In her popular 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, currently playing at the Minnesota Opera, Margaret Atwood imagined what America might look like were Christian fundamentalists running the show. Needless to say, the republic of Gilead made the Taliban seem like women's lib supporters. In this fictitious world women were chattel and men gods. The unluckiest of the bunch were dubbed handmaids and were used as breeders.
Though some could argue the religious right finally has seized power, thankfully, none of Atwood's predictions--enslaved women, a slain president--have taken place. Let's hope the Canadian oracle is off base again with her 11th novel, Oryx and Crake, a tale about the lurking menace of biotechnology.
As the novel begins a guy named Snowman sits in a tree overlooking a devastated landscape. During the day he scavenges for food and avoids mutant predators such as cute-looking dogs that actually have pit-bull temperaments. At night, from the safety of his perch, Snowman mourns the loss of his two best friends: Oryx and Crake. In a series of flashbacks, Atwood unravels the strands of Snowman's pre-doomsday life, revealing him to be "Jimmy," the son of a prominent "genographer" who, in a wicked twist of irony, is the last real--meaning, unaltered--human on Earth. The only company Jimmy has are the children of Crake and Oryx, humanoids who observe tribal rituals--men urinate in a circle each morning at dawn, women bring Jimmy a fish once a week--that resemble something out of a Kubrick film.
Atwood wisely only gives us snippets of this fallen world. Instead, the majority of the novel visits the past in flashbacks from Jimmy's childhood. For all the predictable coming-of-age angst Atwood works into Jimmy's story, the pictures she presents of the near future are original and chilling. As Atwood conceives it, reality has been eclipsed by the rise of biotech companies that played havoc with the food supply. These corporations became so wealthy as to make nations and nationalism irrelevant. And so they began to design their own societies, where people ate only engineered food, and lived in the protection of armed guards in compounds--just a short step from today's sprawling corporate "campuses," occupied by the likes of Microsoft and Nike.
Oryx and Crake skillfully evokes how this triumph of engineering over natural life can warp everyday living. Growing up, Jimmy didn't spend much time outdoors shagging flies or shooting hoops. Instead, he holed up indoors and trawled the Net, playing Armageddon-like games, watching snuff videos, and downloading kiddie porn with his best friend Crake.
It was on one of these illicit websites that Jimmy first saw Oryx, a Southeast Asian girl who had been sold into slavery. Her expression, as Atwood describes it, cut through the intercontinental broadband static and hit Jimmy in the gut. A dozen years later Oryx reappears in Jimmy's life, when she turns up on the arm of Crake, now leader of a sinister biotech company that wants to design a new and improved human specimen.
Although this reappearance is too convenient to be believable, it allows Atwood to play up her story's echoes of Genesis. Beautiful and damaged, Oryx quickly drives a wedge between Jimmy and Crake. As she builds to a dramatic climax, Atwood uses this conflict to tease out the paradox of genetic engineering: Can a flawed race play God without encrypting its own sins into the experiment? Powerful, inventive, playful, and difficult to resist, Oryx and Crake is Margaret Atwood's emphatic response to that question.