| Margaret Atwood
Just as Toronto begins to relax after weeks of worrying about SARS, celebrated hometown author Margaret Atwood is releasing a novel about a deadly virus that wipes out civilization.
Oryx and Crake, about life after a deadly virus, is bound to touch a few nerves in the Booker Prize winner’s home country and around a world still plagued with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed 500 globally.
The author, however, insists the timing of the book’s release was an uncanny accident.
“It’s completely eerie but it is a coincidence,” Atwood said in an interview.
“Can I see the future' No. Nobody can. There are too many variables,” said Atwood, who has written more than 30 books which have been published in over 35 countries.
Yet, Atwood thinks that her novel and SARS should serve as a wake-up call.
“Diseases roam the world. We’ve been lucky here. Toronto used to have malaria and yellow fever...We had it here and we eliminated it. Now we have something new,” said Atwood.
Oryx and Crake opens with a character named Snowman who is the last human inhabitant of the planet. While struggling to survive in an unfriendly climate where intelligent bio-engineered animals hunt on a harsh wasteland, Snowman dutifully watches over a group of experimental humans known as the children of Crake.
Crake was a genius and Snowman’s closest childhood friend in the Compound, a gated community run by a bio-tech company. Growing up, the two boys played video games called Extinctathon and Kwiktime Osama while watching live executions and pornography on the internet.
It is while visiting HottTotts, a child pornography site, that Snowman and Crake first encounter Oryx, a mysterious woman and a former child sex slave from a Far Eastern country, who later becomes their mutual lover.
In flashbacks, Snowman recalls the events that led to the swift demise of civilisation. Although a virus annihilates the world’s population, the stage is set by the unethical work of biotech companies, extreme climate change and a madman’s vision to improve humanity.
Episodes in Oryx and Crake bear a striking resemblance to Toronto’s outbreak of SARS where more than 20 have been killed and hundreds quarantined by the disease. The World Health Organisation warned against travel to Canada’s biggest city, but later lifted that after new cases subsided.
Snowman recounts how soon after the virus surfaced, medical experts appeared on television to name it JUVE, or Jetspeed Ultra Virus Extraordinary, in an attempt to make it more manageable. Travel advisories were issued and nose filters quickly purchased, although they prove to be ineffective. Cities are quarantined and eventually doctors and nurses contract the virus themselves.
Many reviewers are drawing a comparison between Oryx and Crake and the 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s story of a male-dominated world in which women are strictly controlled and assigned to various classes.
Atwood recalled that after The Handmaid’s Tale was published, some reviewers thought the plot was unrealistic.
“Oh, some said: ‘This could never happen’ and then it happened and: ‘Oh, nobody would ever do this’,” she said.
“The fact is, when I was writing the book, people were already doing ‘this’ such as in Romania under Ceausescu where women were actually forced to have babies.”
The novels differ in that Oryx and Crake does not have an outwardly feminist theme. It is also Atwood’s first novel where a male character narrates throughout.
Atwood explained that her inspiration for the novel came from the back pages of newspapers and magazines. The spate of anthrax incidents following September 11, 2001, also served as an inspiration.
“Things happen all the time, and I don’t mean terrorist attacks, but new germs, new people trying to kill people in the Japanese subway system. Little things boil up but usually they are quite small and containable,” she explained.
“In order to really do a massive job, you would have to have an overall plan and do something so fast that it couldn’t be contained.”