Oryx and Crake

Article excerpt

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 381pp. Cloth. £16.99. ISBN 0-7475-6259-8.

Oryx and Crake, a compelling dystopian novel, immediately invites comparison with The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which remains the outstanding success of Margaret Atwood's career. The transcribed lecture at the end of The Handmaid's Tale refers to secret gene-splicing experiments designed to produce a sterilitycausing virus which could send the populations of Russia or India into rapid decline. This anticipates the plot of Oryx and Crake, in which top geneticist Crake, convinced that overpopulation is the cause of all global problems, manufactures a new pill which will be advertised as providing protection against all sexually-transmitted diseases and 'an unlimited supply of libido and sexual prowess', but will also cause users to be unknowingly sterilised.

References to genetic engineering have different effects in the two novels. The novelty of this technology at the time when The Handmaid's Tale appeared meant that casual references to it created a futuristic feel. Almost twenty years later, the vocabulary of genomics has become familiar through the intensifying public debate, while collective media-fuelled fears and fantasies have expanded from the creation of monstrous plants or deadly viruses to the manufacture of genetically modified animals and humans. Oryx and Crake both exploits and analyses these fears. It features futuristic-sounding inventions, such as wallpaper which changes colour to match your mood and headless chicken 'growth units' which produce twenty breasts every two weeks (p. 202). Yet all the inventions are actually based on ongoing research projects, and the basic premise of the novel is the potentially catastrophic results of existing scientific capabilities. …

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