Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?
I'd bet that Atwood knows perfectly well that "If This Goes On" is one of the classic forms of science fiction, but believes that saying "This is science fiction without BEMs; it invents nothing we haven't already invented..." would lose some significant part of her readers and reviewers in the first four words. Fair enough. In a generation or two everyone will notice that technological change is one of the defining experiences humans have in our age; just as the late Victorians finally noticed that social change, and individual redefinition in the shifting game, was a defining experience in theirs. The fact came before the fiction, and the fiction before the critical acceptance.
...And I haven't read O&C yet, though I notice with great pleasure that the electronic version is finally cheaper than the hardback.
Engine Summer is postapocalyptic in a prelapsarian way; the survivors decided what to forget as much as what to remember. (They are also gardeners again.) We get no comprehensive explanation of the last days of the tech world, nor of the disasters that brought it down; but surviving objects, and rumors about the odd way things used to be, are precise: like 's clear descriptions of a few artworks, which stand out from the much more stylized descriptions of the deaths of the heroes and their age.
I wasn't very far into Engine... before I had stopped thinking about Novel of Character vs. Novel of Ideas, etc., and that's more because the voice of the narrator is so intriguing, and the truths and half-truths and unintentional misdirections by other characters are so interesting. I don't think it matters that he loses his first love because of a personality difference that, in this book, is reinforced by a preposterous machine. I find a lot of' characters incredibly stylized and mechanical; it doesn't matter to me whether the force making them so is the weight of French aristocratic custom, or a crystal sphere and a silver glove: what matters to me is whether the personalities are coherent and their interactions resonant inside the novel. James and Crowley both have it so.
(edited slightly 2003-05-30 15:18:30)