Fire truck valves

Margaret Atwood‘s novel, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, portrays a future characterized by the massive expansion of human capabilities in genetic engineering and biotechnology. As such, it bears some resemblance to Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age, which ponders what massive advances in material science could do, and posits similar stratification by class. Of course, biotechnology is an area more likely to raise ethical hackles and engage with the intuitions people have about what constitutes the ethical use of science.

Atwood does her best to provoke many such thoughts: bringing up food ethics, that of corporations, reproductive ethics, and survivor ethics (the last time period depicted is essentially post-apocalyptic). The degree to which this is brought about by a combination of simple greed, logic limited by one’s own circumstances, and unintended consequences certainly has a plausible feel to it.

The book is well constructed and compelling, obviously the work of someone who is an experienced storyteller. From a technical angle, it is also more plausible than most science fiction. It is difficult to identify any element that is highly likely to be impossible for humanity to ever do, if desired. That, of course, contributes to the chilling effect, as the consequences for some such actions unfold.

All in all, I don’t think the book has a straightforwardly anti-technological bent. It is more a cautionary tale about what can occur in the absence of moral consideration and concomitant regulation. Given how the regulation of biotechnology is such a contemporary issue (stem cells, hybrid embryos, genetic discrimination, etc), Atwood has written something that speaks to some of the more important ethical discussions occurring today.

I recommend the book without reservation, with the warning that readers may find themselves disturbed by how possible it all seems.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon September 23, 2007 at 3:03 pm

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the book is often categorized as science fiction novel, but Atwood herself prefers to label it speculative fiction and “adventure romance” because it does not deal with things that have not been invented yet and goes beyond the realism she associates with the novel form.

From Wikipedia

Alena Prazak September 23, 2007 at 4:40 pm

Do you think that this book is a sort of male equivalent of “The Handmaid’s Tale?”

Milan September 23, 2007 at 7:15 pm

Do you think that this book is a sort of male equivalent of “The Handmaid’s Tale?”

I think it highlights a different set of dangers. A Handmaid’s Tale is essentially about theocracy, which remains a danger. Oryx and Crake refers to doom by excessive technology.

That is not to deny that each is a gendered narrative and that sex features centrally in both. I think the narrators are similar as well, though the one in Oryx and Crake arguably had more to do with the emergence of the dystopia he inhabits.

Both books seem to be intended as a warning, and it is wise to heed both.

Patricia Foster September 23, 2007 at 10:22 pm

If you enjoy Margaret Atwood’s “future fiction” I highly recommend “Never Let me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (he also wrote ‘Remains of the Day’). It’s also a cautionary tale about the ethical implications of future medical advances. I love science fiction when it gets in the hands of an experienced writer. Ray Bradbury has often said that the only SF novel he ever wrote was “Fahreinheit 451”, he considers his other work to be of the fantasy genre because those tales would never happen.

Litty September 24, 2007 at 10:08 am

Both books are warnings about the future – yes – but they also speak to the present. While A Handmaid’s Tale does show ways in which the oppression of women (even by other women) could be even worse, it also speaks to issues already manifest in the world.

What is Margaret Atwood’s stance on the big bioethics issues of today?

Milan October 20, 2007 at 7:03 pm

Biting at the future

May 1st 2003
From The Economist print edition
Contemporary novelists rarely write about science or technology. Margaret Atwood tackles both—and more—in one of the year’s most surprising novels

MARGARET ATWOOD takes care to construct her futuristic nightmares out of current materials. Nearly two decades ago, in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the 63-year-old Ottawa-born poet and novelist posited an unholy alliance between puritan feminism and Bible-belt fundamentalism, from which she brewed a horrible and bizarre form of social engineering. “Oryx and Crake” is that book’s companion piece—there are many detailed echoes—but the ingredients are genetic engineering, climatic catastrophe and global pandemic. The scary thing is that this latest book seems less contrived, less invented than the first. Ever heard that the protein in spider’s silk can be harvested from goat’s milk to make bulletproof vests? Ms Atwood didn’t make it up.

Milan June 10, 2008 at 2:56 pm

Emily has written a review of this book. as well.

. July 25, 2008 at 10:59 am

Heartless Pigs
Posted Friday, July 25, 2008 7:45 AM By William Saletan

Last week, during the discussion of Spain’s new animal rights legislation, I pointed to an article by Donald McNeil Jr. in the July 13 New York Times. McNeil asked whether the most advanced animals, the great apes, deserved the “most basic right—to not be killed for food.” My answer was yes. In fact, I’d argue—hypocritically—that it’s wrong to kill animals for food, period. It’s brutal and unnecessary.

. September 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm

John Oliver On Apocalypse Literature

By David Pescovitz on Book

In this video, The Daily Show writer John Oliver gives a quick survey of apocalypse literature, from the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Rob Kutner’s Apocalypse How.

John Oliver’s Literature Rodeo: Apocalypse Edition (Thanks, Kenneth Gordon!)

Milan September 18, 2009 at 9:37 am

Apparently, a sequel to Oryx and Crake is now out: The Year of the Flood..

Given how compelling I found the first book, I will have to read it.

Milan September 23, 2009 at 11:07 am

Today, my copy of The Year of the Flood – the sequel to Oryx and Crake arrived. I look forward to reading it, and will post a review when I am done.

. September 25, 2009 at 12:23 pm

A Life of Its Own
Where will synthetic biology lead us?
by Michael Specter

The first time Jay Keasling remembers hearing the word “artemisinin,” about a decade ago, he had no idea what it meant. “Not a clue,” Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, recalled. Although artemisinin has become the world’s most important malaria medicine, Keasling wasn’t an expert on infectious diseases. But he happened to be in the process of creating a new discipline, synthetic biology, which—by combining elements of engineering, chemistry, computer science, and molecular biology—seeks to assemble the biological tools necessary to redesign the living world.

Scientists have been manipulating genes for decades; inserting, deleting, and changing them in various microbes has become a routine function in thousands of labs. Keasling and a rapidly growing number of colleagues around the world have something more radical in mind. By using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, they are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform entirely new functions, such as manufacturing chemicals and drugs. Eventually, they intend to construct genes—and new forms of life—from scratch. Keasling and others are putting together a kind of foundry of biological components—BioBricks, as Tom Knight, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who helped invent the field, has named them. Each BioBrick part, made of standardized pieces of DNA, can be used interchangeably to create and modify living cells.

. July 22, 2010 at 11:05 am

“Around the turn of the millenium, the Canadian biotech company Nexia famously created goats that secreted silk in their milk. That is, they inserted a gene for spider silk into the animals, which eventually lactated, producing a silk-milk liquid, apparently while listening to Dolly Parton. Spiders themselves spin a wealth of silks—for sailing through the air, catching prey, or encasing their eggs. Their creations can be durable or biodegradable, strong as well as elastic.

Nexia hoped that its “spidergoats” would allow it to produce industrial quantities of the material. Such scaling-up is hard with actual spiders because they sometimes eat each other—and so are hard to raise efficiently, in close quarters. In dreaming up possible products, Nexia mainly emphasized the strength of silk, dubbing its material BioSteel and touting ideas like fishing lines and replacement ligaments and tendons. Over time, though, the BioSteel project ran into financial problems and, in 2008, some of the goats were sent to live with academics in Wyoming.

. June 29, 2011 at 11:31 pm

“The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it.”

-Frank Herbert

Milan August 3, 2012 at 10:44 am

One thing that occurred to me about Oryx and Crake is that – while Crake is not portrayed terribly sympathetically – he succeeds in producing heirs to humanity who can cope in a changed world.

In that way, Atwood’s book affirms the idea that technology can actually overcome major environmental problems – albeit, not without substantially altering the experience of being human (if the Crakers even count as human).

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