Society has collapsed. The crumbling economy has snatched away the chance for most people to have jobs, homes, security. Vicious, drug-addled gangs roam the streets, preying on the vulnerable. Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their house and are now living on the street in their car, scraping a meagre existence thanks to Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a dive-bar. They still have their pride, but it’s on the blink; and Stan is on the point of turning for help to his estranged criminal brother (the aptly-named Con) when Charmaine sees an advert that changes their lives. It offers hope. The chance to have dignity restored. A roof over their head; a purpose in life. In return, they just have to take part in a social experiment. Oh, and, once you’re in, there’s no turning back. As you’d expect from Margaret Atwood, this is a high-concept dystopian fable about the corruption of power and the subjugation of the individual for the ‘good’ of the whole. It lacks the taut urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale and veers into absurdity in the later chapters, but it’s nevertheless a sobering vision of a not-too-distant future.
The concept is simple. Manufacturing and industry are collapsing because people can’t afford their products. People can’t afford their products because they’ve lost their jobs. It’s a catch-22 situation, which can be resolved by creating a captive audience for a market. And so twin compounds have been created as a prototype for a new kind of town. In one compound: a friendly, old-fashioned small town inspired by cosy 1950s nostalgia, in which everyone is given a useful job that will contribute to society and make them feel needed. For a month, each person (or couple) will live in their own house in the picture-perfect neighbourhood of Consilience, where everything is carefully controlled, from the clothing (available from a catalogue) to the media on offer (Doris Day and other such heartwarming old-school stuff. Nothing complicated or liable to get the blood racing). At the end of the month, each person (or couple) will voluntarily travel to the other half of the town, to Positron, a prison complex, where for a month they become willing prisoners, working in the fields and orchards, and producing food – or knitting clothes – for the rest of the population. Everyone is, again, assigned work that suits their temperament. For example, when in prison, Stan is able to use some of his precious robotics training in the Positron workshops, while the organised Charmaine oversees the medication in the prison hospital (officially).
And there’s one more detail. Each house is lived in by two couples (or people), each pair occupying it one-month on, one-month off. You never know who your Alternates are and you aren’t meant to contact them. What’s the point? You’ll never meet, as they’ll always be in prison when you’re outside, and you’ll be in prison while they’re using the house. At the end of the month, you simply pop your stuff in your allocated locker in the basement and tidy up so that your Alternates have a nice, comfy home to come back to; and they’ll do the same for you. Half the housing is needed; and those outside are a ready market for the produce of the prisoners within. Everyone is committed to the dream, in order to ensure their own continuing wellbeing and that of their neighbours. Perfect, right? Ed, the face of the Positron Project, is eternally positive. On the Consilience TV network (amid the old-fashioned movies), he keeps his participants updated. The project is earning attention. More have opened. This is the future of communal living: a world where you abide by a few simple rules for the broader good of society. A world that looks back to a better, kinder, simpler age.
Only… there are cracks, of course. And it starts when Stan finds a note slipped under their fridge from a woman named Jasmine, signed off with a lipsticked kiss. His imagination begins to run wild. Who is this woman – their Alternate? Starved of passion, he is wildly distracted by fantasies of this woman, little realising that he isn’t the only one consumed by erotic imaginings. Charmaine – sweet, loving, girlish Charmaine, who has resigned herself to a ‘comfortable’ marriage – meets a strange man in the house on changeover day. He introduces himself as Max, one of their Alternates. He’s come home early; she’s running late. An unforeseen and passionate affair ensues. But they are running a desperate risk and breaking some of the key rules of the project. When they are discovered – as they inevitably are – Charmaine and Stan separately become aware that the Positron Project is much more complex and sinister than either of them realised. But how can you stand up against a power who controls – and watches – your every move?
This is when it all gets a little bit silly, but the last chapter offers a witty coda that makes you think twice. Isn’t part of the appeal of Consilience and Positron that it takes away the need for us to think? It gives you a job, a house, a purpose, without you having to work for it in any way. You just have to be, without actually putting any thought into it. Indeed, independent thought is discouraged. Isn’t it so much easier when we don’t have to take any responsibility for our lives and the wider world around us? We just scurry along like lab-mice in the path set out for us, and trust that the higher powers know what they’re doing. (I’ll wait while you finish laughing at that idea.) So, Atwood’s novel is both a grim vision of what the future might become, and an argument for the independence of thought, commitment and energy needed to prevent that happening. Thought-provoking, of course, but at times too self-consciously surreal for me to completely lose myself in it (though that surrealism is, in itself, a characteristic of her more recent books).