Future tense

oryx and crake by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart), 378 pages, $37.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNTalk about timing. just.

oryx and crake by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart), 378 pages, $37.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN

Talk about timing. just as the weather goes nuts — sunscreen and shorts one day, parkas the next — and mysterious diseases warrant masks, along comes Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake, a novel that explains these and other global nightmares.This is Atwood’s second successful work of speculative fiction. But where The Handmaid’s Tale focused on gender and reproduction in a totalitarian regime, Oryx And Crake examines genetic splicing and disease.

We begin in a post-apocalyptic world, barren and seemingly unpopulated except for sheet-clad protagonist Snowman and a group of naked, multi-hued green-eyed beings called the Children of Crake.

Oh yeah, dangerous hybrid creatures called wolvogs (part wolf and part dog) and pigoons (vicious piglike creatures formerly used for harvesting organs) keep the defenceless Snowman stuck in a tree.

Before long, Atwood skilfully sets up two narratives: Snowman’s journey across the sunbaked landscape for survival (he’s running out of food), and his tortured recollections of how he got there in the first place.

The present-tense tale is full of adventure — a scene of Snowman being pursued by pigoons is gripping stuff. But it’s in the recreation of his past that Atwood lets rip and has fun creating a world of well-intentioned science gone wrong.

Raised in a gated corporate-owned community by two scientist parents, Snowman, aka Jimmy, meets charismatic loner Crake, and together they do good-ol’-boy activities like watching executions and kiddie porn on the Net and playing games like Extinctathon, about dying species.

After high school, the two go off to different schools — Jimmy’s word-related skills aren’t as desired as Crake’s scientific ones — only to meet up later when Crake’s become frighteningly powerful.

The Oryx of the title refers to the mysterious woman who comes between them, a former child prostitute who’s passed from one country (and man) to another. Exotic and idealized, she’s the weakest link, surprising since Atwood’s known for her female char-acters.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the ending feels anticlimactic, which will make the inevitable Hollywood adaptation problematic.

For the record, Jimmy is Atwood’s most complex male character to date. His lusts and motivations ring true. And her imaginative touches — outdoor sculptures made of living vultures, penis-shaped cock clocks — will probably turn up in arts pages and stores next week.

Running beneath the darkly funny observations and warnings, though, is Atwood’s humanistic love of the earth and language. This is a cautionary tale. After staying up all night with this book, you won’t look at the world in the same way again.

Write Books at susanc@nowtoronto.com

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