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Sex Robots and Prison in Margaret Atwood's 'The Heart Goes Last'

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Margaret Atwood (Photo: Rick Kleffel/KQED)

The future does not replace the present. It’s slathered on top of it, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. But moment by moment, we struggle with the minutia of our lives. Our visions of the future are based firmly not on where we are headed, but instead on where we have come from.

Margaret Atwood understands all too well how the past infects the present. When she writes about the future, it feels real because any future she imagines consists mostly of its own past. Which is to say, our world as it is today.

atwood-maddaddamIn her MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), Atwood crafts a piercing, poignant portrait of our world transformed by genetic pollution and global warming. The power of her vision stems from the fact that underneath all her invention, the skeletal remains of the present are clearly visible. In these books she embraces science fiction as extrapolation. Reading them as the world’s temperature inexorably increases, it’s hard not to feel like a frog being slowly boiled.

In her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, Atwood embraces different aspects of science fiction. First and foremost, this is what in the Golden Age of sci-fi (1938-1946) was called a “fix-up” novel. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot are the best known examples of the genre — classics stitched together from previously published short fiction. Parts of The Heart Goes Last first appeared at Byliner.com. But the final product has the weird, organic feel of all pf Atwood’s work.

This time around, Atwood is not exploring the future as much as she is rewriting the present. We meet Stan and Charmaine sleeping in their car. Had things gone farther south on the economic front in 2008, it’s a scenario that might be much closer than many of us would care to admit. The crash and burn of Atwood’s “day after tomorrow” has left most of the U.S. population homeless, desperate and vulnerable. A once-working civilization has become prey to a nasty set of unseen predators we as readers know must exist.


atwood-=the_heart_goes_lastBut Stan and Charmaine are lucky: they make it in to the “Positron Project.” It turns out that all those for-profit prisons popping up around the nation in the present have engineered a post-collapse economy that offers safety in the form of a Faustian bargain. Half of the time you live in the lovely little company town of Consilience, and the other half you spend in prison as an inmate. You’re employed and safe and…in prison. And the sex robots, they can’t be bad, can they?

Atwood works the Kafkaesque foreboding with impeccable prose, tightening the screws with an invisibly terrifying precision. Charmaine starts to fall for the man who lives in her house when she’s not there. Stan finds himself in limbo. It’s no metaphor, and the waiting room for hell is just about as much fun as Atwood can have. For those who expect a tour of the ninth circle, Atwood has some funny surprises in store. Eventually the tightest screws spring loose and Atwood’s penchant for dark humor and satire take center stage.

For those who look to Atwood for mere dread, which she does so well, The Heart Goes Last may have more dimensions than they desire. But Atwood has always had a sense of humor, and when she decides to have fun, her prose and imagination are bolstered by the consistency of her characters. And for all her literary reputation and prowess, the author is perfectly happy to morph her economic parable into an unusual thriller.

But Atwood is too canny to stop at mere thrills. She certainly makes you turn those pages, but she’s also makes them pretty damn difficult to forget. It’s hard to put down The Heart Goes Last and not see the seeds of her unhappy but sometimes funny future sprouting between the cracks in the asphalt of the present. We can slather over the cracks with another layer of cement and hope to forget what’s underneath. But the past has seeped into the present. And the present, to our dismay, will inform and infect the future.

Hear an interview with Margaret Atwood about her MaddAddam trilogy here.


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