Margaret Atwood has written dystopian speculative fiction before and with great success. The totalitarian theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the near-future apocalypse of the Oryx and Crake trilogy are both provocative and unnerving in their plausibility.
Sadly it’s not the case with Atwood’s last dystopia, The Heart Goes Last.
The novel opens with an economic meltdown, which is one of the very few believable elements of the book. We meet a young couple, Stan and Charmaine, who lost both their jobs and their house, and live in their car in constant fear of roaming gangs. It’s easy to feel for them. Then one day they see an ad for a place that managed to solve all problems — the Consilience/Positron utopia, a part time prison and part time city plucked straight from the happy fifties.
But as soon as they move to this paradise they loose the benefit of the reader’s compassion, really the only thing that they had going for them. They fail to come alive as characters and instead appear as paper-thin human caricatures. The further into the story, the less convincing they become and the reader starts to suspect that Stan and Charmaine are but tools for furthering the plot, and a silly plot at that. Their relationships are artificial and/or superficial and too often they act and think out of character, so much so that not once while reading I had to do a double take — wait, what? She wants to kill him? But why?
The silly plot was no more convincing. It gave the impression of being there only for the purpose of veiling, too thinly, the message that Atwood wanted to deliver. And the message itself wasn’t that original or insightful either: don’t give up freedom for security. Fine, we can all agree with that, but surely there is more to it, right?
If there is, Atwood misses the opportunity to explore those nuances. Instead she focusses needlessly and gratuitously on sex in all its possible, and less so, variations — marital and extramarital, with humans, robots, teddy bears, and chickens, purchased, coerced, videotaped, reenacted, and so on.
While the realities that Atwood proposed in her earlier dystopias may have been outrageous and grotesque, they rung true because they were anchored in human complexity. They might have shocked but that’s because they also felt not all that impossible.
The Consilience/Positron dystopia is too simplistic to feel real. The book lacks depth, tries to make up for it with humor, and fails.
As much as I admire Margaret Atwood, I think you can safely give this one a miss.
Unless you’re an aspiring writer and want to see what happens if your characters are tools for furthering a plot, and your plot is a pretext for delivering a message — then by all means, read and learn.