It Takes Two: The Ballad of Lost Souls

Parable of the Sower and The Heart Goes Last

This one brought to you by the U.S. presidential election.

Parable of the Sower, for anyone who’s read it, has distinct parallels with today’s United States, even though it was first published over twenty years ago.  Minorities scrape a life out of bombed out residential streets while whites live in gated compounds with military-grade security, all presided over by an inept president who doesn’t seem to give a shit about the lives of the people, even if he had the wherewithal to actually fix anything.

The environment has gone to hell, it barely rains in southern parts of the country, and the north is guarded against people trying to emigrate for a better life.  Wage slavery is a thing again, and the only ones doing well are corporations.  But Parable of the Sower also contains a message of hope and self-determination, an undeniable statement that the people in the novel–and those the allegory is really about–are not going to take the world lying down.  Those some may give up, others are going to fight, and find a unity that can’t be defeated by mere hatred and bigotry.  It’s a message we could all use, in these dark times.  Even though we’ve lost a visionary in Octavia E. Butler, we can still read her words and take heart.

Margaret Atwood made her name in the speculative fiction world, with Oryx and Crake, and the Maddaddam trilogy.  Though many cite The Handmaid’s Tale, Maddaddam was what brought her to the forefront in climate change, dystopian fiction and showed that literature could take on these topics in a smart, ironic way that was both entertaining and horrifying.  As if that already needed proving, but that’s a topic for another day.  

But this post is not about Maddaddam, but The Heart Goes Last.  Until last month, her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last deals with climate change and post-corporate-takeover America on a deeper level than Maddaddam, tracing the story of a middle-aged, middle-American, middle-class couple as they keep trying to take the easy way out of the dystopia.  While MaddAddam is a series about fighting, The Heart Goes Last is a novel about giving up.  

While MaddAddam openly pushes the ridiculous as a contrast to the real world–a covert, ugly sort of ridiculousness that can’t be wiped away by closing the cover of a novel–The Heart Goes Last camouflages the bizarre beneath a veneer of the expedient, the necessary, the no-other-choice.  Perhaps the best part about Atwood’s novel is the depths of irony it plums.  Or doesn’t.  It’s difficult to tell where sincerity ends and irony begins; it’s difficult to hate people who are so irretrievably inept at everything.  Are they reaping the rewards of their own inaction, or innocent victims of a world gone mad?

Either way, both of these novels are good reads for bad times.

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The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

If
there’s anything Margaret Atwood has shown with her MaddAddam series, it is
that nothing is off-limits to her satire. 
Now, with The Heart Goes Last,
she explores the limits—and opportunities—of subtext.  Where MaddAddam took capitalism to its logical limit and
beyond, The Heart Goes Last takes a
step back and imagines a world that looks a lot—too much—like today, with a
cast of characters who are not loner geniuses or particularly special at all,
but fallible, imperfect people.

Instead
of writing a story asking, “What would you do?”… if you lost your house, your
job, your community, she gives us a novel in which Stan and Charmaine do the only things they could logically
be expected to, in those situations, leading to their inevitable participation
in the Positron/Consilience project. 
Their lives are predictably mundane, even unto the familiar straying
husband.  And, predictably, this is
where the story starts going off the rails.  But not for the reasons you might expect.

This
novel is much more meditative than at first meets the eye.  While a character’s choices might be
predictable and not really choices at all, every character has a complicated
and often dark back story that has led up to these choices, that informs the
ways they go about life every day. 
The microcosm of Stan and Charmaine’s relationship and life as a married
couple plays out in the ways that the world around them bends and stretches,
reaching depths of despair and ugliness that at once seem outrageous and yet
perfectly natural and predictable. 
Living half your life in prison for the good of society?  Reasonable.  Living in a retro 1950’s gated community while at the same
time helping to build lifelike robots for commercial consumption?  Explainable. 

Readers
of Atwood will perhaps find a little more room for thought in this offbeat
novel than in her previous work. 
Readers of near-future dystopian fiction will enjoy contemplating just
how accurate Atwood’s vision is. 
Those who crave character-driven stories will enjoy the ways that Atwood
opens up her characters to the careful reader.  And those not afraid of a good helping of the
ridiculous—because this is Margaret Atwood, after all—should definitely pick up
this novel.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

It’s difficult to remember that Oryx and Crake is satire.  The best satire, in the venerable tradition of Swift, Austen, and Pope, is great because it is so easy to believe it is exactly what it says it is.  It takes the part, just enough, of its subject that the reader can’t help identifying with the satirized.  The realization that it is in fact satire only makes the meaning of the piece come crashing down that much harder.  Snowman—Jimmy—in Oryx and Crake is our hero, the character upon whom the hopes of an entire world are pinned.  Poor Jimmy has been through so much and is now tasked with guiding the new breed of humans through their initial experiences of the world.  In identifying with Jimmy, one can’t help but hate the forces for evil that have put him in this predicament.  Of course Atwood is targeting all those who have sought or caused Jimmy’s unhappiness throughout his short life.

Well, that’s how it might seem on first read.  It’s tough to know just what to think when reading Oryx and Crake, and its sequel, The Year of the Flood, but that’s the beauty of Atwood’s writing.  We are brought into the story on what is just another morning in Jimmy’s new existence, tending to the new people of the world, trying not to remember his past yet somehow compelled to relive it anyway.  Jimmy is unremarkable in a world of remarkable people—geniuses and social climbers alike—and goes through life in one angsty teenaged mood or another: attending a second-rate college, working a second-rate job, not getting the girlfriend he wants, living in the shadow of his only friend, Crake, the genius.

And what is the real story of Jimmy’s life?  That is the great mystery of the book, the real reason the reader is there—to find out what happened.  The more Jimmy’s story unfolds, the less sure the reader becomes.  Is Crake the bad guy, or a good guy who’s just misunderstood?  Who is Jimmy’s mom, and what really happened to her?  Is Oryx who she, or anyone else who talks about her, really who she says she is?  Is it all just a bad soap opera being played on a strip mall television?  Is the reader in on the whole thing, or a victim just as much as Jimmy?

Jimmy, to his detriment, is never quite able to read the subtext of the world in which he lives and as his faithful reader, Atwood seems to tell us, it’s ok if we don’t get it the first time around either.  Good satire, of course, makes you think you’re in on the joke the entire time, and Atwood’s novel promises to the reader that, at the very least you’re not as clueless as poor Jimmy.  Like the Big Brother worlds imagined by Orwell, there’s always someone else planning out your life anyway, there’s always someone in the background who knows what’s going on.  It just may not be who you think it isOryx and Crake is a novel with an ecological conscience; it’s a hard-hitting look at the possible future of food production, medicine, and human life in general.  Instead of making these dystopian conditions background for the real story, as novels like The Hunger Games or Ready, Player One do though, in Oryx and Crake the environment and what humans have wrought upon the natural world are the real story, the main event.  Atwood doesn’t gloss over what environmental change means for the world, and doesn’t spare the people who are causing it, even those who are just blindly allowing it to happen.  And through all it, she manages to write a compelling story, characters who are only as flat as they want to be, and writes with a powerful control of her prose.

Readers interested in somewhat less dramatic dystopian fiction—I’m looking at you, Hunger Games and Divergent—will enjoy Oryx and Crake, where even if the adults don’t act the part at least they’re held accountable like adults, of only by the author herself.  Readers concerned with environmental issues will love Atwood’s novel, and indeed nearly all her writing.  Oryx and Crake explores the limits of human nature in a way that hard science fiction often strives for, and is highly recommended for science fiction lovers interested in speculations on the future of humanity.