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By Marty Demarest


Perhaps you've heard the urban legend about KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken, once touted for its blend of 11 herbs and spices and its kindly old southern gentleman founder, started going by the shorter, friskier moniker of KFC. Although it just seemed like your basic example of a corporation repackaging itself to appeal to a younger generation, rumors started flying that the food itself was no longer chicken, but a chicken-like creature with enormous breasts, extra wings and a feeding tube for a head. More product, less maintenance.


So maybe it was that urban legend, or maybe it's my own worries about the insatiable American demand for chicken breasts (and only the breasts) that made me laugh out loud by the time I got to "Chickie Nobs Bucket o'Nubbins" in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. As in The Handmaid's Tale, her watershed futuristic novel which won the Booker Prize in 1986, Atwood offers an unsparing vision of what might happen if certain current scientific, cultural, political and societal trends were allowed to continue unchecked. The futuristic world of Oryx and Crake isn't much different from our own -- there are no jet packs, no spaceship cars flying around, but there are sealed-off-and-bubbled communities, televised murders and genetically modified organisms that give the term "genetically modified" a whole new meaning.


The novel opens with the proverbial "last man on earth." But Snowman, as he calls himself, is not alone. His charges -- the Crakers, a tribe of physically perfect humanoid forms who are nevertheless not quite human -- go about their untroubled and innocent lives nearby. Snowman navigates the rubble of the lost world he once existed in as Jimmy, while unwittingly inventing a new creation myth for the Crakers. In the bizarre position of being the only one to have witnessed the end of one world and the beginning of another, Snowman remembers his past with fear and longing: his environmentalist fugitive mother, his scientist father; Crake, his genius best friend, and Oryx, the mysterious child-woman who's had a tiger's grip on his psyche from the moment he first saw her.


Atwood bites, and I don't mean that in the derogatory sense. No other contemporary writer can pair such compelling narrative with such incisive observation as well as Atwood. It's hard to walk away from Oryx and Crake without feeling somehow indicted: If the original sin of Adam and Eve is human curiosity, in Oryx and Crake, it's human complacency.





Publication date: 07/24/03

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