There's something about staring mortality in the face, whether personally or as a species, that humans find fascinating. That's probably why the apocalypse in all its forms is a scifi staple. It makes no difference whether the end of the world arrives in a shower of nuclear missiles, hitchhikes on a rogue comet or escapes from a super-secret bio-weapons lab; scifi fans just love their tales of Armageddon. As befits the genre, each of these scenarios is based on real science: nuclear weapons in the days of the Cold War, the Alvarez Hypothesis, and true stories of biological weapons. To that list, add genetic manipulation and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.
He used to be Jimmy, but now his name is Snowman and he might be last human on Earth. He's not the last being, however, because the Crakers are with him. At first glance, they look human - quite attractively human, in fact - but they definitely aren't. Their skin secretes a natural insect repellent, the females go into estrus every four years or so (at which time their "naughty bits" become a fetching blue), and they eat only grass and twigs. Lots of their DNA is human, but there are also bits of rabbit, macaque, chameleon, and other miscellany stapled onto the famous double helix. The Crakers aren't alone in their modification: their world includes animals that are half raccoon, half skunk; half wolf, half dog; half snake, half rat. The "civilization" that collapsed around Snowman's ears once created chickie-nobs - headless chicken bodies growing breasts on stalks that regenerated after they'd been cut off (compliments of the lizard genes responsible for tail regeneration); and piggoons - oversized pigs sprouting made-to-order human body parts for transplant. They used one’s own DNA to avoid rejection.
Snowman's oldest friend, Crake, designed... Yes. Designed. ...the lovely, though not particularly ambitious, people who bear his name. He was their Creator, and Jimmy's lover Oryx was their mentor. Jimmy/Snowman, it seems, is now their prophet.
Civilization, such as it was, collapsed overnight sometime in the final third of the twenty-first century. The biotech corporations that dominated the world economy had sequestered their employees in huge, parklike compounds. Their wares - rejuvenation, genetic tailoring of babies, fantastical domestic products, modified foods - were eagerly gobbled up by "plebeians," ordinary folk living in the teeming "plebelands." Life was idyllic, especially in the compounds. Oh, sure, there were a few near-disasters; nasty little experiments that escaped or products that didn't quite "breed" true. But everything was tooling along just fine until the day that something went horribly wrong.
And now Jimmy might as well be completely alone: “The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment... and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate.”
As science progresses, science fiction evolves apace. The best science fiction, especially apocalyptic fiction, also serves as a reality check of science in society. In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood ventures into the same fuzzy, near future she visited in her watershed novel, The Handmaid's Tale. As in that work, there's no hard science in Oryx and Crake, no detailed discussion of the technology of gene splicing, no experimentation with recombinant DNA. Atwood concentrates instead on the results of genetic manipulation with an almost gleeful reductio ad absurdum slant. Restating fears voiced by those leery of genetic experimentation, Atwood populates her future with nightmarish notions: human clones and semi-clones, genetic experimentation by amoral or thoughtless geniuses, altered organisms invading the biosphere, extinction of natural species out-competed by sexed-up versions, and an entire list of slippery-slope worries. Dr. Frankenstein, she would have us think, is at work cobbling together a whole host of monsters.
Atwood's sociopolitical and scientific views notwithstanding, she's one hell of a writer. No matter how unlikely her scenario might be, and it is pure fiction (we hope), she still manages to convey a sense of urgency while remaining supremely entertaining. Her vivid imagination conjures up the vaguely goofy yet sinister piggoons; and creates an oddly compelling description of the Crakers' mating rituals, complete with bobbing baby-blue appendages. Through flashbacks, Jimmy recalls each step in his decades-long friendship with Crake and his equally-long fascination with Oryx; right up to the last moment that the three shared as humanity self-destructed around them.
Oryx and Crake remains pure fiction, fiction tempered by a modicum of fear; and Margaret Atwood tells it like it could be. Let's hope she's wrong.