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Dystopian fiction is barely keeping pace with bio-engineering reality


From a review essay on Margaret Atwood’s new novel MaddAddam, which completes her apocalyptic-dystopian trilogy that began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake:

You can take your pick of Cassandras: Michael Crichton, Mary Shelley, whoever made Gattaca. Literature and pop culture never stop obsessing about the bastard spawn of technology and biology, although movies love to have it both ways, wallowing happily in high-tech gadgetry even as they deplore its effects.

Feverish as all this artistic angst is, what’s remarkable is that it barely keeps pace with reality. We are hurtling ever faster toward a point of no return. Consider that, just earlier this year, MIT researchers managed to implant false memories in mice. Or that the now-common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) lets would-be parents in fertility treatment test their multiple embryos for defects and discard the embryos they don’t want. One of these days, we may also be able to slow down aging by stopping the degradation of telomeres. (Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying.)

. . . Given how close reality has come to surpassing imagination, what do the Atwoods of the world have to offer? Only what good novelists have always offered: a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry. In her most recent works, a trilogy in the anti-utopian tradition of Brave New World and 1984 that she began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and ended this September with MaddAddam, transhumanism meets capitalism. In place of Orwell’s totalitarian state, Atwood gives us an all-powerful genetic-engineering industry. Biotech corporations have superseded governments and turned criminal. Since they are so good at keeping people healthy, they have to come up with new profit centers, so they add viruses to their vitamins.

— Judith Shulevitz, “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” The New Republic, September 25, 2013

Also see the September 20 radio interview with Atwood (nearly an hour long, downloadable or streamable) on NPR’s On Point:

Margaret Atwood writes “speculative fiction” — but don’t call it science fiction, she says. It could all happen. And maybe it is. Her latest novel is the culmination of a mind-bending trilogy story of the end of the world that seems all too hideously possible. The world, debauched and wrecked by human over-reach. A designer plague has wiped out almost all of old humanity. Gene-altered pigs and a successor race of leaf-eating humanoids are all over. A new Genesis story is unfolding. For a new world. Up next On Point: novelist Margaret Atwood, and after us.

— “Margaret Atwood Will Make You Afraid of Her Tomorrow,” On Point, NPR, September 20, 2013