Book Fight!

Tough love for literature

Episode 42: Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake


Tom picked this week’s book, because he’s thinking about writing some post-apocalyptic fiction and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake came highly recommended. So, did it meet our expectations? Did it thrill us with its bleak vision of a world where humans have rendered themselves (mostly) extinct?


We also talk about fiction that proceeds from character versus fiction that proceeds from premise, and whether science fiction can ever be capital-L Literature. That discussion was prompted, in part, by this Sven Birkerts review of the novel, which first appeared in the New York Times and which you can read here.

As always, you can stream the episode for free right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. Or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe and never miss another episode. While you’re there, please consider leaving us a rating and a comment. If you want to further support the show, you can donate a few bucks by clicking on the little piggy bank over there on the right, or buy some books at Powell’s–if you get to their site using one of the links on our site, we’ll get a little portion of every dollar you spend. You’ll also be supporting a great independent bookstore, so win-win!

Finally, if you’re in or near Philadelphia, please consider coming out to the Conversations and Connections Writing Conference on Sept. 28. For only $65, you’ll get a full day of panels and craft sessions, a keynote by J. Robert Lennon, a free boxed-wine happy hour, a subscription to a literary journal of your choice, and a book from one of our participating authors. What more could you ask for? (That is a rhetorical question.)

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Download Episode 42


Author: mikeingram25

writer, editor

7 thoughts on “Episode 42: Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

  1. Listening to your discussion makes me wonder what you’d make of a writer like Kim Stanley Robinson who’s stuff I’ve often heard called ‘literary science-fiction.’ Galileo’s Dream is really good starting point; time travelers repeatedly abduct Galileo over the course of his life as a pawn in an ethical debate. Ian MacDonald’s Desolation Road is also worth looking into. It’s this weird blend of a character-driven story, science-fiction, and magical realism, i.e. Angels are cyborgs, and they can play a mean guitar.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions, Erin– those both sound like things I’d at least be interested in giving a shot. I’ll see if the library has it when I head over there today.

  3. I have tons to say about this ep. I totally got the NY Times objection to many sci-fi books. Many of them do get way too wrapped up in the concept, but that’s not nearly true of all of them. If you do a good job with world building, you quit needing to explain things. Robert Heinlein might have exemplified that if he hadn’t turned into such a dirty old man. Over in comics, Y: THE LAST MAN does an amazing job with it, though, and I definitely think Vonnegut is another author who focused on characters rather than concepts.
    Creating some weird technology can be a great way to explore how real human persons deal with strange situations.
    The part that was more important to me in this ep, though, was the question of activism. I was an activist myself for years and years, but never wanted my activism to enter my writing. Not that some political ideas don’t show up, but it was always important to me that they bubbled up from my inspiration. That I didn’t sit down and say, “OK, I am gonna do a story about how the banks suck now.” You know?
    I really agree with Eudora Welty’s essay, “Must The Novelist Crusade.” In fact, as Welty argues (and I agree) they really shouldn’t. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some great activist books written, but I have a feeling that the ones that stand the test of time arose from a space of real inspiration and not activism. That writer just found an idea and pursued it and it turned out to be powerful, rather than sitting down to convince people of something.
    Good ep you guys. Really got my juices flowing. I haven’t read this book, though I read three or four Atwood books years ago, in college, and I do have a copy of it and I have been meaning to get to it.
    The last book in the trilogy either just came out or it’s about to. Maybe the next two deal with some of the problems you guys highlighted???

  4. Really excited to read the Welty essay, which I just bookmarked, and which probably will help to address some of my own concerns about the new project I’m kind of working on. So thanks for that.

    The fact that we posted this the same week as Maddaddam’s release is just a stupid accident, but it works out well for us– some writers we really like, including J. Robert Lennon, seem to love the trilogy, and there’s a lot of great stuff being written about Atwood, dystopia, and YA this week.

  5. Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Little, Big by John Crowley. There definitely exists a strain of classic 20th century SF which focuses on bursts of language that bring high pleasure alongside fascinating abstraction. Unfortunately, the SF market is by nature quite conservative in its preference for ‘traditional’ boy’s adventure modes of storytelling. I would argue that contemporary SF writers such as China Mieville, Nalo Hopkinson and Catherynne Valente are writing literature with a capital-L as much as anyone else. Ready Player One and Atwood’s dystopia novels may have more mainstream crossover–since they take place on a not-far-removed, familiar Earth–but I don’t see them as serious representatives of the genre’s potential. That is to say, what’s trendy or popular in SF (and by extension nearly all that’s known in limited mainstream awareness) isn’t necessarily what’s best in SF; a general rule of thumb I tend to apply in any field.

  6. I’ve been meaning to read Dhalgren for a long time, because I’ve heard great things about it and because we work in the same department as Samuel Delaney. I’ve read his memoir, which I really liked, but that’s not really germane to your comment. Anyway, your comment may have given me the push to finally read it instead of stacking it up on my desk and putting off again.

  7. Hey! Episode 153 says that Alice Munroe is Canada’s only author and I thought “have these guys not had any Margaret Atwood?”

    Having read this trilogy I find the prose gets more complex based on the main focus character. There are some more literary aspects later when the pigs have a funeral. The prose was super approacable but given the subject mater I would have stopped reading had the complexity made it that much harder to read. Having seen Margaret Atwood as the Canadian novelist growing up, I was pleasantly surprised by how approachable the book was.

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