• U.S.

Beware the Gene Genie

3 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Crake is the low-key mad scientist in Margaret Atwood’s rueful tale of mad science, Oryx and Crake (Doubleday; 374 pages), a book about an awful future. He’s the kind of guy who says things like “Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that civilization as we know it gets destroyed.” He didn’t intend that remark as a commentary on the book he’s in, but it certainly could apply, especially if you factor in his next line: “Want some popcorn?”

This is not quite a popcorn novel, but it’s not all you would hope from Atwood, who deftly imagined a different awful future in The Handmaid’s Tale, her 1985 book about a U.S. controlled by Fundamentalist Christians. Here she sticks closely to the rules of dystopian writing. Civilization has succumbed to a calamity, in this case brought on by heedless bioengineering, the kind that sets loose viruses that melt down their victims like “pink sorbet on a barbecue.” Then again, the world was asking for it, what with the webcast suicides, the rampant porn and the chickens bred genetically to consist of nothing but a mouth and a multitude of (barely) edible breasts. As for the social arrangements, the precatastrophe elite lived in walled compounds while everyone else scrambled in the teeming “pleeblands.” In other words, it was the world we live in now, only more so.

Even if the outlines of her story are familiar, what we look for from Atwood is intricate characterization, a fully imagined alternative universe and an original turn of mind. There’s not much of that in the story told by Snowman, formerly Jimmy, a survivor of the global calamity who now lives in a tree, attended by the Children of Crake. This is a mild-mannered tribe of bioengineered humans, more or less, if you don’t count the phosphorescent skin (amazing what you can do with jellyfish genes) and the simian sexual practices. (Don’t ask.)

As Snowman rewinds his life, we learn that much of this strange turn of events is traceable to Crake, a boyhood friend who becomes a serenely brilliant geneticist at a powerful bioengineering firm. His job is to find a formula for immortality. But Crake has larger plans. He thinks of the human race as a boundless opportunity for creative meddling. Oryx is an Asian girl whom Jimmy first glimpses on a child-porn website, then meets years later through Crake.

Literary fiction is all about nuance. Science fiction is an open invitation to moralizing. In a genre that lets you create your own world, who can resist the temptation merely to blow it all up while shaking a head at what fools these mortals be? Not Atwood. What’s missing here is the emotional sinew of Cat’s Eye, the complex mortifications of Alias Grace. In which case, pass the popcorn. –By Richard Lacayo

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