Saturday, September 19, 2015

Positron? Not Positive.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Which would you choose if you had the choice between staying unemployed and homeless, and cutting yourself off from the rest of society but with job security and a home to live in? What if having a home meant you had no real freedom? On the other hand, what if having your freedom meant poverty and constantly running away from rapists, thieves or worse.

Atwood's latest novel puts all of these questions to her readers, through her protagonists Charmaine and Stan. These two have had enough of living in their car and constant fear for both their lives and their welfare. That's why they sign up for the experimental town of Consilience and its Positron project. At first, it seems like a dream come true, except for having to live every other month in the Positron prison, but even that isn't too bad. However, first boredom and then oppression start to edge out the glow of security.

What Atwood has done here is build a society that is socialist enough to provide for all its participants, without the advantages of a real democracy. Such a system is ripe for corruption by those at the top, coupled with growing dissatisfaction on the parts of the general population. This type of dystopia isn't anything new, and in fact, we can see it in many novels such as George Orwell's "Animal Farm." Of course, books of this kind are barely veiled allegories warning the world about communism. However, I don't think was Atwood's intention with this novel. Rather, I believe Atwood was trying to point out how the greed of the "1%" is turning the economy into such a disaster that they're going to have to come up with some sort of solution to the crime and poverty. What Atwood proposes is a version of the commune (or a kibbutz, if you will), that has many good attributes, coupled with a totalitarian form of rule and a life-sentence for all the inmates… um… citizens.

If all of this sounds bleak and dismal, I can assure you that this is not the case with Atwood's novel here. In fact, the downright laughable elements to the story, not only keep the characters human, but also stop the book from seeming too despairingly heavy. For example, all of the carefully selected, piped-in entertainment (music, television, movies) comes from the clean-living (and highly censored) world of middle-class America's 1950s era. There's also the scheme that involves realistic looking, full-sized, anatomically correct sex robots and dressing up as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, together with an ingenious mind altering experiment that goes terribly wrong, with hysterically funny results.

These things combined make for a unique type of novel, which is precisely what Atwood strives for - reality based, speculative fiction, set in the not-too-distant future, with all the mistakes, and the many lessons we can learn from them. Atwood reminds us that humans are fallible, and their faults can be both harmlessly silly as well as seriously dangerous. The problems come when something innocuous turns perilous, and Atwood seems to believe that greed is a major trigger for that happening. Combine this with prose that is faultlessly infectious, characters we can easily identify with and a plot that is utterly gripping, and you've got yourself a sure-fired five out of five star book! 

You can buy "The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood, published by Doubleday Books, Nan A. Talese, release date September 29, 2015, from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you.  I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an ARC of this book via NetGalley.