Magazine article The New Yorker

Bioperversity Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bioperversity Books

Article excerpt

The novelist Margaret Atwood has wandered off from us before: once, in 1986, to the mid-twenty-first century, for a feminist dystopia, "The Handmaid's Tale," in which women are enslaved according to their reproductive usefulness; another time, in 1996, to the nineteenth century, to make thrifty use of her graduate work at Radcliffe in the faux-Victorian novel "Alias Grace." These were forays and raids. In her chronicling of contemporary sexual manners and politics, Atwood has always been interested in pilfering popular forms--comic books, gothic tales, detective novels, science fiction--in order to make them do her more literary bidding. Her previous novel, "The Blind Assassin," is the best example of the kind of narrative pastiche at which she excels.

In her towering and intrepid new novel, "Oryx and Crake" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $26), Atwood, who is the daughter of a biologist, vividly imagines a late-twenty-first-century world ravaged by innovations in biological science. Like most literary imaginings of the future, her vision is mournful, bleak, and infernal, and is punctuated, in Atwood style, with the occasional macabre joke--perhaps not unlike Dante's own literary vision. Atwood's pilgrim in Hell is Snowman, who, following a genetically engineered viral cataclysm, is, as far as he knows, the only human being who has survived. Snowman (formerly Jimmy) has become arboreal, living in trees and in shelters of junk, roaming the beaches and picnic grounds of a former park--where fungi sprout from rotting picnic tables and barbecues are festooned with bindweed--scavenging for food. His only companions are a dozen or so humanoids, the Crakers--gentle, naked, beautiful creations of Jimmy's old, half-mad scientist friend Crake. Freed from their experimental lab, the Crakers also live near the beach. They eat nothing but grass, leaves, and roots; their sexual rituals have been elegantly and efficiently programmed to minimize both sexual reproduction and unrequited lust. To them, the man they call Snowman is a demigod or a prophet. Unable to tolerate sunlight, Jimmy wears a ghostly bedsheet. For the Crakers, the real gods are Crake, whom they have never seen, and his girlfriend, Oryx, whom they have. The Crakers await their return and listen to stories that Snowman tells them about Crake and Oryx. A holy, yarny scripture is already emerging.

Parallel with this vision of a blighted future is the novel's dramatic story of how the global apocalypse came to pass, told in flashback. Jimmy and Crake grow up as friends in gated communities, safe from the environmental degradation that has already overtaken the outside world. They are the privileged children of scientists who work for top-secret agribusiness and biotech companies with names like HelthWyzer and OrganicInc Farms. The latter, for medical-transplant purposes, makes pigs that are genetically altered with human DNA; after the apocalypse, these extra-clever "pigoons" go hunting for Snowman like hounds after a fox. There are other mistakes, too--creatures called wolvogs, which are exactly what you would expect. Later, Crake's classmates work on developing, for a fast-food venture, headless, legless chickens--"Sort of like a chicken hookworm," Crake says. Such genetic ambitions will not sound outlandish to anyone who has kept abreast of current poultry-farming practices or knows that scientists have experimented with splicing fish genes into tomatoes to prevent freezing.

Although the boys' daily lives are full of swimming pools, bullet trains, completely self-contained shopping malls, and games like Kwiktime Osama, they maintain a curiosity about the world outside in "the pleeblands," of which they have little experience. They have lost parents in the madness of this sinister and isolated life style. Crake's father, burdened with the knowledge of pharmaceutical conspiracies, "jumped" from an overpass; Jimmy's mother, critical of her husband's work, grew depressed, then disappeared. …

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