Margaret Atwood – The Heart Goes Last or the story of the robot Elvis sex toy and the sex chicken

I’ve read I’m starved for you nearly three years ago and I managed to find another book from the Positron Series a month back. It was such a hassle to read and I could not place my finger on why. I kept on picking up the book and then putting it back down. The characters did not resonate at all with me and were mostly distasteful.
Towards the end, the story does pick up a little and there are some interesting side-stories, but nothing to do with the main plot line.

The story

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around – and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in… for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience (CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE) must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system.

Considering that the whole point of Consilience is for things to run smoothly, with happy citizens, or are they inmates? Both, to be honest. Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so Consilience and Positron have only made it official.”

Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their “civilian” homes.

“That was the original idea, but once you’ve got a controlled population with a wall around it and no oversight, you can do anything you want.”

At first, this doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one’s head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan’s life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

“Be the Person You’ve Always Wanted to Be”

That’s a Positron promise, but what do you want to be, and what if you are, or want to be two versions of yourself? The thrill and the fear of “I’m not the same with him”.

What I liked in the book

The book explores, past the crappy relationship with cheating Charmaine and jealous Stan – a new concept Possilibots – robots designed for sex.
While the inmates from the Consilience resort to having sex with the chicken from the coop to satisfy their sexual desires, the people on the outside are asking for a new type of product – sexbots. PS: Why do desperate men prefer sex with chickens to sex with pigs or cows? (I don’t actually want an answer!) Why are they so desperate anyway, when they’re only apart from their wives for a month?

“Stan got the message. He allowed the chicken assignations. What did that make him? A chicken pimp. Better than dead.”

Possilibots – and a Step Beyond

Are sexbots a way to exorcise or exercise taboo desires?

Few people object to dildos in principle, and inflatable dolls are mainly seen as joke material. Are sexbots any different? If they reduce sex trafficking and make a profit, that’s surely win-win, isn’t it?

“I don’t think they’ll ever replace the living and breathing,” says Gary. “They said that about e-books,” says Kevin. “You can’t stop progress.”

But what if they are so realistic as to be almost indistinguishable from real people?
And what if they are modelled on specific people – who haven’t consented to their image being appropriated in this way? Like one robot is designed to look like Charmaine for a higher-up in the Consilience chain.
What if you can programme them to say “No”? What if you have virginal, lustfull, dangerous personalities coded into the robots?

“Maybe all women should be robots, he thinks with a tinge of acid: the flesh-and-blood ones are out of control.”

Most chillingly, what about kiddybots? There was a discussion about creating kid bots for paedophiles so that they can stay safely off the streets and find an outlet for their dangerous desires. But what if they only use them for training and then go to the next thing – the real life person.

“That way nobody feels exploited.”
“Wait a minute,” says Stan. “Nobody’s exploited?”
“I said nobody feels exploited,” says Budge. “Different thing.”

But all those are just an interim phase of development.

Memory wipe-out and bonding

There is a section of the book talking about Veronica  who is a very attractive and beautiful woman who is in love with a teddy bear.
There was a new experiment which involved taking attractive women and painlessly modifying their brains to wipe all memory of previous lovers, and ensure that when they awake, their passions – strong passions – are permanently imprinted on the waiting client, who is the first face they see.
Everyone’s happy: the client has a monogamous nymphomaniac partner whose life is, in material ways, better than before. Lack of consent is a minor means to a socially worthwhile end. But does neurological lust really count as lust, let alone love? What happens if the client falls in love or lust with someone else, but has an obsessive and uncontrollable ex?
What happens if the first thing they see is an inanimate object – like the bear.

Blue Knitted Teddy Bears

A cute-kinky trope throughout the book. In her prison stints, Charmaine is in a knitting group (as well as her job in the bakery and then Medications Administration). All they ever knit are blue teddy bears. These crop up all over the plot: children play with them in Consilience kindergarten; when in transit, Stan wakes up in a big container of them; Jocelyn uses one for smuggling a message; people dream of them; they’re used as walkie-talkies; they’re supplied with kiddybots for authenticity; and, most memorably, the reconfigured brain of Veronica is imprinted on one (supposedly by mistake)

What I didn’t like in the book

I think it tried to do too many things at once. Ms. Atwood can’t seem to decide where this is going: it’s certainly not satire, it’s not really dystopian, she seems to be playing it as a farce. It actually comes across as a weak imitation of that old sixties TV series The Prisonerwith Patrick McGoohan.

Sex of all kinds, most of it exploitative in some way; civil liberties; informed consent (not just sexual, but certainly including that); brainwashing and propaganda; social control and compliance (cf Zimbardo); capitalism and profit; sex; identity; criminality, punishment and reform; love, betrayal and forgiveness; euthanasia; human trafficking and prostitution; murder; “recycling”; care homes for the elderly; Elvis; surveillance; pornography; AI robots; what makes us human; blackmail and extortion; free will; industrial espionage; exploitative sex; the good of society against the good of the individual, and empathy.

One of the other main problems is the couple. They simply aren’t interesting characters: they’re uncomprehending and credulous, easily manipulated into taking part in a rebellion against the corporation’s oily CEO, Ed, by several of his senior executive. Charmaine is a bit of an empty head and her only thoughts go around how to paint her nails, how fat the other women were and how her secret lover is making her feel so wanted. She is two women with two different men and loves the attention. She euthanizes people for a living and when she’s told she has to do her job even when the person on the table is Stan, she does not hesitate.

It all ends with a whimper in Vegas, as Stan and Charmaine are set free by the by the rebel faction and (uncharacteristically for Atwood), live happily ever after in a nice suburban house with their kiddies.

The final choice in the book, and indeed, the initial one, is between freedom and security. Would Charmaine want to know if her brain has truly been wiped and then conditioned to get attached to Stan in order to love him unconditionally and raise his children? Or was it a choice?

“Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem?”

Someone is asked if they want knowledge that will make them less secure, but more free. Would you, like Eve in Eden, choose Knowledge, or would you settle for security that is based on ignorance?
Freedom feels like the right answer, but security the easier one.

In an ideal world, there would be no need to make such a choice. But ideal worlds exist only in fantasy.

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