Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Like The Handmaid’s Tale this story is set in a future that is only too possible. Atwood’s story-telling gifts haven’t diminished, nor has her eye for potential social problems lost its focus. It’s an end-of-the-world book, after the apocalypse, but the mechanics of how we got there are less interesting to me than the ruminations of the main character.

In the opening pages we meet Snowman, a man in a Red Sox cap waking to his world where there is no medicine for infected mosquito bites and only a mango (if he’s lucky) for breakfast. We meet the mysterious children who can’t identify the hubcaps and fast food containers that wash up on the shore and look to Snowman for help. The story unfolds, as addictively readable as all of Atwood’s work, through this man’s thoughts, his lonely fantasies, his memories of a time that is gone. The stream of his consciousness is very well done, larded with trivia, half-remembered commercials, snatches of speech that have lost their context.

We learn about Snowman’s past, as a boy named Jimmy who hung out with his best friend Crake, playing videogames and surfing the web. There, on the web, he catches sight of a girl who will haunt him all of his life: Oryx, whom he will meet and love as an adult. Jimmy’s world is one in which the rich live in gated compounds protected by private police forces which everyone else lives in the riotous and dangerous pleeblands. The compounds are company towns, run by corporations looking to make money off of gene-splicing experiments. Not so great a stretch from where we are now.

The neighborhood where I used to live, situated a little north of the geographical center of the city, wanted to build a wall around itself and remake itself as a gated community, plucked out of the city’s grid of streets. Several of us fought the notion and eventually they let it go, but they did hire a private police force whose first action was to shoot the foxes and other wildlife that have taken refuge in the city as their usual habitats have been destroyed. Their next action was to arrest an elderly man going down his sidewalk in pajamas and bathrobe to get the morning paper. His crime? He was African-American, so obviously couldn’t be a homeowner in that upscale neighborhood. Atwood has carried this cultural trend forward into its logical end.

I know little about gene-splicing, though GM foods make me nervous. Still, I can well believe that scientists somewhere might be looking to create a pigoon: a pig genetically modified to grow transplantable human organs. But for Snowman, starving and determined to travel to the ruins of the nearest compound in search of food, the pigoons, feral now and starving themselves, have become a threat.

What Atwood does so well is sprinkle these futuristic elements into the rich batter of life as we know it, of familiar thoughts and obsessions. Her characters are completely human and recognisable. If I were teaching a fantasy/scifi writing class, I would use this book as the primary text because, quite aside from the mechanics of creating this believable future, she has told a story that has had me puzzling over its implications for days and wondering how much is too much.

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