The brave new world of genetic engineering

Margaret Atwood follows today's trends into a terrifying oblivion

The end of the world would be bad, of course, but books about it are a disaster. Once in a while an author carries off the Apocalypse with some pizazz - St. John comes to mind - but even the best writers have trouble with it. Three years ago, T.C. Boyle brought things to a dismal close in "Friend of the Earth." And now Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood is thundering away in "Oryx and Crake."

She imagines a future so toxic that Gloria Steinem would feel nostalgic for "The Handmaid's Tale." The quirky science-fiction elements spliced into Atwood's "Blind Assassin" have run amok in the genetic dystopia of "Oryx and Crake."

The novel opens on a wasted, poisoned world, stripped of its ozone - the perfect book for a silent spring. Modern civilization lies in ruins. Almost everyone is dead from a fast-acting super-virus that consumed humanity in a few weeks of bloody chaos.

Jimmy remains the proverbial last man alive on earth, but he still can't get a date. He's wrapped in an old sheet, sleeping in a tree, and running out of food. Down on the ground, he can hear the savaging grunts of "wolvogs" and "pigoons," genetically scrambled animals released from some experiment gone hideously bad.

He climbs down each day and assumes the role of Snowman, the spiritual leader of the children of Crake. They're an innocent master race designed to live in Paradice™ . Models of physical perfection and resiliency, their green skin allows them to photosynthesize, their citrus odor repels insects, and their stomachs let them process grass the way rabbits do. If injured or cut, they heal one another by humming at the wound. Freed from toil and devoid of desire, they live in complete peace as their creator intended - boring but never bored.

Indeed, there's nothing boring about "Oryx and Crake," but there's nothing terribly interesting about it either. Despite Atwood's deadpan wit, the book has none of the originality or profundity of those earlier great dystopias, "Brave New World" or "1984." The genetic nightmare it describes borrows a lot from "Jurassic Park" and sometimes shares its depth. Many fine authors of dark science fiction who toil in relative obscurity will find the next few weeks of hoopla about Atwood's contribution grating.

Most of the novel recalls Jimmy's sad life in a world of unbridled corporate power. Sealed business compounds have rendered cities and countries irrelevant. The poor masses live in poisoned, disease-ridden ghettos, the "pleeblands," while the elites manufacture and market ever more artificial foods and products.

Terrorism and contagion discourage group activities of any kind, so all entertainment - from sports to executions to sex - takes place on the Internet nonstop. The arts persist only as quaint irrelevancies, "like studying Latin or book-binding: pleasant to contemplate but no longer central to anything."

Jimmy's dad designs pigs that grow human body parts - "much cheaper than getting yourself cloned for spare parts," he notes, "or keeping a for-harvest child or two stashed away in some illegal baby orchard." Jimmy's mother is a microbiologist who's become a Luddite in a culture mad for whatever technology can accomplish (whether it should or not).

Between one parent who's disappointed by his ordinariness and another who's consumed by depression, listless Jimmy spends most of his time with his brilliant friend Crake, watching beheadings and kiddie porn on the computer. There's material here for a moving domestic tragedy set at the end of today's trend lines, but Atwood seems unwilling to invest these characters with any emotional interest. That superficiality, along with her miserly release of details about how Jimmy ended up as the last person alive, may test readers' patience.

In the final third, though, the story begins to jerk forward. Jimmy attends a run-down liberal arts college for students who can't do anything useful. But Crake goes off to a bio-chem Hogwarts and develops into a well-funded Dr. Frankenstein. He's a creepy monomaniac, both viciously cynical and dangerously idealistic. He produces a super-Viagra to excite (and secretly sterilize) the human race, while preparing his own Adam and Eve in a petri dish.

For reasons that are never explored, he retains his affection for Jimmy. In fact, after years of separation, Crake pulls his old friend out of a dead-end job and makes him second in command of the biggest biomedical project in the world. As a plot development this is as plausible as citrus-scented green-skinned human beings, but hey, it's exciting.

By this point, "Oryx and Crake" reads like the précis of a Michael Crichton film mutated into a novel by a sophisticated writer. In an unintentionally revealing moment, Jimmy even thinks, "The whole thing seemed like a movie." (Attention, Hollywood!)

There's plenty of clever eco-feminist insight here, and Atwood has a knack for satiric extensions of developments already underway, like the marketing of new illnesses and profitable treatments, the irreversible contamination of basic foods, and the loss of personal freedom in exchange for consumer bliss. But as a novel, "Oryx and Crake" is like one of those genetically enhanced tomatoes in the grocery store: impressive-looking but not very satisfying.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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