This novel is the most recent book published by the award-winning science fiction writer, Margaret Atwood, and the first book I have read of hers in many years. The story focuses on main characters, Charmaine and Stan, a married couple living somewhere in North America (no specific locations given) in the near future. A series of social and environmental crises (again, not spelled out) have led the entire economy to collapse to the point that life has devolved into one of danger, helplessness, and hopelessness… “grim, morose, a sense of futility hanging everywhere like a fog.” The rich have fled to floating tax-free cities, taking with them all of the money and most of the skilled workers. Everyone else, including Charmaine and Stan, has been left with nothing … no homes, no jobs, almost no possessions, and no police to protect them.
As the story opens, we meet the husband and wife as they cling to one another since no one and nothing else is dependable any longer. Money is running out and their stamina for living in constant fear and hunger leaves the two considering desperate measures. Instead of turning to crime, the two sign up for the mysterious (and too-good-to-be-true?) Consilience-Positron Project. Once the couple is selected from thousands of applicants, they will be provided what they have so long gone without: food, housing, possessions, medical care, safety, and jobs. In exchange for free access to those things, the couple must give up their freedom and live permanently within the walls of the Project village, working at assigned jobs. Every other month, they must serve as incarcerated prisoners in the town’s prison. While serving their time, two other prisoners, their Alternates — also a married couple — will be released from the prison to live in their home in the village.
Specifics about the town are not freely given to the characters or the readers. In vague terms, we come to see the town as a social experiment. Funded by unknown outsiders, a group of unseen (but always watching) supervisors monitor the project participants for evidence of its success and reproducibility in cities elsewhere. The Project’s guiding principles are positivity, compliance, and responsibility. Cheered on by pep talks and messages of community spirit, the residents are told that if they follow the rules and take responsibility for their lives, then they can continue to live in comfort. (Cook good food for the prisoners while on the “outside,” receive good meals while you serve inside; keep the home shared with your Alternates clean and in good repair, you can expect the same when you return from your month in prison.)
At first the new life is agreeable to Stan and Charmaine since they are so thankful to be safe, clean, and provided for…although Charmaine notes that this life “is not happiness.” Within a year, cracks begin to appear on the surface of their otherwise serene life of one month in/one month out. The two are worn down by boredom from the limited options while “free,” the repetitiveness of the tasks assigned, and their increasing suspicions about the constant monitoring of their lives. Becoming mentally taxed, both characters start taking small — then larger — risks, only to find that punishments for non-compliance are swift. Soon Stan and Charmaine get a peek at the wizard behind the curtain at Positron and learn that their lives are no longer their own, and they are at risk of losing them. Stan wishes he could reset his life and regain his freedom, a freedom he gave up long before Positron. Years ago he allowed “the reduction of his life to a series of numbers, stored by others, controlled by others. He should have left the disintegrating cities, fled the pinched cramped life he led there. Broken out of the electronic net, thrown away all the passwords, gone forth to range over the land, a gaunt wolf howling at midnight.”
Atwood’s very straightforward, slightly detached writing style is well-suited for Science Fiction. It allows us to get the the most pertinent facts — but never all of them, the author plays her cards close to the chest — while not getting too wrapped up in the emotional minutiae of the of the characters’ lives. Her style also makes it easier for her to keep the action moving swiftly along and makes large jumps in time-continuum feel seamless. Readers who are patient with the slower portions of the book will be rewarded with a truly mesmerizing, dark tale. Atwood provides us a wonderful read, one with a clear message about the cost of trading our freedom for comfort.