People can't wait to get to the future. They appeal to psychics to use their powers to discover what lies over the horizon; they read tea-leaves and consult astrologers. Yet coupled with this enthusiasm there is also a dread about what's coming next. It's fertile ground for writers of science fiction. When Samuel Butler depicted a hideous world of machines in Erewhon, he played with the Victorians' fears about their own increasingly mechanised industrial age. H G Wells envisaged the future as a truly nightmarish place with The Time Machine, where all our longings for a golden age are brought to nothing, and instead dystopia is the result of man's fall from grace.
The myth of man brought down by too much knowledge may be biblical, but it's as much our concern today as it ever has been. It is a fear which Margaret Atwood depicts here with all her usual remarkable skills. She conjures up a disturbing vision of the late 21st century where human beings have all but destroyed the planet. Just as her most celebrated novel The Handmaid's Tale unveiled an apocalyptic vision, so too does Oryx and Crake, but this time it is an ecological rather than a reproductive horror story.
The novel opens with Snowman sleeping in a tree in a world that is beset by the result of man's scientific meddling. The climate has been changed, animals are hybrid beasts, and the only human survivors of an unspecified catastrophe are the Crakers who are followers of Crake, the childhood friend of Snowman. The Crakers have been "genetically modified" to eliminate negative qualities like racism and aggressive, sexual and religious urges. They have particular ways of coping with disease: purring, adopted from other animals, is a vibration which can cure their ills.
Atwood intersperses this with flashbacks to the past. Snowman was once Jimmy, a schoolboy growing up in the compounds populated by the elite intelligentsia. He is traumatised by the disappearance of his mother, who runs away determined to flee the authoritarian regime. Beyond the compounds are the "pleeblands" where the ordinary, under- privileged people live. Jimmy's father works for a company which breeds pigs for human transplants, …