Oryx and Crake: Who Runs the World?

by Celine Yung

In Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, pigoons are first introduced as scientific experiments that were created to lengthen human lifespans with their extra organs. This introduction establishes pigoons in Jimmy’s world as an unsuspecting species whose significance is defined only by their usefulness to humans. In contrast, pigoons take on a more predatory role in Snowman’s world, where all the humans are gone and the pigoons have survived. While humans are comfortable exploiting pigoons in Jimmy’s world, this comfort is stripped away in Snowman’s world. Most importantly, the hunting scene where Snowman traps himself in a watchtower to escape the pigoons marks an important transition for the species from one controlled by humans to one that commands fear from them. Through this transition, Atwood uses the rising authority of the pigoons in Snowman’s world to challenge assumptions made in Jimmy’s world about the immutability of human superiority.

In Jimmy’s world, physical barriers and procedures separate humans from pigoons, enabling humans to exploit pigoons. According to Jimmy’s father, pigoons will “eat you up in a minute” without the barriers provided by their pens; however, Jimmy is still allowed to play with pigoons, given he “put on a biosuit that was too big for him, and wear a face mask, and wash his hands first with disinfectant soap” (Atwood 26). Each protective procedure—keeping the pigoons in pens, wearing biosuits and face masks, and washing hands with disinfectant—decreases the threat pigoons pose to humans by increasing the distance between them. This arm’s-length treatment of pigoons results from human acknowledgement of their indefensibility against the bloodthirsty pigoons. Therefore, humans oppress pigoons to forcibly assert their control. These practices become so ingrained in humans that even Jimmy, who considers himself to be a “friend” of the pigoons, is only comfortable interacting with them at a distance, illustrated by his wish that “he had a long stick … to make them run around” (Atwood 26). The physical distance symbolized by the “long stick” demonstrates how even humans like Jimmy, who are more sympathetic to the pigoons than clinical scientists like his father, treat pigoons as aliens. Atwood suggests that humans are superior to pigoons in Jimmy’s world only because they have created for themselves a position of control where they define the parameters of their interactions with pigoons. Though pigoons have the potential to overpower humans, their power is ultimately suppressed in Jimmy’s world.

Contrary to Jimmy’s world where humans comfortably hold power over pigoons, in Snowman’s world, this power dynamic is reversed as Snowman runs from the pigoons who pursue him. As Snowman escapes to the watchtower, he observes “the group of [pigoons] that’s posted outside the checkpoint cubicle door. They look at ease” (Atwood 270). Compared to Snowman’s previous experience as Jimmy, at ease while playing with the pigoons locked up in their pen, now Snowman is locked up in the watchtower while the pigoons are “at ease” on the outside. This role reversal challenges the comfort of humans in their former position of superiority, from which they quartered and exploited pigoons for human benefit. Furthermore, the new power of pigoons over humans can be attributed to Snowman’s post-apocalyptic scenario, where a “group” of pigoons still exist, but for Snowman to “regroup” is a laughable idea since “there’s only one of him” (Atwood 270). While observing the pigoons, Snowman also notes that “if they were guys, they’d be having a smoke and shooting the shit” (Atwood 270). In this comparison, Snowman relates the nature of pigoons of the present to humans of the past, demonstrating how easily pigoons have replaced the role humans used to play in the world. With humans gone, as Snowman believes he alone survives his race, Snowman recognizes in pigoons traits of dominance once expressed by the formerly dominant race of humans. This potential for pigoons to fulfill the same role in the world as humans suggests that superiority was not inherent to the human species. Rather, humans were superior only by virtue of their temporary circumstances to control the pigoons. Without humans, pigoons now roam free, and through fear, control humans who lack the physical protection that once enabled their subjugation of pigoons.

As the pigoons continue to pursue Snowman, they begin to flesh out their human-like character, challenging the uniqueness of human identity and the logic of human superiority. When Snowman leaves the watchtower to retrieve his garbage bag of supplies, he finds the pigoons waiting for him: “its eyes gleam in the half-light; he has the impression it’s grinning” (Atwood 271). Snowman’s impression of “grinning” pigoons superimposes this expression, normally attributed to humans, on pigoons. Furthermore, compared to more optimistic ways of smiling like beaming, in this ominous context, “grinning” describes a more grotesque smile with a menacing undertone, connecting to Snowman’s comment that the pigoons were “cunning, so cunning” for knowing he would return for his supplies (Atwood 271). In Jimmy’s world, pigoons are defined by their bodies, which human intellect devised for their own benefit. However, Snowman’s use of “cunning” to describe the pigoons implies that like humans, pigoons also possess complex intellectual skills, which they use to deceive Snowman. Compared to Jimmy’s focus on the scientific purpose of pigoons, Snowman defines pigoons by their scheming intellectual abilities. This shift in focus challenges human constructs that treated pigoons as aliens, when they are portrayed in Snowman’s world to express the same level of intellect that gave humans power over them in Jimmy’s world.

Even after enduring the horrors of being hunted by pigoons, Snowman still sees them as docile, which maintains the “humans-are-superior” worldview in a context where the power dynamic between humans and pigoons has visibly transformed. After escaping the watchtower, Snowman almost fondly observes the pigoons, who “look like miniature plastic figurines … from a child’s playbox” (Atwood 276). Snowman’s previously sinister description of the pigoons is inconsistent with his later portrayal of them as small and harmless. Plastic pigs are lifeless, and thus powerless—especially those from a “child’s playbox,” which are controlled by human children for their entertainment. Furthermore, Snowman’s use of children to illustrate human control over the pigoons emphasizes the power of even the weakest humans over pigoons. In contrast to the ferocity and grotesqueness of the pigoons Snowman faces in reality, these toy pigs that Snowman reimagines reinstate the former constructs of human superiority from Jimmy’s world. This metaphor suggests that human superiority over pigoons was dependent on their ability to control the pigoons, whether in a lab or in a playbox.

In Atwood’s hunting scene, the pigoons’ overpowering of humans challenges the hierarchical relationship established between the two species in Jimmy’s world, which championed humans and marginalized pigoons. Despite the hunting scene’s display of the pigoons’ power through their intimidation of humans, Snowman metaphorically belittles the pigoons, expressing his denial of their power. Instead, in his metaphor, he regresses to the past where humans controlled pigoons. In the current world that has rendered humans and the tools on which they once depended powerless, this reinstatement of human superiority seems preposterous. Similar to the physical constructs that enforced human dominance over the pigoons in Jimmy’s world, through this metaphor, Snowman imagines a mental construct that sustains his belief in human superiority. Therefore, compared to humans who believe themselves powerful regardless of their reality, Atwood suggests that pigoons are inherently powerful; their power derives from their own ferocity. Whereas in Jimmy and Snowman’s world, humans have to search for protections outside of themselves to artificially construct a facade of human superiority, whether through infrastructure or imagination.

Work Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York, Doubleday, 2003. 26-276.