Margaret Atwood has written a number of novels that I would categorize as science fiction. She likes to place modern trends in a futuristic setting and then predict where these cultural threads could take us. Her first novel that caught my attention was The Handmaid’s Tale, which, in light of recent movements towards a theocratic Evangelical takeover of politics in America, gives the novel even greater significance than it had when it was published. It certainly registered with women then and it remains frighteningly relevant. In this novel women who were once free and who proved able to bear children are enslaved by families to function only as maids and child bearers. If they prove unable to bear children, which might be because their male partner is sterile, the consequences are dire.
I also read Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam (a trilogy). In addition I have read Margaret Atwood novels that are not science fiction. I try to keep up with whatever she writes. The Heart Goes Last, like her other novels that I have termed science fiction is actually more accurately a dystopian novel, and in odd ways, somewhat utopian or at least hopeful, as the people on the bottom often end up on top (sort of).
This novel describes a future that might result from our “now”. Details sound like our situation here at the beginning of the 21st century. It is interesting that although Margaret Atwood is Canadian she sets her dystopian novels in America. Is she just trying to market to a larger audience or is she sort of peeking over the border in a judgmental fashion at our nation which often appears to the world to be a “hot mess”. At any rate, in this novel it is the economy (and then some) of America that is dysfunctional.
Stan and Charmaine could be any working class couple in America. The economy is failing lots of average Americans. Stan and Charmaine, newly married, both had jobs and they had a home until the economy went into a massive recession and they ended up living in their car. With things so uncertain the car was not a safe place to live. There were thieves and thugs, druggies and carjackers. Stan and Charmaine never felt secure. They had to move constantly and sleep was light and full of anxiety. Sex, even though they were almost newlyweds, was distasteful enough under the circumstances to make both Stan and Charmaine avoid arousal.
When they learned of a town called Consilience, beckoning the dispossessed to a stable, although bizarre, life they decided to go for it, despite the warnings from Stan’s street smart brother Conor. Consilience is a secretive place and I cannot really tell what goes on there but after a certain amount of the promised secure and stable life it all goes kerflooey in some very interesting ways, ways that make the title chillingly fitting. The issue of our sexuality continues to play a key and, this time, somewhat entertaining role in this Atwood tale.
This novel is far more accessible than her environmental trilogy but she, perhaps, does not hide her writer’s craft quite as well as usual. In a few places I think we sense an author’s plot manipulations behind the events, especially in the Las Vegas sections. I am a real fan of dystopian fiction and a real fan of Margaret Atwood and this gives us a whole new take on the future, although perhaps the future it paints is not as uplifting as we would wish.
By Nancy Brisson