Margaret Atwood has always been wary of the term “science fiction.”
She prefers the label speculative fiction and, in a 2005 column for the Guardian, Atwood described what she considers to be the differences between the two. If a story uses technology or concepts that “we can’t yet do,” such as travelling through wormholes to another universe, then she would consider it to be science fiction. If a story uses “the means already to hand” (i.e., existing technologies), and takes place on Earth, then this would be considered speculative fiction.
By these standards, Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, starts off as solidly speculative but ultimately veers off into something different.
The novel is set in a near-future North America tilted badly wrong by a vast financial calamity. Its two protagonists, Charmaine and Stan, begin the story living out of their car after fleeing an overwhelming mortgage. So far, so real.
The unnamed city they now drift through has grown dangerously polarized. Sleeping in a car every night is not only uncomfortable and smelly, it’s life-threatening. Their car — not to mention Charmaine and Stan themselves — are coveted by dangerous gangs with nothing to lose. Stan sleeps in the front seat with the key in the ignition for a rapid getaway if needed, which it often is. Charmaine gets the back seat not out of Stan’s chivalrous instincts but because she simply can’t be trusted with starting the engine quickly enough if faced with an attack.
Atwood needs only a few pages to vividly sum up the dynamics of Charmaine and Stan’s marriage, as well as the desperation of their circumstances. So it’s understandable, even reasonable, when they decide to enroll in a dubious social experiment offering housing and basic needs in exchange for surrendering their rights and freedoms. Once joined, there’s no way to un-join.
The Positron Project is an isolated corporate township where residents spend half of the year in the comforts of a corporate town dubbed Consilience. On alternate months, they go to prison. The project’s leader bills the scheme as a model to cure a broken society. How this works isn’t made clear to Charmaine and Stan, or the reader, until later in the novel. Even then, it never quite seems to add up.
Once inside Positron, Charmaine and Stan quickly creep a few rungs up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It doesn’t take long for their creature comforts to unravel, partly from their respective preoccupations with the couple who live in their home while they’re spending their requisite month in jail. That this will all go very wrong is a given. What draws the reader onward isn’t the mystery of Positron but the more confounding enigma of Charmaine and Stan.
Charmaine is the kind of character Atwood seems to relish. Despite living in a world looking more and more like Mad Max-lite, she remains blindingly determined to look at the bright side of life. Her powers of denial are so great, Charmaine can perform what amounts to mass murder yet convince herself, by dwelling on insignificant details, that she’s bestowing acts of kindness. Stan begins the novel as a near-abusive spouse, arbitrarily cruel to Charmaine and with a penchant for shouting his way through problems. Not exactly a recipe for success if you’re a character in a Margaret Atwood story. Yet circumstances consistently humble Stan to the point where his dogged persistence and perpetual irritation become at least endearing.
They’re both solid examples of unlikable characters whose fates the reader wants to know more about. The weakness of The Heart Goes Last lies in where it takes them and, ultimately, its inability to settle on a premise.
The dystopian setting of the novel seems at first like a comment on the lengths people will go to to escape the misery of being poor. This theme brings the characters to a crescendo when, mid-novel, Charmaine is faced with a devastating choice. Once that choice is made, the story loses shape. As Stan himself laments, “Oh, great … We’re stuck in a grainy retro thriller movie.”
Unfortunately, he’s right. The pressures eroding Charmaine and Stan’s identities fall away as the plot lurches into a simplistic spy game where the protagonists don’t know who to trust and don’t have much choice about it anyway. In the middle of all that, Atwood introduces a clandestine sexbot industry, a sudden flight to Las Vegas (where, somehow, the economic collapse isn’t so bad) and — most jarring of all — a surgical procedure that can “wipe out your previous love object and imprint you with a different one.”
With this, Atwood stumbles toward science fiction rather than speculative. The brain and mind remain such mysteries to modern science that the idea of customizing the behaviour and emotions of a human being to such a fine point might as well be the equivalent of walking through a wormhole to another universe.
This matters because, late in the novel, the larger world beyond Positron feels arbitrary. The near-future dystopia project becomes a madcap sex farce. Through it all plod Charmaine and Stan, no longer making choices. Instead, they seem to move along a conveyor belt through a landscape of satirical imagery. Some of it is entertaining. Most of it just falls flat.