Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so Consilience and Positron have only made it official. (p. 145)
Sixty years ago, the moral philosopher John Rawls imagined a criminal justice system built upon pure utilitarianism. To ensure deterrence of crime, Rawls' law-enforcement authorities could, in the middle of a crime wave, seize any person at random, and condemn and punish her regardless of guilt. Rawls called this system "telishment." A couple of decades later, in her canonical short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula Le Guin imagined a city in which the nearly perfect happiness of all depended upon the continuing, unmerited, and brutal punishment of a child. The purpose of Rawls' and Le Guin's dystopias was to demonstrate the severe moral cost of untethering punishment from guilt, and anchoring it purely to general public welfare—in the words of William James, "a hideous thing." Their imagined societies were created as simple thought-experiments to show how incompatible they were within our contemporary moral framework.
Are they any more? In 1998, the writer and activist Angela Davis used the term "prison-industrial complex" for the first time, to refer to "the structural similarities of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment." The phrase has acquired significant currency over the last two decades, accompanied by expected quarrels about terminology. Broadly, however, it is used to describe a situation in which the expansion of the prison population serves "the financial interests of large sectors of the economy"—on the one hand, through the economic opportunities that arise through the construction of a vast prison infrastructure, and on the other, through the readily available source of cheap labour, in the form of prison inmates.
And so, when Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last depicts a prison society that is as untethered from accepted notions of guilt as Rawls' and Le Guin's, it no longer feels quite so incomprehensible, but rather only a breath removed from our own. It is immediate, relatable, almost . . . normal. In an unnamed near-future time, yet another financial crash has brought the United States' society to its knees. The economy has collapsed entirely, cities lie wasted, and economic and sexual predators roam the streets, unchecked by the law or the police. Stan and Charmaine, who used to be a comfortable middle-class couple until the crash hit, now find themselves surviving out of the boot of a car. That's when they see the advertisement for Consilience/Positron: a privately-run city that offers security, employment, and material comfort. The only catch: once you sign up and are selected, you cannot leave.
Consilience/Positron is a scaled-up model of the privatised corporate prison, sold in layers of corporate newspeak. The prison ("Positron") is built into the city ("Consilience"). Every month, half the population will live an "ordinary" life, while the other half stays and works in prison. At the close of the month, everyone switches—on switchover day, you go from home to prison, and your "alternates" occupy your home until you return. Life in Consilience is comfortable (albeit rule-bound, and subject to consistent surveillance), and life in Positron, although a prison, is tolerably decent. Compared to their precarious lives in the outside world, it is an economic and social arrangement that works perfectly for Stan and Charmaine—until, one day, Stan finds a note from the "alternate" wife to her husband, a note that leads to instant sexual obsession. As Stan begins to bend—and then dangerously break—the iron rules of the Consilience/Positron to meet a woman with whom he has fallen in love without ever seeing, his web of deception—and self-deception—quickly tangles him up, and he has no option but to attempt the impossible—flee Consilience altogether.
As the Consilience "Experiment" itself begins to unravel, in a series of successively surreal events—involving organ harvesting, Elvis and Marilyn look-alike sex robots, and the technological creation of Puck's juice from A Midsummer Night's Dream (that makes a waking person fall in love with the first thing she sees)—Stan comes to wonder whether, sometimes, even perfect stability and security is not worth the freedom to "break out of the electronic net, [throw] away all the passwords, [go] forth to range over the land, a gaunt wolf howling at midnight" (p. 151).
As in her famous The Handmaid's Tale, the power of Atwood's science fiction stems not from how frighteningly alien her dystopia is (the technique of Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 or Orwell in 1984), but how familiar it feels, almost soothingly so. Each of the elements of Atwood's society—for-profit prisons, organ harvesting, and the mechanisation of human intimacy—is the culmination of what we see in its infancy today, taken to its logical conclusion. In combination, they create a world that could almost pass as routine, scarcely unchanged from what we know today—because it is. And like in The Handmaid's Tale, the normalcy is punctuated with the odd moment of ghastliness, sufficient to jerk readers out of temporary complacency. In The Heart Goes Last, this is achieved through Charmaine's job in Consilience as the "Chief Medications Administrator"—which requires her to euthanise Consilience's misfits, the square pegs in round holes, those who've been unable to accustom themselves to its rigid rules. In a perfectly horrifying inversion of sensibilities, Charmaine justifies it to herself by noting that "such men . . . don't fit in anywhere. They'll never be happy where they are . . . so she's providing the alternative . . . the escape. Either this man will go to a better place, or else to nowhere . . . she finds the vein, slips in the needle . . . the heart goes last" (p. 69–70).
The heart goes last, indeed. And when it comes to the protagonists of this novel, they are not the strongest of hearts. In her science fiction, Atwood often writes characters at the centre of everything, but unmoved, almost passive (Offred from The Handmaid's Tale is perhaps the best example), shaped by events rather than shaping them. Her protagonists are not driven to extraordinary acts of rebellion, like Orwell's Winston Smith and Julia, or Huxley's John the Savage, or Bradbury's Guy Montag. They are neither martyrs nor victors. Stan and Charmaine fit this bill: in The Heart Goes Last, they are the receptacles of others' schemes and plans, the done-to instead of the doers. This does not, of course, make them inspiring; indeed, one would think that central characters who have nothing in them that could push a reader to invest in their fate could well drag a novel down. And to an extent, The Heart Goes Last suffers from its every(wo)man characters, dragging at those points where the narrative slows down and there is nothing else to sustain the flow of the story.
In another way, though, it is their sheer average-ness that makes Stan and Charmaine compelling. Atwood understands that it is only the rare amongst us whose relationship with power allows confrontation and battle, even if it is a futile battle. For most of us, we relate to power through negotiation and compromise, and avoidance rather than engagement. So, Stan is compliant when he needs to be, and a revolutionary when he must, and only as far as he must. And Charmaine manages to justify to herself her service of power even in its unspeakable forms, while retaining the ability to be horrified at what is happening, even though it is she who is bringing it about. Atwood's protagonists may not be inspiring as heroes or martyrs, or even as ordinary people made larger than life by extraordinary circumstances—but it is this that makes them more relatable than their counterparts in other, famous dystopias.
If Atwood denies her readers a smooth and uncomplicated relationship with her protagonists, she denies us even more the smooth and uncomplicated sense of an ending. The Heart Goes Last offers up neither the comfort of a happy ending, nor the moral clarity of a tragic one. The Handmaid's Tale ended with an ambiguity: "And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light" (p. 378). Likewise, The Heart Goes Last ends with an unanswered question: "How do you mean?" Just like individuals are messy, prosaic, and often difficult to love, endings are equivocal, uncertain, and resistant to closure. Dystopia does not, ultimately, triumph in Atwood's work—but it is unclear what does, or whether the word "triumph" makes any sense at all.
Gautam Bhatia is based in New Delhi, India. When not at his day job as a lawyer and legal academic, he tries to lay hands on the latest works of historical and speculative fiction—with a particular taste for high fantasy and Orwellian dystopias—and read them from cover to cover. He has reviewed before for the Jadaliyya Magazine, and blogs about books at anenduringromantic.