Babel-17 is an oldie-but-goodie from my dad’s science fiction collection, which he passed on to me when I moved back to Canada ten years ago. I was allowed to dip into that sci-fi collection at a young age, and was reading Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Brian Aldiss, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Larry Niven, Frederick Pohl, and more starting from the age of ten. At twelve, I was sweating my way through Asimov’s essays about science and the universe, not understanding much, but feeling as if I was being opened up to an amazing awareness of atoms and galaxies. My dad also had some women writers in his collection, like Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, and Andre Norton, but it was my mom who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Doris Lessing, and Anne McCaffrey (whom I met once, but that’s another story). Continue reading
I’m a big fan of dystopias and (post-)apocalyptic stories. And basically, when Margaret Atwood writes scifi, she is writing for me. I love her understated style, and the way she can write about the most horrible things in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
The Heart Goes Last is set in the USA after part of the country has experienced an utter economic collapse. The story follows a youngish heterosexual couple (Stan and Charmaine) as they make a lifetime commitment to an enclave that promises shelter, employment, and safety. Of course, once they sign up and are committed, they start to find out all kinds of things about the place (and their relationship), and Atwood does her usual morbidly thorough job at imagining the possibilities.
Charmaine is a fairly common type of female protagonist for Atwood. While they are all different, many of them share some basic elements of being concerned for social conventions, but also being almost ruthlessly pragmatic and practical and sensible no matter what’s going on. There’s often a really delightful dissonance—and a simultaneous, almost inevitable consonance—between the character’s beliefs and actions. In this book, for example, Charmaine is very concerned with doing her job professionally, efficiently, and compassionately, and this leads her to (*major spoilers deleted*).
The last third of the book was… Oh, I hate to say this. It was not really up to Atwood’s usual work. it was as if she was trying to fit too much in, and so she couldn’t pay enough attention to each piece.
I found the ending a little too pat, but upon further reflection, it had something to say about Charmaine’s ideas about relationships and her capacity for freedom. So while I had a bit of an eyeroll near the end, I have come to appreciate it more with some thought—although again, it was not as strong as I have come to expect of Atwood.
I devoured this book in a couple of days, fitting time for it around other stuff. It made me think of one of those massive holiday meals: so much preparation goes into it and then it gets eaten in no-time-flat. Fortunately, there are no dishes to do—but as with most of Atwood’s books, there’s always an aftermath for me as it takes me a while to get her books out of my head and move on to another.
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. 2015.