Brave new brinjals

There is nothing like a good dystopian fable to show you what would really happen if...

The horrors of Bt brinjal are put off for the time being. We have taken a small, unexpected step back from the brink. Opinions may be divided now, but one day we will surely be grateful for whatever it was that made our Minister for Environment and Forests stand up to Monsanto.

I have read about Bt rice, Bt cotton and other transgenic crops for nearly two decades in volumes of conference papers, most of which painted a jolly picture of the wonders of genetic modification, if you skipped the bits about the potential for toxic reactions and tumour formation, and the need for long-term trials.

But what made me sit up and take note was Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, which I got as a birthday gift just as I was translating a treatise on genetically modified organisms.

The novel opens on a post-apocalyptic scene. Most humans have died of deliberately initiated plagues and their mechanised cities and gated compounds have broken down. One survivor, the last as far as he knows, navigates a world in which wolvogs, pigoons, and other transgenic creatures have gone feral.

Drug-resistant viruses and bacteria make the water and soil toxic to him. His only humanoid companions are the Crakers, created by scientists in a pleasing range of colours and genetically designed to feed on leaves and grass, resist diseases and UV rays, and die without regrets at the age of 30.

We may read doomsday scenarios in newspapers, although denial is the more likely story there, but there is nothing like a good dystopian fable to show you what would really happen if. If we surrender our civil rights, we get George Orwell's 1984. If we let the market decide who gets an organ transplant, we get Manjula Padmanabhan's Harvest. If we don't clean up our messes, we get Pixar's “Wall-E”.

Atwood's first dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, showed us what would happen if we let neo-conservatives decide that women should stay at home and have babies, blonde babies. In 1985, when it was published, Ronald Reagan and the moral majority had a death's grip on America, and a novel in which women of child-bearing age were nationalised and made to produce offspring for the elite made our mouths go dry. “Read it while it's still allowed,” said the Houston Chronicle.

Those terrors have receded, and new ones have taken their place. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood tells us what happens when we leave agricultural research to the fertilizer and seed companies, and medical research to the drug companies. And when the law says we can't even criticise a transgenic product.

I've just picked up The Year of the Flood, in which Atwood, as always witty but relentless, takes the tale further.

If it is anything like her first two dystopian fables, it ought to frighten us into fighting the good fight. And, perhaps, we should send a copy to the Environment Minister, while it's still allowed.