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Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

The Heart Goes Last
by Margaret Atwood

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Considering that the whole point of Consilience is for things to run smoothly, with happy citizens, or are they inmates? Both, to be honest. Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so Consilience and Positron have only made it official.
— Margaret Atwood, "The Heart Goes Last"

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors of whom I’m always saying, “I must read more Margaret Atwood.” Not that I haven’t read her work – I’ve read six of her books by now, two of which have had a profound impact on me. The Heart Goes Last is one of her most recent novels (2015) and seems to have attracted some very mixed reviews, on Goodreads at least. It seems that some people are very, very upset at what they feel is not what they were looking forward to from a Margaret Atwood book.

The Heart Goes Last is a seemingly lighter venture into our dark future – while there is nothing one can reasonably laugh at in The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake, The Heart Goes Last is presented with a tongue firmly in Atwood’s cheek: the atrocities committed in this book feel too ludicrous to be a future we can reasonably expect to encounter. Fluffy Charmaine and grumpy Stan romp their way through this Stepford-like set-up,  having quite a bit of illicit sex, and encountering undercover subversives, sex bots, Elvis & Marilyn impersonators and far too many blue teddy bears along the way. 

In The Heart Goes Last, Atwood ponders what society will look like in the near future. What if joblessness is the majority? What if no one can afford to live in their homes? What if the streets are filled with desperate people who will hurt you to take what little you have, because they have less? When you spell it out like that, I’m sure it sounds like an ordinary day already in some parts of the world. Atwood places this scenario as the new reality for ordinary working and even middle-class Americans. With such large portions of the population left vulnerable, what kind of people will arise to prey on them?

Large corporations looking to turn a profit, of course.

Charmaine and Stan are offered a too-good-to-be-true opportunity for a real home and a real life after living in their car, fearing for their safety each evening. The problem is, just as today, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Also, if a product is offered for free, it means you are the product. It’s true for Google, it turns out to also be true for the Positron project.

“Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem?”

On the surface, the tone of this book is lighter than some of Atwood’s previous dystopia, and I think there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, Charmaine’s extreme prissiness and Pollyanna-like way of trying to see the bright side of everything. This is amplified once she and Stan enter the Positron project, where the whole experiment is conducted like Orwell’s 1984 got stuck in a Vitamix with an frilly-aproned 50s housewife and Funshine Care Bear.

“You want your decisions taken away from you so you won’t be responsible for your own actions?” 

The second reason, and the one I think has most disgruntled Goodreads readers up-in-arms, is the rollicking, ridiculous plot. The first part of the book, before Charmaine and Stan enter the Positron project, sets up the usual dark dystopia that we now expect. Once they enter however, everything becomes a farce, from the shiny pastel plastic-ness of the environment around them, to the escalating drama that ensues. People have complained that it isn’t believable, that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just too much. 

But, when you think about it, the more Atwood piles on the silly, the more you have to ask yourself, “Why do I find this so silly? Is this too ridiculous for me to find value in it? What are the truths here amongst the slapstick?” That’s what dystopia is about, right? Take an idea, a question about something problematic about our society and amplify it a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times – how far can you go?

“That way nobody feels exploited.”
“Wait a minute,” says Stan. “Nobody’s exploited?”
“I said nobody feels exploited,” says Budge. “Different thing.”

I don’t think one is supposed to believe the plot of this book as a sequence of events that could feasibly happen to actual people. The over-the-top action provides a comedic contrast to the big questions that are being explored here, and it wouldn’t be a Margaret Atwood novel if there weren’t some big questions…

What price do you place on your freedom?

Would you willingly trade your free-will for a safe and comfortable life? (Are we already doing it?)

Is it OK for a corporation to purchase your free will in return for a safe and comfortable life?

If someone thinks they’ve made a decision based on free will and they think they’re happy with the result, does it actually matter that they’ve been coerced in some way?

If you place your trust in the wrong people and, in the process, do some bad things because you think they are doing good, are you still responsible?

This is just a sample, I’m sure you can find your own big questions. But in the meantime, don’t you think that sometimes it’s refreshing to change up the tone of the thought-provoking fiction we read? To ask the big questions, but also have a little fun along the way? If you take a look around you, a lot of reality is looking pretty ludicrous lately. Perhaps The Heart Goes Last isn’t that far-fetched after all.