Margaret Atwood’s 17th book is something of a surprise, a wild-at-heart work of science fiction that may be her most ambitious offering yet. Set in a futuristic world that features creatures called rakunks and pigoonsexperimental animals that result from genetic engineeringOryx and Crake (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, $26, 376 pp.) is a high-tech trek to a not-so-bright tomorrow, a bold envisioning of what can happen when humanity’s well-intentioned endeavors go astray.
The book’s central character, Jimmy, moves through a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape, remembering what life on Earth was like before a bioengineering disaster wiped out civilization, leaving him as the single human survivor. In an extended flashback that comprises the bulk of the book, he recalls a culture ruled by computers and tormented by plagues, a society in which the lower classes are quartered in filthy urban areas called pleeblands.
Jimmy, however, has a privileged upbringing. He’s raised on a bioengineering farm, where his parents do research and where he befriends a young genius named Crake. The two play interactive games, hunt for porn on the Web and eventually go off to university. Prodigiously talented, Crake winds up masterminding a new race of beings, the product of his desire to develop an ideal species of humans resistant to disease and stripped of their propensity for violence and war. He engages in this project with the aid of his gorgeous Asian girlfriend, Oryx, a former Internet kiddie porn star with whom Jimmy has long been obsessed. When Jimmy goes to work for Crake, a love triangle of sorts ensues, adding another level to Atwood’s multilayered novel.
Finding out how this strange threesome fares when civilization comes to an end makes for wonderfully provocative reading. Although Atwood doesn’t scrimp on the scientific stuff, the story is accessible from start to finish. She counteracts the inhuman hum of the future with flesh-and-blood characters whose desires add warmth to a chilling narrative. With clinical precision, she conjures an original, fully realized world, shading it with details that are all too resonant. In Atwood’s version of the late 21st century, computer games have names like Kwiktime Osama and Three-Dimensional Waco, and there’s an assisted-suicide Web site called nitee-nite.com. Plausible particulars like these make Oryx and Crake feel eerily familiar, despite its far-fetched plot line.
A daredevil author, Atwood has dabbled in futurism before. Her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin (2000) was an expansive saga that blended historical fiction, science fiction and mystery. In The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a haunting vision of female oppression, she created a hypothetical society in which women were valued only for their reproductive ability. Unlike her previous experiments, though, Oryx and Crake is pure, undiluted sci-fi, an utterly convincing, ultra-modern story that will leave readers wondering if there’s anything Atwood can’t do.
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