Nature takes it on the chin in fine satire
Margaret Atwood -- Her latest book imagines a future where the fundamental laws of society have collapsed as has the balance between nature and man.
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An apocalyptic or dystopian world, a futuristic world of technology and manipulated genes, of weirdly plausible monsters and degenerates and greedy police states -- these have been the inspirational canvasses of several non-genre contemporary novelists recently, among them Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro. But no one has a reputation of doing dystopia and doom better than Canada's Margaret Atwood.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday ($26.95)
Her 1985 "The Handmaid's Tale" was a chilling story about a theocratic government that controls women and their reproduction.
In the 2003 "Oryx and Crake" she served up an equally hair-raising tale about a biological disaster that devastates the planet. Now, she takes the Oryx and Crake story into its next iteration with her new novel that again voices her belief that we doom ourselves if we fiddle overly much with nature or rob the world without replenishing it.
Atwood carries that theme forward by imagining a future where the fundamental laws of society have collapsed as has the balance between nature and man. The state -- unnamed, but seemingly in the Midwest or Canada -- is ruled by a wealthy corporation with its own police force, CorpSeCorps. The rich, associated with the corporation, live in opulent compounds; the others (pleebrats) live outside in slummy neighborhoods where gangs rampage.
There the ecological cult, God's Gardeners, battles the HelthWyzer corporation's unhealthy (and often gory) ways through vegetarianism, its Edencliff Rooftop Garden and its sack-like uniforms.
This is a world, too, of gene-splicing and chemically enhanced lives, which yield luminous green rabbits, sheep-lion mixes and pigs with human brain tissue. And there's the recreational sex drug, BlyssPluss, which promises multiple orgasms.
The novel opens with a vivid portrait of a devastated landscape where the "air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it's been raining."
A catastrophic airborne disease has wiped out most of humanity but two female Gardeners have survived. Toby, a worker in the plush environs of AnooYoo Spa, survives among the lotions and creams, many of which are edible. And Ren, a trapeze dancer at the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, lived because she was in quarantine after her Biofilm Bodyglove was ripped.
The pair's stories flesh out the years before the catastrophe and their subsequent dangerous search to find other survivors.
Atwood's prose is delicious and her spot-on satire irresistible. Everyone is a target, even the pacifist, do-good founder of the Gardeners, Adam One. Reminiscent of the fire-and-brimstone preachers of yore as well as eco-zealots of today, Adam One goes about warning of the Waterless Flood that will doom the world.
He urges followers to set up stores or "Ararats," to prepare for the end. Yet, his sermons and hymns, which Atwood uses as chapter breaks, are seat-squirming boring. (This collection of Gardener tunes is available as a CD.)
Amanda, a bio-artist pal whom Ren brings into the Gardeners' fold, is an endearing throwback to the smart-talking, street-wise, loyal teenagers of an urban ghetto. And Jimmy, Ren's first love, provides some dimensional heft as the boy who sleeps around because he's searching for something.
As interesting as these characters are, they are but background figures. Toby and Ren are the ones who loom, with well-rounded, fully articulated and imagined lives. They also save the day in the end, which, though exciting, devolves into a mesh of coincidences that you wish Atwood had avoided.
Still, Atwood has given us another crackerjack of a novel. Mine this one for fun -- and wisdom.
First Published October 25, 2009 12:00 am