece, I remained emotionally disinterested. I doubt I'll read her latest, despite the Booker nomination, so I'm glad for your reviews.
From: vancouver | Registered: Jan 2003  |  IP: Logged
nonsuch
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posted 19 September 2003 11:54 PM      Profile for nonsuch     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
At least i feel better about having returned this book to Doubleday. (I couldn't find one, never mind five, other books on their list that i want, even as a gift.)

Mostly, i like Atwood, though you're right: her characters are a bit distant; i could never identify with them as with, say, Beresford Howe's. The Blind Assasin is very good. I almost felt close to a character every now and then, and the story - half a dozen stories, actually - are riveting.


From: coming and going | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
lagatta
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posted 20 September 2003 12:00 AM      Profile for lagatta     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Marcy, I most agree, and you have expressed it very well. Atwood certainly writes well, but I never care about what she writes, even when she takes up causes I believe in.
From: Se non ora, quando? | Registered: Apr 2002  |  IP: Logged
jeff house
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posted 20 September 2003 12:39 AM      Profile for jeff house     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Me too. I have read four or five of her books, and find that they are intellectual, but without emotional pull.

i think everybody may actually think this.


From: toronto | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Michelle
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posted 20 September 2003 07:34 AM      Profile for Michelle   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Yeah. I like her books and I have lots of them, but I find her characters are very emotionally unappealing. And the sex! The sex scenes are always boring and unemotional. I know every time isn't the end of the world or anything, but good grief, it can't be THAT bad.

I find that even in the novels I love, I don't get emotionally attached to her characters. Probably the one I came closest to caring about is Elaine in Cat's Eye. My favorite Atwood book remains The Edible Woman, but I didn't find myself particularly relating to Marion emotionally, although I could intellectually.


From: I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Timebandit
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posted 20 September 2003 12:16 PM      Profile for Timebandit     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
The one novel of Atwood's where the detachment of the characters really seemed to work was Alias Grace. You can imagine the oddness of the character, how she managed to get herself in the situation by being coldly passive.

I also liked Lady Oracle. I tend to like intellectual characters, though. But I'm not nearly as struck on Atwood's writing style. It's skillful, but not exactly at the level of virtuoso, you know? I often find her novels tedious.


From: Urban prairie. | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
Medea Callous
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posted 20 September 2003 04:12 PM      Profile for Medea Callous     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Can I chime in with an alternate viewpoint? I absolutely LOVE Margaret's books; I do find her style a bit antiseptic, but to me it's endearing rather than annoying. And one of the reasons why I love her so much is because I relate so strongly to her characters. Not only do I relate personally to a lot of her characters, but I find her characters in general much like people in my own life.

My favourite books of hers are The Edible Woman and The Robber Bride, although even in my least fave book of hers, Surfacing, I found her characterisations very familiar.

Particularly in TRB, all four of the main female characters are so like people I know or have known, that it was like reading a version of my own life story.

My biggest complaint about Mags is that her plots are often a little weak (or non-existent). Particularly Surfacing and The Blind Assassin. But I think her actual writing gets better every book, and I think she thoroughly deserves all her accolades.

When I read her books, more than any other writer I know of, I think 'I'd give my right arm to write like that'.


From: Vancouver | Registered: Sep 2003  |  IP: Logged
skdadl
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posted 20 September 2003 04:39 PM      Profile for skdadl     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I'm glad to hear someone else mention Robber Bride. I was in stitches all the way through, and for much the same reason you were, Medea. To me, she came very close to Fielding in that romp -- he knew how to get away with vicious gossip too.

One thing worth watching for in Atwood's novels, maybe not all of them but usually -- wait for what feels like a pastoral interlude, a passage where she holds the scalpel back and briefly lets one or another simple loves or enthusiasms show through.

In Robber Bride that is literally a pastoral passage, where the young girl spends a summer with a gruff but lovable grandmother on her farm. That is a flashback, of course -- and quite a shift from the bitchiness or remembered pain of the rest of the novel.

The bitchiness is still fun, of course.


From: gone | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Hinterland
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posted 20 September 2003 05:20 PM      Profile for Hinterland        Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I loved the Blind Assassin (it has a great plot) and the prime character (what's her name - the old lady...) was very engaging. She's not perfect; she is in fact very bitter...but the path of her life is so clearly and richly explained by Atwood that it's entirely understandable. I mostly like Atwood because each one of her novels has a flash of brilliance that resonates with me...Oryx and Crake was a good read, and fairly tight for an Atwood novel, but this passage was exceptional:

When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. It must have got tired of the soul's constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or is fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase? But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.


From: Québec/Ontario | Registered: Apr 2003  |  IP: Logged
Medea Callous
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posted 20 September 2003 05:31 PM      Profile for Medea Callous     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I didn't really enjoy the plot of TBA, but I thought the writing was fantastic. Like a 250 page poem, really. But I did think her treatment of aging was brilliant (the same reason I loved Peter Franzen's The Corrections).
From: Vancouver | Registered: Sep 2003  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 20 September 2003 06:12 PM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I've only read two of Atwood's books, A Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, but I enjoyed them both. I frankly can't understand how anyone could read A Handmaid's Tale and not feel sympathy for Offred, along with a raging anger against the leaders of her hypothetical society.

As for Atwood's claim that she doesn't write science fiction, all I can say is that she's flat-out wrong. She obviously doesn't know what science fiction is. Sure, it's an unfortunate term for a genre that often has little to do with science; sure, "speculative fiction" would be make more literal sense; but language doesn't work that way. Words and phrases are defined by the way real people commonly use them, not according to the preferences of a literary elite.


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Medea Callous
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posted 20 September 2003 06:44 PM      Profile for Medea Callous     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
The classic definition of Science Fiction (as distinct from fantasy or speculative fiction) is the presence of technology that is not present in the real world at the time of writing. Also, the emphasis of a Sci-Fi is on the technological aspects of the environment. By that definition, 'Brave New World' is Sci-Fi, but 'A Handmaid's Tale' isn't. '1984', while technically a Sci-Fi (because of the presence of invented technology) is not a 'classic' sci-fi, because the emphasis of the book is on the characters' internal and interpersonal conflicts, rather than the impact of technology. I don't know about O&C, because I haven't read it yet. Is invented technology present in O&C?
From: Vancouver | Registered: Sep 2003  |  IP: Logged
nonsuch
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posted 20 September 2003 07:57 PM      Profile for nonsuch     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I'm glad someone reminded me of Cat's Eye; that's one where i did identify somewhat with the protagonist. (Sorry, i have enough trouble remembering real people's names; can't waste braincells on fictional ones.)
Robber Bride was a lot of fun. Yes, i met those women, too; they were all contemporaries.
Alias Grace was beautifully written, but so depressing that i quit about half-way though. (Chicken - yeah; never finished The Poisonwood Bible or Piano Man's Daughter or Fine Balance - too old to buy second-hand suffering.)

From: coming and going | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
Mandos
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posted 20 September 2003 08:04 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
In O&C, Atwood posits the Children of Crake, human being who have been genetically reengineered to fit a model of perfection envisioned by Crake. This entails changes to their cognitive processes as well as other cosmetic and physiological processes. However, at this moment in time, we simply don't have the understanding of the brain nor of the complex interactions between genes to actually edit genes to make specific changes to cognitive capacity. That's as distant from us as faster-than-light. O&C also seems to focus on the fact that society hasn't been able to cope/adjust for GMOs, and that GMOs are a response to the problems we've created, etc, etc, so I'd say that the book focuses quite well on technology. O&C falls quite well within that definition of "classic SF", seen that way.


In any case, I have some objections to that definition of "classic SF." One of these is that, by that definition, it can be argued that very little "classic SF" has ever been written--it betrays a lack of understanding of the SF genre, especially contemporary science fiction. Secondly, I am very suspicious that there is a certain amount of snobbishness in the definition. Other fiction is about *important* things--people. SF is for teenage boys and is about *gadgets*...


From: There, there. | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Medea Callous
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posted 21 September 2003 12:48 AM      Profile for Medea Callous     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Thanks for the info, Mandos!

Just a couple of points:

1. You probably should post a spoiler warning since you covered some pretty specific plot points

2. You're right about the definition of sci-fi - but just to clarify, I'm not espousing the definition, just parroting what I've read in numerous different places.

3. I don't know if you're correct in your assessment of O&C. As I said, I didn't read it, so I'm only going by your description, but there has to be actual machinery, or as you say, gadgets, to qualify (if I am correct in interpreting the classical definition of the genre).

4. It's the writers and readers of sci-fi who have the strict definition, not people who wish to exclude sci-fi from other genres. In fact, you are the first person who has even suggested the idea that:

quote:
Other fiction is about *important* things--people. SF is for teenage boys and is about *gadgets*...

... Perhaps you're a little snobbish yourself?

And just to clarify: I'm not saying you were suggesting this, but I wasn't distancing what I have read of Atwood from the Sci-fi genre because I think she's above it - on the contrary, I hold Sci-fi writers in the highest regard, and I believe that several of the world's greatest authors are represented in the genre.


From: Vancouver | Registered: Sep 2003  |  IP: Logged
swallow
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posted 21 September 2003 03:09 PM      Profile for swallow     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Theodore Sturgeon once responded to critics of SF (i hate the term sci-fi) who said it was mostly awful. He said: yes, 90% of SF is crap, because 90% of everything is crap.

There's no question in my mind that the reluctance of famous writers to admit that what they are writing is SF is based on the tradition of looking down on the genre. This is also what disturbs me about the way my favourite writer Samuel Delany is being repackaged -- from DOW pulp paperbacks into high-gloss university-press editions that call themselves "literature" rather than SF.

My favourite definition of SF is fiction that deals with change: take one thing about the world we live in and change it, then write from there.


From: fast-tracked for excommunication | Registered: May 2002  |  IP: Logged
Mandos
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posted 21 September 2003 06:43 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
MC: It wasn't really a spoiler. It's revealed at the beginning as a premise of the entire book and IIRC is in the dust jacket and in various interviews-at-publication of Atwood herself. It would be a spoiler if I were to post that the Crakers began**((*&(*^^*&&&**A@%%@#HH


NO CARRIER


(Yes, I know, overused joke...)


From: There, there. | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged

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