Environmental unconcern, genetic engineering, and bioterrorism have created the hollowed-out, haunted future world of Atwood’s ingenious and disturbing 11th novel, bearing several resemblances to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
Protagonist Jimmy, a.k.a. “Snowman,” is perhaps the only living “remnant” (i.e., human unaltered by science) in a devastated lunar landscape where he lives by his remaining wits, scavenges for flotsam surviving from past civilizations, dodges man-eating mutant predators, and remembers. In an equally dark parallel narrative, Atwood traces Jimmy’s personal history, beginning with a bonfire in which diseased livestock are incinerated, observed by five-year-old Jimmy and his father, a “genographer” employed by, first, OrganInc Farms, then, the sinister Helthwyzer Corporation. One staggering invention follows another, as Jimmy mourns the departure of his mother (a former microbiologist who clearly foresaw the Armageddon her colleagues were building), goes through intensive schooling with his brilliant best friend Glenn (who renames himself Crake), and enjoys such lurid titillations as computer games that simulate catastrophe and global conflict (e.g., “Extinctathon,” “Kwiktime Osama”) and Web sites featuring popular atrocities (e.g., “hedsoff.com”). Surfing a kiddie-porn site, Jimmy encounters the poignant figure of Oryx, a Southeast Asian girl apprenticed (i.e., sold) to a con-man, then a sex-seller (in sequences as scary and revolting as anything in contemporary fiction). Oryx will inhabit Jimmy’s imagination forever, as will the perverse genius Crake, who rises from the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute to a position of literally awesome power at the RejoovenEsense Compound, where he works on a formula for immortality, creates artificial humans (the “Children of Crake”), and helps produce the virus that’s pirated and used to start a plague that effectively decimates the world’s population. And Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000, etc.) brings it all together in a stunning surprise climax.
A landmark work of speculative fiction, comparable to A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Russian revolutionary Zamyatin’s We. Atwood has surpassed herself.