[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Atwood's Depressing Future

A Review of Magaret Atwood's
Oryx and Crake

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

First published in The Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, April 27, 2003.

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart
374 pages, Cdn$37.99

Margaret Atwood doesn't like to be called a science-fiction writer. Tough beans, says I. When she writes a novel set in the future that purports to be firmly rooted in contemporary scientific thought, she is indeed writing science fiction.

Yes, one might have been able to argue that her earlier, and quite terrific, futuristic foray, 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, wasn't really science fiction — it had no basis in science (even though it did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year, and was a finalist for the Science Fiction Writers of America's Nebula Award).

But Atwood herself takes pains in an afterword to her new novel, Oryx and Crake, to direct you to her web site (inevitably, oryxandcrake.com), where she lists the scientific references she drew on in creating her future world.

So, given that what she's doing is indisputably science fiction, how does she fare by the standards of that venerable genre?

The sad answer is: not very well. It's not that her predictions are unreasonable — she rails against the decline of the environment, and decries the possibilities of genetic engineering gone bad. But such notions are already front-page news, and have been for years. Despite frequent references in her text to "the law of unforeseen consequences," Atwood provides no wake-up call about anything that has hitherto eluded public consciousness. Rather, she has jumped on a bandwagon that long ago ran out of steam.

It's this failure of speculative insight that will doom Oryx and Crake to minor-league status in the SF field, although doubtless the book will zoom onto the bestseller lists. Atwood wraps up, admittedly in a very stylish package, a selection of old-hat concerns, and fails to give any new twist either in the way in which things might go awry (which at least would have been intriguing) or in how humanity might extricate itself from the problems it has created (which might have been instructive). Instead, we're presented with an unalloyed it's-all-coming-to-an-end tome, depressing in the extreme.

Oryx and Crake is apparently set just a few decades down the road (the author, who seems so sure of what the future will bring, is surprisingly coy about specifying a date). The book is told from the point of view of Jimmy, the last genetically unaltered human being left alive after a bioengineered plague has wiped out civilization (in that, it recalls Richard Matheson's 1954 classic I Am Legend, filmed as The Omega Man).

Jimmy spends much of the book recalling his relationships with Oryx, a philosophical child prostitute from Southeast Asia, and Crake, a boy-genius with Asperger's syndrome. During these flashbacks, we slowly learn about the artificial plague created by Crake that destroyed humanity; although global warming also plays a role in Atwood's singularly unpleasant future, biotech and genetic engineering are the clear villains of the piece.

And that's unfortunate. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood at least was putting forth an important caution, one that very much needed to be heard when that book was released: if the religious right continues to gain power, all the strides made in gender equality will be erased. It was a warning, and a call for preventive action, at a time when something could have still been done. But in Oryx and Crake, Atwood has given up on humanity; we've already gone too far, she says, and it's just a matter of decades before everything comes crashing down around us.

Indeed, Atwood comes off as relentlessly anti-science; in that sense, she deserves the mantle of Canada's answer to Michael Crichton, whose books are always of the if-anything-can-go-wrong-it-will variety (cloning in Jurassic Park; nanotechnology in Prey). Atwood and Crichton share nothing in terms of style — the lady from Toronto writes circles around the gentleman from Los Angeles — but they are depressingly similar in substance.

Of course, it's for the beauty of her writing that we come to Atwood. Other reviewers will doubtless praise her wordplay: new genetic hybrids called "snats" (snake-rats) and "rakunks" (raccoon-skunks), and supposedly futuristic websites with names such as NoodyNews.com.

But none of this is uniquely Atwood; science-fiction writers have always reveled in such portmanteau linguistics. Old masters including Samuel R. Delany, and newer voices such as James Patrick Kelly, wield this device much more deftly than she does. (Indeed, it seems pointless of Atwood to try to pawn off NoodyNews — a web-based newscast presented by naked people — as her own clever satiric invention when NakedNews.com, which offers precisely this service, has been up and running for years now.)

Still, there is much to admire in Atwood's prose (but then again, there also is much to admire in that of many SF writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin and Canada's own William Gibson). And her satiric hand — when applied lightly to interpersonal relationships, instead of heavily to the Demon Science — is a joy, as always.

But, to me, as a science-fiction writer, the saddest thing about Oryx and Crake is that it will be seen as cutting-edge and visionary by the literati, instead of as what it really is: a retread of timeworn ideas. For instance, others will doubtlessly chortle with glee over Atwood's "ChickieNobs," the meat of bioengineered chickens that have no brains or beaks, but produce eight succulent breasts per animal. But Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth did the same thing half a century ago in their wickedly satiric, and much more prescient, SF novel, The Space Merchants.

I'd long thought that Atwood was a savvy businessperson who understood that, if she avoided the "science fiction" label, she'd get a bigger audience. After all, prejudice keeps many otherwise intelligent readers from entering the science-fiction section of bookstores (Toronto-based SF writer Terence M. Green counters the "I don't like SF" chestnut with a simple question: "What work of SF did you read that led you to form that opinion?" The answer, of course, is none ...).

But after finishing Oryx and Crake, I better understand Margaret Atwood's reluctance to let her work be considered as science fiction. And that's simply that it comes off poorly in comparison to the truly great works in the genre.

Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer's latest science-fiction novel is Humans (published by Tor).

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