Atwood paints bleak picture of the future

By Kristen De Groot

Associated Press

Margaret Atwood's novel "Oryx and Crake" is set in the future, when tidal waves have washed Boston into the sea and the place that once was Texas has dried up and been blown away.

Crake, a mysterious, brilliant and often creepy teenager, avidly plays Extinctathon, a game about the various species that have been wiped off the planet during the past half century. His friend Jimmy hates the game, although it's a simple one.

But nothing else in the future Atwood portrays is simple. And Crake's skill at playing Extinctathon offers a grim foreshadowing of the malevolent games he'll play as an adult.


The novel begins at the end: Jimmy has become known as Snowman, and it seems that he's the last person on Earth -- except for a race of beautiful, green-eyed clones.

Snowman lives in a tree in fear of the hungry "new" animals -- the cute but vicious "wolvogs" and the carnivorous pigs called "pigoons." He wears a decaying sheet, a dirty baseball cap and sunglasses with one lens missing, and drinks rainwater out of beer bottles. He laments his seemingly solitary life in this changed world in which something dreadful -- who knows what? -- has happened.

The horror of Snowman's situation unfolds little by little, as the story alternates between his current life and his past. It begins when he was a child called Jimmy who lived in a world much like ours.

Atwood's novel is a cautionary tale, a vision of what could happen if the work of science and business -- especially pharmaceutical and genetic research companies -- went unchecked.

It's disturbing not only for its speculation, but for the events depicted that are uncomfortably familiar: the close ties between scientific researchers and drug companies; the outbreak of new diseases with no known cause or cure; and scientific research dictated by vanity and the fear of old age.

"Oryx and Crake" doesn't ponder what might happen if morality were mandated by a single vision. It's almost the flip side, a world where no one is regulating anything, and morality, ethics and humanity take a back seat to corporate greed.

None of the characters is especially well-developed; the reader never gets a clear idea why Crake wants to play God, or why Jimmy becomes involved with him. Oryx is introduced too quickly and disposed of in haste.

But Atwood's skillful storytelling makes the book hard to put down.

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