"The Heart Goes Last" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), by Margaret Atwood
"If you do bad things for reasons you've been told are good, does it make you a bad person?" That's the question on the mind of Margaret Atwood's heroine near the end of "The Heart Goes Last."
The science fiction that generates the question is worth the quick read. The heroine is Charmaine. She and her husband, Stan, are down on their luck, homeless, hungry and living out of their car. Cue a TV pitchman who seems to speak directly to them: "Tired of living out of your car? You didn't sign up for this. You deserve better."
Soon Charmaine and Stan are indoctrinated in the Positron Project, a utopian experiment that is marketed as the perfect solution to America's prison problem. Residents spend a month as inmates and then a month in a manufactured town called Consilience, where all their needs are met and crime doesn't exist. All they have to do is promise they'll never leave.
Revealing much more of the plot would deprive readers of Atwood's creepy but entertaining vision of a possible future. The decor and pop culture of Consilience is copied from the 1950s, identified as the decade when most Americans considered themselves happy. There are sex robots that look like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe movies on TV and postage stamp yards with hedges that rarely need trimming but that Stan slashes weekly anyway as an outlet for the anxiety he's starting to feel, "like an animal trapped in a cage."
That anxiety soon gives way to outright terror as Charmaine and Stan learn what's really happening behind the prison walls. From that point on the story unfolds quickly as they get caught up in a scheme to escape and expose the Positron Project.
Atwood escalates the tension with every page, but never lapses into outright horror. Stan imagines "hot blooding hitting him in the face like a water cannon" as he slices through someone's neck with his hedge trimmer, but neither he nor Charmaine are superheroes. By the end, their freewill has evaporated as Atwood drives home what marketers have always known and what could be considered the novel's central theme — "the human mind is infinitely suggestible."