Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker Prize for her last novel, The Blind Assassin, is a triple threat as a fiction writer. She is equally adept at setting her books in the past, the present or the future and, no matter which, manages to create wholly imagined, utterly compelling worlds. It is the not-so-distant future that provides the stark setting for her newest novel, Oryx and Crake, an absorbing and disturbing cautionary vision of a post-apocalyptic earth.

Civilization as we know it has vanished in the wake of an ecological disaster brought about by a bioengineering project gone terribly wrong. Perhaps the only human survivor is Snowman, who lives among a group of child-like humanoids called Crakers. Snowman is a kind of paternalistic leader for these pure-minded, physiologically superior creatures, and they view him as a priestly link to their creator Crake. Snowman is uncomfortable in this Kurtz-like role, though, and battles the psychological isolation and terror of the not-so-brave new world he inhabits.

How did all this come to pass? "Once upon a time," Atwood tells us with a wry nod to childhood bedtime fables, "Snowman wasn't Snowman. Instead he was Jimmy. He'd been a good boy then." The narrative rewinds to the years leading up to the world's present state, to a time when the elite live in guarded Compounds and the rest live in decaying cities called pleeblands. Young Jimmy lives with his parents in the Compound of OrganInc Farms, the bioengineering firm where his father is part of the company's greatest undertaking the pigoon project. Pigoons are pig-like animals with human tissue organs harvested for transplants. No one can foresee that these genetically superior creatures will turn renegade and, ultimately, survive their creators.

Civilization as we know it has vanished in the wake of an ecological disaster brought about by a bioengineering project gone terribly wrong.

Jimmy's mother has become a stay-at-home mom, largely because she abhors the implications of the research in which she was involved. She slowly descends into a clinical depression, then simply disappears one day, releasing little Jimmy's pet rakunk (a cross between a racoon and a skunk) into the wild before she goes. The back-to-back loss of mother and beloved pet has a deep emotional effect on Jimmy, who buries himself in the world of Internet porn and an interactive web game called Extinctathon. His partner in these desultory pursuits is his brilliant classmate, Crake, who will be one of two defining figures in Jimmy's and the world's fate.

 

The other figure is Oryx, whom Jimmy first spots as a young girl on a child pornography website. She is a preternatural beauty of vaguely Asian origin, and young Jimmy prints out her image and carries it with him, even when he moves from the Compound to attend a second-rate college, the Martha Graham Academy. Crake, steady on the path to becoming a top-flight genetic engineer, heads off to the prestigious Watson-Crick. After graduation, Jimmy drifts into a job as a hack promotional writer, hawking the bogus wares of a minor Compound called AnooYoo by day and engaging in meaningless sex by night.

He remains obsessed with Oryx, and when Crake resurfaces and hires him to work on the Paradice Project, Jimmy is stunned to find Oryx there, in the flesh. She is now Crake's girl, but that doesn't preclude a secret coupling with Jimmy. Oryx is also the teacher of the Crakers, part of Crake's attempt to create perfect humans, immune to diseases and free from sexual aggression and instincts for domination and war. The Crakers are the one part of Crake's megalomaniacal gene-altering project that will endure when things go awry and an uncontrollable virus is unleashed on the world. Life before the disaster is so relentlessly creepy precisely because it is so believable, just a few steps away from our own reality.

Yet, despite the underlying message of man's doom, Oryx and Crake is compulsively entertaining, in part because Atwood is a gifted storyteller who supplies mythic underpinnings to what is essentially an anti-creation parable. She cleverly invents a new lexicon for the newly engineered species and products wolvog, ChickieNob, pigoons that is both amusing on the surface and chilling in its implications. Beyond her inventiveness as a writer, though, what truly sets Atwood's novel apart from so much speculative fiction are her elegant prose and her sharp insights into the human character. In spite of the prescient message about a world where science has gone mad, it is the humanity—the humanness—of Oryx and Crake that leaves the deepest impression, inviting us to consider what future mankind is capable of inflicting on itself.

 

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