Organ-harvesting, short-circuiting sex robots, and poultry fetishes. What’s the connection? Another roller-coaster dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood.
Known for her unique style of speculative fiction, The Heart Goes Last, which started as an online series on Byliner, is set somewhere in the not-so-distant future of the northeastern United States. Instead of a man-made pandemic or Christian terrorist group (the world-as-we-know-it-ending factors in Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, respectively), a catastrophic economic collapse leaves main characters Charmaine and Stan desperately living out of a cramped third-hand Honda, which is where the story begins.
Homeless and hopeless, Charmaine and Stan jump at what appears to be the golden ticket to a better life. Introducing the Positron Project, a social experiment where successful applicants are promised jobs, free housing, and the opportunity to “be the person you always wanted to be!” But, of course, there’s a catch, (catches, really), and our two main characters soon learn the hard truth about the Positron Project: once you’re in, there’s no way out, “except in a box, feet first.”
Throughout the narrative, Atwood flips back and forth between Charmaine and Stan’s points of view, leaving holes in both stories and slowly filling the gaps with a controlled stream of revelatory details that entice the reader onward (fans of the MaddAddam trilogy will recognize Atwood’s brilliant use of alternating POV). Over the course of the novel, Stan and Charmaine’s simple, vanilla relationship becomes warped by betrayal, kidnapping, date-rape, espionage, murder, and human-organ trafficking.
The scariest thing about The Heart Goes Last is its realism, and how plausible the issues and themes presented are. Consumerism, censorship, human rights infringements, economic collapses, trafficking — these topics make the news every day, and, in many ways, have come to characterize the modern world. Atwood’s brand of literary sci-fi succeeds in jarring its readers not by being alien, but by being familiar.
Apart from the obvious similarities between it and Atwood’s other futuristic works, The Heart Goes Last, more than any of her previous novels, draws dark inspiration from Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. Positron has a single, tightly-controlled network in which the leaders (headed by the Big-Brother-esque “Ed”) have access to all communications. Civilians are tightly surveilled and controlled, restricted to media from the 1950s, which is filtered for content that might promote violence, sexuality, or otherwise trigger an emotional response.
But, where Orwell’s dystopia was grimy and monotonous, with everything overlaid in a depressive shade of grey, Atwood’s is surprisingly colourful. The Heart Goes Last is refreshingly strange, with each scene more absurd than the last, from a woman sexually attracted to a stuffed bear to a house full of professional Elvis impersonators. These welcome bits of surrealism make for a hectic and perpetually interesting vision of the future that, though we never wish to inhabit, we certainly don’t mind reading about.
Featured image by Chris Boland / CC BY