Future shock

In her popular 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagined what America might look like if Christian fundamentalists ran the show. Needless to say, the Republic of Gilead made the Taliban seem like women’s-lib supporters. In that fictitious world, women were chattel and men gods. The unluckiest of the bunch were dubbed handmaids and were used as breeders.

Though some could argue that the religious right finally has seized power, thankfully, none of Atwood’s predictions—enslaved women, a slain president—have taken place.

Let’s hope the Canadian oracle is less than prescient again with her 11th novel, a grim but entertaining tale about the lurking menace of biotechnology. As the novel begins, a guy named Snowman sits in a tree overlooking a devastated landscape. During the day, he scavenges for food and avoids mutant predators, such as cute-looking dogs that actually have pit-bull temperaments.

At night, from the safety of his perch, Snowman mourns the loss of his two best friends, Oryx and Crake.

In a series of flashbacks, Atwood delicately unravels the strands of Snowman’s pre-doomsday life, revealing him to be Jimmy, the son of a prominent “genographer” who, in a wicked twist of irony, is the last real (unaltered) human on Earth.

The only company Jimmy has is the children of Crake and Oryx, human-like people who observe tribal rituals. Men urinate in a circle each morning at dawn, and, once a week, women bring Jimmy a fish. It’s all like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film.

Atwood wisely gives us only snippets of this fallen world. Instead, most of the novel visits the past in deft flashbacks from Jimmy’s childhood. For all the predictable coming-of-age angst Atwood works into Jimmy’s story, the picture she presents of a near future is original and chilling.

As Atwood tells it, reality was eclipsed by the rise of biotech companies that played havoc with the food supply.

These companies became so wealthythat they made nations and nationalism irrelevant. Instead, they began to design their own societies, where people ate only engineered food, and the compounds were protected by armed guards.

Atwood skillfully evokes how this triumph of engineering over natural life can warp everyday living. Growing up, Jimmy didn’t spend much time outdoors shagging flies or shooting hoops. Instead, he holed up indoors and trawled the Internet, playing Armageddon-like games, watching snuff videos and downloading kiddy porn with his best friend, Crake.

It was on one of these illicit Web sites that Jimmy first saw Oryx, a Southeast Asian girl who had been sold into slavery. Her expression, as Atwood describes it, cut through the intercontinental broadband static and hit Jimmy in the gut. A dozen years later, Oryx reappears in Jimmy’s life when she turns up on the arm of Crake, who is leading a sinister biotech company that wants to design a new and improved human specimen.

Although this reappearance is too convenient to be believable, it allows Atwood to play up her story’s echoes of Genesis. Beautiful and damaged, Oryx quickly drives a wedge between Jimmy and Crake, who profess to be above all that jealousy.

As she builds to a dramatic climax, Atwood wisely uses this conflict to tease out the paradox of genetic engineering. Can a flawed race play God without encrypting its own sins into the experiment?

Powerful, inventive, playful and difficult to resist, this is Margaret Atwood’s emphatic response, and the answer is a resounding, elegant “No.”