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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Atwood's world harks back to past

by Darren Waters
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Margaret Atwood
Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was made into an opera
Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake is one of the favourites to win this year's Booker prize.

Atwood returns to territory explored in her classic A Handmaid's Tale, creating a dystopian world forged out of our own human failings.

The Canadian novelist has denied her book is science fiction but fans of the genre will recognise much of the content of the book.

She herself has described the book as speculative fiction rather than science fiction.

But a dozen science fiction writers of the last 100 years, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Frederich Pohl, have all tread similar ground - and more convincingly.

Tired

Revisiting themes is not a bad thing in itself but a writer must always bring something new to the table.

Oryx and Crake opens with a portrait of the world post post-apocalypse.

The main character Snowman begins to unravel a story of genetic manipulation and a world far too enamoured of multi-national corporations, pharmaceuticals and life on the surface of things.

Her world is not a particularly original one - and much of the landscape of the book feels second-hand.

Her written style, of course, is first rate and Atwood holds the reader's interest throughout using evocative language.

Contradiction

There are numerous imaginative flourishes - genetically spliced animals such as the wolvog and pigoon - but when she returns to her central themes she is on far less secure ground.

Somewhere amid this is a parable about genetics, cloning and capitalism and the dangers that await us if we stay on our current path.

Atwood undermines her own argument when the cause of such dystopia turns out to be no more complicated than a simple case of evil megalomania.

She dresses up this megalomania by hinting that human failings are the result of a world that anaesthetizes itself from thought and feeling.

But such a conclusion feels unbearably simplistic.

It is not the trappings of modern society and globalisation which cause the destruction in Oryx and Crake but rather the misguided principles of a man with a few screws loose.

At that moment, Atwood's carefully plotted warning dissolves.

It is a novel apparently about the future, written unintentionally as though from the past - because many of the ideas in the book feel just so old and dated.

Oryx and Crake is published by Bloomsbury.


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