How desperate do you have to be to sign up for a social experiment that promises you a comfortable life at the expense of your freedom?
Young couple Stan and Charmaine seem to have reached that point when their area in the North American Rust Belt is hit by mass unemployment, they are forced to sleep in their car, and their only regular treat is a breakfast of coffee and stale doughnuts.
Life in the twin town of Consilience/Positron promises the perfect solution for them: a job, a home, a meaningful life. The only catch is, once you’re in, you can’t ever leave.
Nevertheless, Stan and Charmaine seem to have few doubts. Or at least they are quick to ignore what niggles they might have. A nice meal at the restaurant and a pair of soft bath towels at the Harmony Hotel seem to seal the deal.
Life seems good at the beginning. Stan and Charmaine spend alternate months living together in their house in Consilience and working in the town, and the others separated from each other at Positron Prison.
And it’s the prison months that really mess with their brains. But the couple seem prepared to go to great lengths to preserve their sheltered and comfortable life, their illusion of being safe. And as they do, they cross lines they might never have touched before and test their relationship to the limits.
You can’t help but see numerous tributes to the great twentieth-century utopias/dystopias as you’re reading Margaret Atwood’s latest offering, The Heart Goes Last (2015). Consilience has something of the consumerist utopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where the fulfilment of material needs becomes the focus of a society starved of love and real feelings, while the prison universe is more akin to life in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), where orders are given by talking heads on screens and asking questions is not encouraged.
There is also a hint of Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve (1977) in the way in which bodies are used as objects of desire and humans are manipulated into sex. And if humans do not respond as they are supposed to, their brains can simply be rewired into submission until there is little between a humanoid sexbot and the model it’s based on.
You can see that Atwood was probably having a lot of fun writing that novel, which is absurd enough to make us laugh, but not quite sufficiently remote from our own world to dismiss it as mere fiction. The consumerist surveillance society she describes, run by wealthy entrepreneurs rather than political dictators, is only one step away from reality.
I couldn’t help thinking of Consilience/Positron as the setting of some new reality TV show, where, after being subjected to the grossest indignities, the most resilient contestants take home the prize. But of course that will be because some of our most voyeuristic TV programmes are in part based on dystopian fictions themselves, as documented in the title of Big Brother, although I’m not sure if the Orwell Estate receives any royalties for using the name of the author’s fictional character.
While Atwood’s light-hearted style and pitch-black humour make this book into an easy page turner that often makes you laugh out loud, it also asks important questions about liberty and free will that will make you deeply uncomfortable. What makes us happy? Who is really running our world? How much are we willing to put up with? And at what price?