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Genesis, the sequel

Oryx and Crake: A Novel, Margaret Atwood, Nan A. Talese / Doubleday: 380 pp., $26

May 11, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a contributor to Book Review.

Suppose you're God. You look at your creation -- especially the part of it that consists of human beings -- and no longer feel, as you did in the beginning of Genesis, that you've done a good piece of work. In fact, you feel like canceling the experiment, as you did with the Flood -- only this time you'll create people of an entirely different sort, better suited to life on Earth. How different? You'll have them eat grass and leaves -- no more food shortages. You'll have them mate only when females come into heat, as other mammals do -- no more jealousy and sexual abuse and romantic moping. You'll make them indifferent to property and status -- no more slavery or empires. They'll be perfectly formed and drop dead at 30 -- no more ugliness and old age. And they won't foresee their own deaths -- no more need for God.

Of course, why would you edit yourself out of the picture? That makes no sense. But suppose you aren't God at all, just a very bright geneticist in mid-21st century Canada, developing your new species in a top-secret institute while brewing the mother of all viruses to kill off the old, flawed variety of humans as quickly as possible. Then you're the prime mover in Margaret Atwood's novel "Oryx and Crake."

Atwood, who won the Booker Prize in 2000 for "The Blind Assassin," has written cautionary stories before, most notably "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), in which a fundamentalist Christian regime takes over the United States and renames it the Republic of Gilead. Women are subjugated to a degree even the Taliban wouldn't have dreamed of. In "Oryx and Crake," disaster comes for various reasons, of which scientific hubris is only one. The world is in bad shape before Crake starts tinkering with the genome. Global warming is far advanced, drowning coastal cities and turning the former temperate regions into deserts. Private firms with private security forces rule in place of governments. Economic inequality is so great that residents of corporate compounds pass through the "pleeblands" (think of "plebes") only on bullet trains from one sealed station to another.

Synthetic food -- synthetic everything -- has made the real a luxury. Porn and filmed executions have displaced the arts. Humanities majors are second-class citizens who find ill-paid jobs in advertising and public relations, hyping the technological feats of the "numbers people." So many sources of woe lend credibility to Atwood's bleak vision even as they blur the focus of "Oryx and Crake." It doesn't help that the novel has only one fully realized character. That's Snowman, who was named Jimmy before the world went smash. Now, wrapped in a dirty bedsheet, he watches over the new people Crake has made, offering -- ironically, since metaphysics was supposed to be programmed out of them -- a creation myth in which Crake, indeed, is God.

Snowman may be the last human being. His very name testifies that he's obsolete: Canada no longer has snow. Words and concepts that will die with him flit through his brain. The amiable but dull-witted "Children of Crake" are no company. Unable to eat what they do, he is slowly starving. He decides to risk a return to Crake's Paradice compound, from which he and the Children fled when the virus hit. Snowman hopes to stock up on food and weapons. But mostly he's looking for answers.

As Jimmy, he wasn't a numbers person, though his parents were -- scientists at a compound that bred giant pigs in which replacement human body parts were incubated. Corporate science ignored the pleeblands to concentrate on anti-aging and sex-enhancing treatments for the rich. This disgusted Jimmy's mother, who ran away, permanently branding Jimmy as a security risk. Jimmy wasn't doing well at school anyway. "Dull normal," he was rated -- a far cry from his genius friend Crake, with whom he played computer games. (His friend's sign-on -- the name of an Australian bird -- became his nickname.) They played a game called Extinctathon -- by this time crakes were no more. And they played Blood and Roses, a "trading game" in which humanity's achievements were measured against its atrocities: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in one column, Auschwitz in the other.

Jimmy was the class clown; his wisecracking, more than anything else, keeps the novel from bogging down in gloom. But he was emotionally needy. Crake, with his brains, his cool, his unflappable cynicism, exerted a hypnotic pull on Jimmy. Then there was Oryx (nicknamed for an African antelope, also extinct by then). Jimmy first saw her as an 8-year-old in a kiddie porn film made in Asia. Her gaze unnerved him. Years later, Crake hired her as a prostitute and later put her in charge of teaching life skills to his new species.

Jimmy loved Oryx but -- in some of Atwood's strongest scenes -- could never get her to express anger at having been sold as a child. She refused to acknowledge that Jimmy might be different from other men in her life. Jimmy loved and feared Crake -- and promoted the new-species project, thereby getting immunity from the virus -- but never penetrated his motives, so Crake remains a generic mad scientist and Oryx a beautiful enigma.

We slide off their smooth, hard surfaces in frustration, just as Snowman does. As he ponders his kind's extinction, he sees a signal fire on the horizon. Other humans? Here, too, Atwood withholds any easy satisfaction. Is it a sign of hope, or does it mean that the newcomers and Snowman, out of mutual fear, will kill one another? And would this mean that Crake, after all, was right?

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