In 2009, Ursula K. Le Guin caused something of a stir in the science-fiction community by contradicting Atwood’s claim that her novels belonged to the ‘Speculative Fiction’ genre, as opposed to that of straight sci-fi (if such a thing exists). This generic disagreement between the two literary giants has since been resolved with a mutual agreement on the permeability of the boundaries between genres when writing in the sci-fi/dystopian/speculative fiction environs: “When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance”, Atwood has since stated.
The resistance of such literature to generic convention – its very slipperiness and insouciance – is its greatest strength in dealing with narratives of the ‘what if?’ An increasingly uncertain economic, environmental and social future requires an equally ambiguous literature to imaginatively explore its possibilities; a literature that can encompass the absurd, the far-fetched and the grotesque, and do so with the coupled irony and insight that is fast becoming the hallmark of twenty-first century culture.
Disagreements aside, Atwood’s new novel The Heart Goes Last certainly fulfils one of Le Guin’s prerequisites of sci-fi – “to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire”. The anticipated themes of an Atwood novel are all present – the decline of the world as we know it into social, ecological and economic anarchy, and the ill-fated attempts of humanity to set itself back on track – but are presented with a razor-sharp edge of dark humour and an ironic wit bordering on the misanthropic, as Atwood repeatedly lines up her hapless characters to respond to their desperate circumstances in all the myriad petty, weak, lustful, avaricious and cowardly ways human beings are capable of.
We meet Stan and Charmaine, the central characters of the novel, after they have been hit by a cataclysmic economic crash in near-future America. Having lost their comfortable jobs and home, the couple live in their car, moving from place to place to avoid the marauding gangs of looters and rapists. Lured by the promise of a new home, guaranteed work and safety behind the walls of Positron/Consilience, the model town-cum-social project Charmaine sees advertised on the TV at the seedy bar she works in, the couple sign up immediately. The only minor catch of the project is that they will consent to spend every other month behind the walls of Positron Prison, around which the town’s entire economic and social infrastructure is constructed. Playing the dual roles of citizen and inmate generates enough jobs for everyone, with the added bonus that each residence can be inhabited by two sets of people on alternating months.
With the novelty of clean sheets, privacy, regular food and work, things seem to be going well for Stan and Charmaine. However, when the Positron/Consilience fairytale does inevitably begin to turn sour, it’s not the enforced stints of incarceration which tip the couple into turmoil (in fact, they seem to accept their regular imprisonment with a kind of bland, unquestioning cheerfulness, despite the hints at more sinister undertones to the project) but the spectres of their shadowy “alternates” – the couple who inhabit the house during Stan and Charmaine’s months in prison. What begins as a toxic web of private obsession, lies and infidelity eventually draws them into the twisted, corrupt and horrifying heart of the entire Consilience/Positron project, whose behind-the-scenes activities include, but are not limited to, the development of grotesquely realistic sex-robots, enforced euthanasia for troublesome citizens, the sale of babies’ blood as a youth-serum for the super-rich, the brainwashing of women to turn them into docile sex-slaves and the casual tolerance of the use of chickens to alleviate the loneliness of Positron prison’s male population. In short, this is a novel which plays on the expectations of an audience anticipating a new instalment in the series of corrupt, surveillance-heavy and nightmarish images of future societies we have become accustomed to.
The Heart Goes Last has been described by some critics as macabre, over-the-top and guilty of stretching the plausibility necessary for a dystopian narrative to breaking point. However, true to the slippery and fugitive spirit of speculative fiction, Atwood intuits that the genre she herself helped to popularise must be constantly interrogated and parodied, lest it succumb to the centrifugal pull of the mainstream, becoming just another part of the accepted hegemony of entertainment culture. Thus, whilst the comic and absurd elements of this novel may provide a rip-roaring and well-paced distraction, the narrative covertly asks some fundamental questions humanity may very realistically find itself facing in our changing world. What effect would living in a post-economic crash society have on our personal and familial relationships? How will the rise of increasingly convincing simulacra impact on the human concepts of love, fidelity, exploitation, free will? Will they render these deeply-held ideals obsolete? Atwood’s new novels adheres to the expectations of her generic milieu at least in that it provides only ambiguous and unsettling answers to these questions.
By Rachel Chanter