Review: The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood, 2015)

May contain mild spoilers but I’m not going to tell you the ending.

I was excited to find this book, quite by chance, in the charity shop at the end of my road. I have a lot of time for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fictions. Her MadAddam Trilogy is one of my favourite books ever. So I dived right into The Heart Goes Last like a child diving into a pool on a hot summer day, without a care in the world.

I was not disappointed, much. The story on paper seems implausible. We would never volunteer to live in a locked community, to spend half our lives in comfortable prisons, to be subject to constant surveillance. Right? Right???

Stan and Charmaine, the married couple and main characters, choose security over freedom. In a nightmare America where recession and offshore finance have  reduced most of the cities to the status of post-bankruptcy Detroit, they’re sick of living in their car, fearing for their lives. So the Consilience project seems like a great place to live. But of course, in this nightmare of capitalism gone even wronger than it is now, the creepy 50’s faux-utopia hides ravenous fangs and managerially mandated nightmares. Under the pressure of this bizarre facade, Stan and Charmaine start to crack. Sexual obsession and death tangle them up in convoluted plots and their lives devolve into surreal nightmares of sexbots, brain surgery, Elvis impersonators and undercover agents.

There were moments of this book that made me gasp. Atwood really delves into how humans can do awful things under pressure. Think of the Milgram experiment, or Zimbardo’s prison. Charmaine, a character who would be trite or even irritating without the precisely measured hints to her traumatic past, is an ideal subject for this nexus of control. A sweet woman who genuinely cares about home furnishings, we see how she deludes herself into warping her sense of morality and even reality, in order to carry on living in material comfort and not rock the boat. Being nice, appearing sweet, are weapons of survival that she has learned to wield with great skill. But then again, she might just be being sensible, because people who rock the boat in Consilience tend to disappear. 

This book is written from alternating perspectives of Stan and Charmaine, so we see how each of them see each other, how they see themselves, and the contrast. Deliberately written as an ‘everyman’ type of couple, sometimes the simple language of their thoughts can feel like the writer is patronising her own characters. The common man drinks too much beer, likes trimming the hedge, and is pretty damn homophobic. He lusts after women and wishes his wife would give him more sex. The common woman is sexually withholding, finds importance in nail varnish and throw pillows, is somewhat sentimental but tries her best to pamper her husband and keep his spirits up. They are both passive victims of events, rarely making a decision themselves but caught in the webs of machinations of people who do have power. This is a pawn’s eye view of some complicated chess, and at times it left me feeling queasy. Society is conditioning people into this kind of toxic sleepwalking, and come collapse, what will we do? It’s enough to turn you into a prepper, because civilisations do have a nasty habit of collapsing.

In some ways, this is a twisted love story of betrayal, redemption, kidnap and neurological interventions. In other ways, it is a slapstick romp through a dystopia whose echoes we can already feel pooling in the present. Mega-corporations, government collusion, outsourcing of jobs and off-shoring of capital, are the bad guys in fiction as in real life. Atwood just draws the results of their predation to creative conclusions which are nonetheless still obviously moulded from the clay of our present world.

This is a book full of ideas, some of which could be books in themselves. It started life as a serial, which might explain the slightly uneven pacing. There is fun to be had here, and some thrilling thought experiments, but by the end I was left wondering why. Of course as a writer it’s great fun to treat your characters like a cruel child torturing ants, but there should be some kind of payoff. And in this case, the ending made me angry, and actually detracted from the excellence that was shown elsewhere in the book. It was an unexpected crash-landing into neurotically mawkish cliche and I do not need that in my life.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 

A dystopian romp with some great ideas, delicious in parts but slightly undercooked.



Review: The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood, 2015)

Pretentious Proposal (for a book now finished)

Would you read this shit?

Words are symbols/signs/sounds which transmit meaning. But my meaning is not your meaning: free association from any given word will gain an infinity of different connections, interpretations like a verbal Rorschach test. The subconscious holds codes expressed in dreams, the verbal visual unique experiential, a spiralling fractal of selves and knowledges which make up the Self. Poetry like a shared hallucination, a shared dream to transmit an idea from I to Thou and see what happens to it in the void between us.

I draw from my own life, lives and experiences of those around me. Leading upwards to the shifting shipwreck sensation of living in a world where humanity is destroyed by money, powers conspire; the lexicon is manipulated for propaganda, and WWIII looms. How does an individual survive in a society like this?

In terms of form I wish to experiment with different ways of presenting poetry, both written and performed, playing with visual and audio elements, moving beyond the expectation of poetry as black words typed on white page. I wish to explore the performative aspect of poetry and the chance and uncertainty created by it.

Influences include Rimbaud, Bukowski (confessional poetry which has reached a wide popular audience), R.D. Laing (human relations), Dorianne Laux, A. Gibson, Antonin Artaud, Jung (collective subconscious), Lacan (psychoanalysis and language), Camus, Tchicaya U Tam’si (for his sequence ‘Le Ventre’ in which the poems are closely interrelated and are brought together in synthesis in the final poem), Selima Hill (surreal yet vividly evocative and relatable imagery), Katie Paterson’s work Earth-Moon-Earth (lost signal in transmission and the meaning of silences).

I wrote this fucking book, you see. For uni. And now I’m revisiting. The past will eat us all, if we only let it.

Pretentious Proposal (for a book now finished)

Poem: 26

“Where you are is exactly where you’re supposed to be.”  Keep telling yourself that.

26 and I still don’t know where Dorset is

or how I got these bruises

Still can’t tell herpes from acne or remember

which scars came from which disease

I’ve destroyed more than I’ve created but at least  I’ve kept it cyclical

Pleasing symmetry, circling the drain

Charybdis is awful shabby these days  (it’s the drink that done her)

but on the other hands        and other heads

Scylla isn’t bad, for a hard place.

I’m 26 and still kicking at mythical monsters

from the childrens’ room of a smalltown library

26 and still hoping to score something

to shoot that fucking arrow straight into staring eyes

be phoenix fire ashes all at once                           dashed away on the breeze

Hell I Just want to hit something

After more than a quarter of a century I should have learned:

This is how you get bruises

Poem: 26

Sci-Fi Masterworks Inspired Rambling – Genre, Imagination, and Penises – In Space!

The Sci Fi Masterworks series is amazing. I have them as ebooks, which means I don’t often get to appreciate their amazing cover art. I only realised how good the cover art is when I looked at it all in one place just there.

In the last year, actually, the last Summer,

  • Arslan – MJ Engh
  • The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
  • The Female Man – Joanna Russ
  • Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
  • Odd John – Olaf Stapleton
  • The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith
  • Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
  • Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
  • The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delaney
  • The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman

Science Fiction. It still gets a bit of scorn for being nerdy and ‘not real Literature’, just like all ‘genre fiction’ suffers (at least from people who think that Literary Fiction is the lone pinnacle of artistic human expression). But sci-fi has always encompassed some of the most daring writing. Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar was written in 1969, but when I picked up a battered copy in a secondhand bookshop, I was blown away by the overwhelming style. Like nothing I’ve read before, John Brunner captured the ever-shifting, ever-truncated maelstrom of impressions and information that form subjective awareness in a multimedia society. This is the true novel of the Television Age.

I was bought up with plenty of oldschool sci-fi – my dad collects Jack Vance books, and generally abjures modernity when it comes to literature, even when it’s literature about the amazing space-future. At uni we did a module on science and fiction, which included sci-fi from H.G. Wells to Cyberpunk and whatever comes after that. Post-modern post-apocalyptism?

I have credentials and knowledge thousands of hours of reading time. So you should trust me when I say that good sci-fi is an intellectually rewarding way to explore human nature. How good sci-fi works is as a thought experiment, a prediction extrapolated with a healthy dose of imagination. How would human beings react psychologically, socially, spiritually, technologically, to alien life? To cybernetic dystopia? To time travel? If we invented super-fast interdimensional travel, what would we do with it? What would it do to us? These are the most obvious cliche scenarios, but even with these, the depths and breadth of creativity are astounding. There is all the world-building and imaginary anthropology, the science and ‘science so advanced it is indistiguishable from magic’, as well as the standard storytelling essentials of character and plot. Good sci-fi feels like it’s expanding your mind, opening your eyes to something profound.

That list up there explores, among other things, warfare, lightspeed travel, overpopulation, artificial intelligence, multidimensionality, gender, religion, race, linguistics, genetics, authority, media, environment, ecology, psychotropics, discrimination, martyrdom, love, sexuality, and a bunch of deep philosophical questions about the nature of reality.

Of course, there is bad sci-fi. (This is distinct from pulp sci-fi, which wouldn’t be any good at all if it wasn’t slightly bad.) All genres have a lot of dross. Every time an amazing innovative book comes out, hundreds of other writers jump onto its coat-tails. Some take the new ideas and run with them to create something uniquely their own; some just rehash whatever seem to be the most commercially successful elements, adding in a whole lot of cliches and generally driving what was once new and exciting to seem dull and overdone. Such is the lifecycle of ideas.

There is also the problem, especially in older books, of embarrassing sexism. Buck McManly and his SpacePenis Rocket head to the planet of Hotbabesia to save the buxom women from the evil aliens! (Which look weirdly similar to Earth insects, just really fuckin huge. Must be intergalactic convergent evolution or something.) Add a million points if Buck’s second in command is a beautiful but badass woman, who starts out all no-nonsense competence, but is so overcome by inexplicable lust for Buck McManly that she falls apart and has to be rescued. Of course, she’s so greatful for being rescued that she immediately rips off her practical utility space-coveralls and throws herself on his throbbing Space- (OK enough of that, you get the idea.) But that isn’t really the worst. It’s when you read a book, or even a series, with a civilization spanning planets or even galaxies, and somehow, pretty much everyone important is still a man. It’s the year 4035, and Spacewomen are making great progress as Space Secretaries and Space Nurses! They marry Spacemen and have Spacekids, the raising of which is entirely their responsibility! Wooo look how much the future has moved on!

I accept that books will reflect the time and culture of their authors. That is pretty obvious and inescapable. But, especially in a genre that is all about stretching the imagination, the fact that some people couldn’t even imagine a world of even basic equality is fucking depressing as fuck.

However, as an antidote, there are also writers who have thrown their minds at the issue of gender, and come up with some radically different ideas. Joanna Russ in The Female Man explores the idea of parallel dimensions and the effect of gender roles on personality, by bringing together three women, who are actually the same woman from different dimensions. In one dimension, gender roles never developed beyond about 1880. In another, a continent populated only by women has become an environmental and intellectual semi-utopia. And the third dimension is our own. The women meet and visit each others’ homelands, and as the woman from this dimension is also the author, we get personal reflection as well as sci-fi world-shifting action. Because there is another woman from another dimension, one which is worse than any of the first three…

And enough has been said by others about Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I’m not going to needlessly extend this already overlong blog post by adding my own unoriginal opinions. Suffice to say that it is one of the most original explorations of gender in any novel.

This post ignores pretty much everthing written after the year 2000, because it was sparked by my reading mainly older books. I haven’t cited anything and haven’t backed up my argument with critical theory. It’s nice that this isn’t an essay. Possibly in future I’ll write more specific book reviews, or more in-depth posts about literary topics. We’ll see. Thanks for reading, and read more books now.

Sci-Fi Masterworks Inspired Rambling – Genre, Imagination, and Penises – In Space!


I fucking love books. I did my degree in them, I want to write one, I like to smell them.

But physical books cost money and also, when you have more than about five, are extremely heavy and inconvenient to carry up and down the country. So I got a Kobo e-reader. Plenty of book snobs will now look down on me. Fuck them. I just downloaded 50 books, for free. Yes, I’m stealing books. It’s the only way. The average novel takes me only a day or two to finish. Retailing at £8 each (assuming I only read paperbacks), it would cost me £1460 to keep in books for a year. Although that does assume I read one book every two days for the whole time, with no breaks for adventures in the real world. Still, even one book per week would be £416. My only income is disability benefits, (ESA, employment and support allowance) so that is still pretty hefty.

I can afford second hand books. And I do buy them. I think the secondhand bookshop is my favourite retail experience. I could spend weeks in a single store, especially those beautiful, overstocked, crooked little shops that take up a whole shop and the house above it, and are filled with hidden rooms and corners all stacked to the ceiling with books. However, I don’t think any of the money they make (in the unlikely event of them turning a profit) goes to the authors. Same with cheap secondhand, or even new, books on Amazon. Amazon is an evil company which contributes nothing but misery along with its easy access to consumer goods. I don’t think my occasional purchases there are really helping the publishing industry either.

Shit, I didn’t think this post was going to end up as such an ethical indictment against me. I’m destroying the thing I love because I can’t help but steal. Although you can’t say I haven’t accrued a pretty impressive book collection over my life.

Photo of my bookshelf, filled with books
3 metres of literature

This is the bookshelf in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. There are also a few books in boxes, in the attic, under my desk… Indeed, I may be something of a book hoarder. It causes me great pain to part with a book. And I get deeply attached to specific books. That Naked Lunch in the middle of the top shelf? That’s been with me for a good few years now. It’s respectably battered and interestingly stained. It still smells faintly of damp and cigarettes, the scent of paper overlaid with the scent of an old flat, a flat we’ll never see again. I love that book. Somehow, by accident, I got another, newer, shinier copy of Naked Lunch. It’s in a storage crate somewhere because I never got around to selling it or giving it away. I want to get rid of it. It feels disloyal, traitorous, waiting in the wings to replace my faithful old copy with a shiny new version. The new book stays in the box so I don’t have to look at it.

I come from a bookish family. I don’t feel at home in houses without bookshelves. But now, I have no bookshelf. Or at least, I have a tiny cubbyhole on the boat, with about four books along with leaflets and paperwork. It’s not enough books, so I cling to my Kobo and fill it with literature. The wonders of technology, eh? I’ve got enough books to last me at least a year, all stored in the space of the slimmest little paperback. It might leave the reading experience strangely transient, divorced from all physical permanence, but at least I’m reading. I’m reading so, so much, and I love it.