I hesitated before reading the latest novel by Margaret Atwood. The mainstream reviews were excellent, but genre reviewers seemed underwhelmed - they seemed to be saying that Atwood was unaware of her lack of an original premise, of the tireless exploration of this ground before by less literary but equally (or more) imaginative authors.
In some senses these criticisms are well placed. The near-future world in Oryx and Crake is nothing that a hard-core SF fan won't have seen before: genetic engineering run amok, strict segregation between the scientifically literate wealthy classes and the rabble teeming on the rest of the earth, man-made plague, artificial Edens. But this work stands out for Atwood's grasp of the pace of revelation (no monologuing here) and its skill at sketching character (whether any of the characters besides Oryx is someone we'd like to know is another matter). Her vision of the world is vivid, but her characters are unlikeable or inscrutable. The narrator is a rather annoying fellow; nearly superfluous in his own society, he's only marginally necessary to the tale, aside from stepping in at two crucial points in of the story. The flashback structure which gives those events narrative punch means we are forced to slog through survivalist interludes with him before coming back to the real meat of the tale.
Like most apocalyptic fiction, this book doesn't leave one with a rush of pleasure. And for the aforementioned hard-core fan, it doesn't leave one with the rush of excitement that the illustration of challenging new ideas can bring. Atwood is a marvelous writer, and she's to be commended for attacking speculative fiction once more, especially in a work that addresses what some see as pressing ethical concerns of our time. But I couldn't help but think that her immense literary talents are better used in works such as Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin - works with a lighter touch, more deft characterization, and less pedantic themes.