Picks and Pans Review: Oryx and Crake

updated 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Margaret Atwood

The last time Atwood wrote about the future, in 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, her grim vision of sexual totalitarianism weighed down every page. Her new novel offers an even darker view of things to come, yet this book dances with energy and sophisticated gallows humor. Bio-engineering, her agent of doom, is also a running gag that allows Atwood to invent hybrid animals (such as pigoons, for growing replacement organs) and to riff on what genetic tampering might do for fast food or beauty products.

The narrator, Snowman, appears to be the sole survivor of a global holocaust, left to scavenge among the ruins and protect a group of gentle clones. Sifting through fragmented memories to figure out what befell the human race, he recalls his childhood in barricaded research campuses that had a sinister hidden agenda. The suspense builds through flashbacks to a twist that eerily echoes today's SARS scare. But the book's true delight is its rich social satire. Atwood conjures up smart wallpaper, shirtsleeve e-mail-which delivers a little poke in the ribs for each new message-and neon herpes. Her wry wit makes dystopia fun. (Doubleday, $26)

BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant future

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