Have you ever hit that juncture at the gritty-4am-to-sunrise shift when the TV is fuzzing in the background to the ultraviolet rhythm of the dawn? You know, when there is scant evidence of life and when pre-Cable TV left the insomniacs dribbling at B-grade movies and David Carradine eulogizing the virtues of Anthropology? It was at this point that I had my first rendezvous with the dark works of Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. It was bleak, accomplished and brimming with pathos.
I was shocked and intrigued simultaneously in 1990, when Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was told. Adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schlondorff, Handmaid was a pure dystopian vision, a rampant slash of futuristic patriarchy. In Atwood’s brave new world women were human incubators and lipsticked whores, kept alive only for the bounty of their wombs. It had the feminists howling with rage and the future pregnant with possibility.
I didn’t know who this Margaret Atwood was, but one thing was for damn certain, she was the Mother of the New Apocalypse. She was unsympathetic and intelligent; unromantic and filled with satire. And she had my vote! Numerous novels later, this multi-award winning author – she hijacks awards much in the same way Schwarzenegger did the Governorship of sunny Silicone Valley California – is about to scare the be jesus out of a lot of people with Oryx And Crake.
The book’s mantra is simple: "The whole world is now one vast controlled experiment. The way it always was – and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate"
Imagine a laboratory peopled by psychopaths and DNA puppeteers. These are happy folk who delight in the fact that the earth is now an arid colostomy bag; burnt-out and splashed by the ink of some surreal nightmare. It is sectioned into two quarters; the Pleeblands policed by mutant creatures and cyber society, and the Compunds populated by the elite, the spoilt and the genetically privileged.
It sits comfortably between the sheets of sci-fi but with a social conscience. Our narrator is known simply as Snowman. He’s a shell of humanity. A faulty prototype of contemporary Birkenstock man. He sleeps in a tree, mourning the loss of a once-compassionate humanity and a nostalgic century he once new. Every facet of our age has been bleached from the pages of millennial history because now man gets to drink from the crucible of deity-hood. Now he is truly god.
Crake: bad-boy-and-CEO of contempt is the cutting-edge, modern entrepreneurial chemist playing hardball with human microbes and father to a progressive Garden of Eden populated by Aryan-esque children who never grow old or sick. Their reality is genetically engineered perfection – that is, until they hit their 30s and suddenly, one day, drop dead.
Now Oryx is a voyeur’s wet-dream. She’s prostituted through the internet and cheap hotel rooms of exploitation-land only to become a bridge between the two old friends – Snowman and Crake. One wishes to preserve humanity, the other to destroy it. They are the quintessential Cain and Abel in a sterilized Bladerunner bubble.
Meanwhile: on the other dark side of the moon – wars rage between coffee companies, games of teckno-viral chess are wagered by the hand of Crake and a land savaged by ecological tampering leads its human race – too fucked up by their own narcissism – to redeem itself.
Annihilation is such a messy business but Atwood steers the juggernaut beautifully. The Apocalypse is in full swing and it’s a radioactive sunset that’s brighter than a million Asimov atomic bombs Our own 21st century myopia comes home to roost. It’s packed to bursting. Sadly, I decline to give further clues as to the unfolding plot. It’d be like trying to sum up a Kurt Vonnegut read-byte in 10 simple paragraphs.
And after all, Margaret Atwood does have her very own society – in cyber-utero and out. She’s the kind of author that leaves any journalist on all-fours, dribbling at the whiff of writing reams of prose about her monumental publishing history.
She’s revered as a caustic Medusa with a touch of the mysterious Mata Hari about her. She’s an intellectual deity who dares to question, prod, provoke and yet there’s something otherworldly about her. She is driven by conscience, enough to assist writers who live under political oppression as she is infused with bitter tales of 19th century convicted murderess such as Grace Marks and Blind Assassin’s (Booker-prize winner in 2000) subdued period-piece dramas cloaked in charcoal chiffon.
Atwood is also the Grand Dame of prestigious awards such as the Norwegian Order of Literary Merit, the French Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et de Lettres and is a Foreign Honorary Member for Literature of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In fiction she has scythed her way through an entire stadium of paper . In 1969 she kick-started her career by releasing The Edible Woman. By 1988 and Cat’s Eye she had birthed a dazzling, eight novels. The Robber Bride (released in 1994) won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Alias Grace (1996) was short-listed for the Booker, and her previous book The Blind Assassin (2000) was released to much hoo-ha. It was a subdued and complex affair, but not nearly as edged-out as Oryx And Crake.
Atwood also speaks the language of children’s fiction and non-fiction. She has navigated her way through Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Days of the Rebels, Two Solicitudes; Conversations (with Victor-Levy Beaulieu) and Negotiating with the Dead. Her poetry major spans Double Persephone, The Journals of Susanna Moodie through to Procedures for Underground
Oryx And Crake is a whisper from a troubled past to an audio-impaired future. URGENT MEMO: TO ALL GOVERNING PRESIDENTS. USE THIS AS YOUR HANDBOOK. Possess study and inhale it. The signal is loud and clear, Margaret Atwood has produced one of the most exciting missiles to emanate from the Canadian outpost in years. Oryx And Crake rocks, then again, so did Einstein!