I got my first taste of the apocalypse driving west on Route 50.
US-50 spans Maryland to California, and much of its Colorado/Nevada leg tracks I-70, one of several highways that have more or less rendered Route 50 obsolete. Sometimes they’re the same road, and sometimes I-70 is visible in the distance, its familiar green signage and rush of 18-wheelers a comforting talisman against the isolation of the elder thruway. But every so often the highway is miles off, and the visual lull of gas stations and rest stops give way to a different kind of lull: the thrum of tires on barely paved asphalt, the rush of breeze through open windows, vistas of untouched landscape in every direction.
Near Fruita, Colorado, Route 50 and I-70 part ways, and the former enters a stretch of near-total isolation (what I will come to know as one of many). The smooth surface of well-maintained blacktop gives over to worn, crumbling asphalt, and sometimes gravel. Lane lines fade and then disappear; desert shrubbery creeps in at the shoulders, threatening to overtake the pavement entirely. For 23 minutes, I didn’t see a single other car. Surrounded by mountains, vegetation, the mutterings of unseen wildlife, and one disintegrating road, it suddenly wasn’t hard to imagine a world in which people ceased to be, to imagine the planet reclaiming the land we colonized, bulldozing the evidence of humanity in the slow-motion manner of mother nature. It felt wrong, even, to be the only human thing, the only piece of civilization in sight. Like encroaching on someone else’s property, or stepping behind enemy lines.
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake imagines a similar world, where a plague has long since done away with most of the population and much of the food. All that remains are the Crakers, a biologically engineered species that is impervious to disease, modern nutritional requirements, and the emotional minutiae of humanity—they’re also a bit slow—and Snowman, their caretaker of sorts, and (as far as he knows) the last human being on earth. The novel is the first in a trilogy (the MaddAddam trilogy, HBO adaptation forthcoming) and details through a series of flashbacks how this particular mess came to be. It is a coming-of-age story turned romance turned thriller centered on Snowman (aka Jimmy), his best friend Crake, and their mutual love interest Oryx.
Atwood is one of the grand masters of dystopia (or “speculative fiction”) and Oryx and Crake is a testament to her fabulous imagination. Much of the backstory focuses on Crake’s interest in cross-pollinating species, and in how the animal kingdom’s natural defenses might be genetically looted to benefit humans (or create new ones). It’s a conceit steeped in science, yet rife with moral implications and, clearly, risk. In the canon of world-ending catastrophes, it also feels like perhaps the one most fitting for the human race: killed by our capacity for innovation, made extinct by our thirst for immortality, hoisted by our own petard. At least if the aliens take us out, we can be self-righteous about it.
Oryx and Crake isn’t as strong as The Handmaid’s Tale; its concept out-shines its characters, some of whom (Oryx) feel disappointingly thin. But it is a beautifully imagined downfall, and Snowman’s is a search for purpose familiar to many, even without the everythingisgoneeveryoneisdead factor. If nothing else, O&C is a great companion book for a trek along an isolated and partially defunct highway.
TITLE: Oryx and Crake
AUTHOR: Margaret Atwood
PAGES: 389 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin
SORTA LIKE: The Dark Tower I meets Never Let Me Go
FIRST LINE: “Snowman wakes before dawn.”