May 09, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Oryx and Crake

Current Status
In Season
Margaret Atwood
We gave it a B-

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s gothic tale of biotechnological disaster, spends most of its 376 pages building up to the revelation of What Happened. Her amiable narrator, Snowman, knows What Happened — he was there — but in order that the covers of the book not be too close together, he takes his time telling us. Whatever it was, it was pretty bad. Snowman is in a sorry state, ravaged by sores and wrapped in a sheet. Then there are all the strange animals — pigoons, wolvogs, bobkittens, glow- bunnies — around the tree he sleeps in. And the odd sort-of-people who bring him the occasional fish seem not quite right. And everyone else in the world is dead.

”Oryx and Crake” takes two routes to revealing What Happened. One is the story of Snowman; Crake, his mad-genius childhood friend; and Oryx, their mutual lover. The other recounts Snowman’s trip through the wasteland of feral biotech-beasties back to the scene of the crime. But just as these intercut narratives are about to arrive at What Happened, we read this warning: ”It was melodrama so overdone that he and Crake would have laughed their heads off at it, if they’d been fourteen and watching it on DVD.”

Atwood is secure enough in her skills that the reader will probably not, in fact, laugh her head off at What Happened; while most of it has been thoroughly foreshadowed, there is still some surprise as events go completely over the edge. But when a character points out to readers just how absurd the plot is — the ”this-feels-like-a-bad-movie” line from countless bad movies — it’s hard to feel that the author is at the top of her game.

The problem may be rooted in the question of genre. When people described Atwood’s 1986 ”The Handmaid’s Tale” as science fiction, she denied it. To her, sci-fi was basically pulpish stuff about spaceships and Martians. Her story of a future of reduced fertility and female slavery belonged to a different tradition.

In ”Oryx and Crake,” though, she takes on sci-fi at its pulpiest. We have weird inventions, lone geniuses, fascist rent-a-cops, fabulous animals, a lost tribe, and the end of the world. This is not 1984 or Brave New World; it is Ender’s Game or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Atwood’s intelligence is obvious in everything she does, from the crafting of sentences on up, so you have to assume she knows this. But she doesn’t quite pull it off.

Still, Atwood has a lot of fun dressed up in the drag of a genre that has acquired, as she wrote recently in the ”New York Review of Books,” ”a dubious if not downright sluttish reputation.” While lacking the inventiveness of an author like Bruce Sterling (”Distraction”), she introduces the horrors of her world with wicked gusto. She takes particular delight in ad-speak neologisms as lame and tasteless as the lab-born entities they describe,like the headless, legless critters from which ChickieNobs Nubbins are made. ”Oryx” is as much an attack on the languages in which the future is imagined — sci-fi among them — as on what the future might bring. Poor imaginings, she tells us, produce an impoverished future.

In interviews, Atwood has said much of the biotechnology in ”Oryx” is based on things already attempted or discussed (though Crake’s engineered ”children,” with their peculiar estrous cycle, rabbitlike coprophagy, and genetic inability to believe in God, seem somewhat further afield than the glow-bunnies). Nevertheless, Snowman’s future seems too ghastly, too blackly comic, and not truly wild enough. Instead of ”science out of control,” it’s a story of science doing more or less what the men in white coats want. It plays like a not particularly telling satire of scientists and capitalists up to no good while democracy vanishes without a forwarding address.

While the setup is interestingly grotesque, the characters are bland and few. Crake and Snowman start off with various distant parental figures, and Snowman has a few lovers; none leaves much of a mark. Oryx and Crake get some good lines but feel more like plot devices than people. The lack of personality, affect, and adult supervision may be exactly what Atwood is criticizing about our youth-fixated, Web-mediated world. But it robs her story of punch.

Snowman himself, an impious but dignified fisher king, is a memorable creation. If someone has to be the last human, he seems a fine candidate. As for the rest: It’s remarkable that Atwood manages to kill off essentially the entire species and yet no one that the reader cares about. This is, in its way, a notable achievement. But not a wholly satisfying one.

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