Marked by sly humor and unexpected twists, “The Heart Goes Last,” by Margaret Atwood, is a cunning, challenging take on the oversaturated dystopian genre.
Following a devastating nationwide economic collapse in the not too distant future, “A shocking 40 percent of the population … is jobless, with 50 percent of those being under twenty-five. That’s a recipe for systems breakdown, right there: for anarchy, for chaos, for the senseless destruction of property, for so-called revolution, which meant looting and gang rule and warlords and mass rape, and the terrorization of the weak and helpless.”
Young married couple Charmaine and Stan are struggling to keep their heads above water as society crumbles around them. Living in their car, scratching out a living from sporadic, menial jobs, they can see no light at the end of the tunnel and are on the verge of losing hope. Their luck seems to take a turn for the better when they attend a presentation about the Positron Project, an innovative new social model whose motto is “Do time now, buy time for our future!”
“It begins with videos of the town of Consilience, with happy people at work in it, doing ordinary jobs: butcher, baker, plumber, scooter repair, and so on. Then there are videos of the Positron Prison inside Consilience, with happy people at work in it as well.”
The Positron Project unites two communities, Consilience and Positron. One is a 1950s style “Stepford Wives” fantasy, the other is a maximum security prison. Those who enroll in the Positron Project spend half of their time in each of the communities. Their social status oscillates from “citizen” to “prisoner” and back again like clockwork.
The project is, of course, an elite opportunity only offered to a chosen few.
“The Project wasn’t interested in freeloaders, tourists just trying it out. The Project wanted serious commitment. … You were either out or you were in. In was permanent. But no one would force you. If you signed up, it would be of your own free will.”
The price of a part-time return of the American Dream is the voluntary surrender of each participant’s free will into the hands of an amoral corporation. Those who enroll agree to become criminals who committed no crime — save the “crime” of poverty.
Within the new American landscape of desperation, the project is universally applauded.
“People were starved for hope, ready to swallow anything uplifting. After they’d run the first TV ads, the number of online applications was overwhelming. And no wonder: there were so many advantages. Who wouldn’t rather eat well three times a day, and have a shower with more than a cupful of water, and wear clean clothes and sleep in a comfortable bed devoid of bedbugs? Not to mention the inspiring sense of a shared purpose. … In a word, or rather three words: A Meaningful Life.”
Charmaine and Stan are thrilled to be accepted and waste no time in enrolling — or rather, enslaving — themselves in the Positron Project.
And that’s when everything gradually and inexorably falls apart.
Though the premise is bleak, Atwood avoids the suffocating darkness of her landmark dystopian opus, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as she unspools a plot woven of contrasting forms of entrapment and enslavement — physical, economic, sexual and spiritual.
Charmaine and Stan uncover increasingly unpleasant sides of each other as they become inextricably enmeshed in both communities. The point of no return comes upon their discovery of the true goal of the Positron Project: the production of sex robots, coupled with a nefarious procedure that can transform any human into the flesh and blood equivalent of a living sex doll.
Without missing a beat, the book swiftly evolves into a campy — though still thought-provoking — sex romp.
Originally published as an online serial novel from 2012 to 2013, “The Heart Goes Last” shares thematic and tonal similarities with the 2011 online serial novel “Machine Man” by Max Barry: the dangers of corporate hegemony over free will and the impulse to toy with the essential humanity of individuals through dubious “life improvements” driven by technology rather than ethics.
As a treatise on the mechanization of morality and the outsourcing of essential human goodness to the corporate world, “The Heart Goes Last” raises more questions about the future of the American Dream — and the price that must be paid, should we wish to retain it — than it answers. Ultimately, the 21st century dystopian novel appears to be signaled not by the standard robot uprising, but the roboticization of humanity.