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.