The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastI’ve been having a lot of fun with Margaret Atwood recently, so when I saw she had a new book coming out I snatched it up right quick. I’m not sure I even read the description, actually, but I figured it couldn’t possibly matter, I was going to enjoy it anyway.

And, of course, I did. I don’t think it was one of Atwood’s greater works, but it will definitely fill any Atwood-shaped holes in your heart.

In this iteration of our future, the world has gone into a serious recession, probably larger than our most recent one but not quite Great Recession. Our two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, are living out of their car and on Charmaine’s meager income, so when Charmaine sees a commercial for a community called Positron that promises stable jobs and housing and life in general, she convinces Stan to apply. They are quickly accepted and make a life in Positron, which turns out to be a community where the residents spend half their time as jailers and half as prisoners, ensuring those stable jobs and making life actually pretty nice for the prisoners. But as in all good dystopian communities things aren’t nearly as happy or well-oiled as they seem.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story at the start, as the main focus after Stan and Charmaine get accepted to Positron is their failing marriage. Stan is lusting after the woman who lives in his house while he’s off being a prisoner, a woman he’s never met, and Charmaine is lusting and more with that woman’s husband, whom she has totally met. Biblically.

That’s kind of strange, and I was like, um, okay, this is a weird marriage thing to be sure but, like, there’s gotta be something going on in that prison. What terrible things befall those prisoners?? What inhumanities are they subjected to? My priorities are clearly in order.

Luckily for me, this whole marriage thing is just one part of the super weird, and sometimes bad, but mostly weird stuff going on in the prison. There’s the matter of the prisoners who used to populate the prison but have gone more or less mysteriously missing, but also the matter of how Positron keeps its coffers full (spoiler: it’s sex robots). Certain people want to expose the worst parts of the project, but that won’t be easy, and in fact might require an Elvis suit.

Did I mention this book is weird? Good. It’s also weird in that I’m not sure that the central scheme of the novel really holds together, like, even considering this potential future world how exactly is this thing that is happening actually happening? Would these people really do this? Is there not a better way?

I think part of that is that for all I expect amazing world-building from Atwood, there is almost none of that in this book. The characters are quickly cut off from the outside world, sure, but even while in Positron the characters almost never talk about the place of it, just the things that are happening in it. It’s all very murky and strange and I never really found my bearings in the world enough to be able to dive in to the equally baffling plot.

But no matter my troubles, I would still read the phone book written by Atwood because the woman writes killer sentences and has fascinating ideas about the human condition. And she throws in little details, like the Blue Man Group getting knockoff groups in other colors and the genetically modified future of our chicken nuggets, that could so very possibly happen and that steady even this wobbly setting into something possible.

Recommendation: For Atwood lovers, but maybe not newbies. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other novels to start with!

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: The Life of the Mind and Bitch Planet

Two slightly different offerings this week: the start of the latest adventure in the awesome Old Man’s War universe, which is aliens and military and explosions and stuff, and also the start of a comic universe called Bitch Planet, which is humans and pseudo-military and fighting and stuff. What do I think? Read on!

The End of All Things, Part 1: “The Life of the Mind”
The Life of the MindScalzi. The Old Man’s War series. Two of my favorite things! I put the four… short stories? Novellas? I don’t know the cutoff here, but anyway I put the four stories that make up this book on immediate Amazon preorder when I heard they existed so that I could have them on my Kindle before I even knew they were out. And so it happened! I got this nice email last Tuesday telling me my book was here, and as soon as I finished China Rich Girlfriend (there is seriously no interrupting China Rich Girlfriend) I read the heck out of it.

It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but it was just as amazing as I wanted it to be, so that’s just fine by me. See, this first story is narrated by a dude who’s a brain in a box. Not the guy who was a brain in the box in whatever other story that was where they found a brain in a box, but a new brain in a box who was asked to tell the story of how he managed to become a brain in a box. Brain in a box, people.

So, because said brain is specifically the brain of a pilot and programmer, the story is written to be not terribly well written, so that was kind of weird. And of course it’s written entirely from this very very limited perspective, with some convenient information thrown the brain’s way so we’re not completely lost, but I’m still looking forward to getting more information from a different perspective in the next story. It had better be a different perspective.

But anyway, the story itself is great and full of all the action, intrigue, and subterfuge that you have come to expect from John Scalzi. The fate of the Colonial Union after the events of The Human Division is revealed, as well as a myriad of other crazy conspiracies that break my brain (haaa) more than a little. It will be very interesting to follow along with this story over the next couple weeks, or if you’re the instant-gratification type you can wait until it’s all published in August.

Bitch Planet, #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro
Bitch Planet #1I picked this issue up the day it came out back in December, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. The art is amazing, with strong color palettes for each setting, tons of characters that manage to look different from each other, and, impressively, a bunch of naked women who look like actual naked women and not like porn naked women.

Why are there a bunch of naked women, you say? Well, that gets to the story part, which is pretty cool itself. It seems that there’s this planet, see, which is nicknamed “Bitch Planet” but is really the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost”, which is really just jail for ladies who’ve done something wrong. The naked transportees are labelled “radicals” and “killers”, but we quickly learn that at least one of them is there because she made some threats after her husband cheated on her, so perhaps it’s a little easier than it should be to end up on this planet. There’s also a nice little twist at the end that makes me think that this series is not going to pull any punches. As it were.

I am super intrigued to see where this series goes, so it’s a good thing the first volume comes out next month!

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Orange is the New BlackThis was my first pick of the year for my in-person book club, although technically someone else picked it and then I stole it because I didn’t have any better ideas. You know. I had heard about the Netflix series but not watched it, and I figured reading the book might give me some idea of how interesting the series would be.

I was wrong.

I say this because I found the book to be pretty okay, but everyone in the club who had watched the series first either hated the book or didn’t finish it due to utter boredom or both. So, if you’re thinking about this for your book club, maybe don’t let anyone watch the show first? Or warn them that it’s vastly different?

The book itself is a memoir with a purpose, which is two-for-two in things I am not generally a fan of. But it’s also about the prison system, which is a thing I am happy not to know a lot about, in general, but which is something I am intrigued by, so I was excited to learn new things. The book starts with a quick description of Kerman’s drug-smuggling past and the reasons (or excuses) for why she got involved and how she managed to get out unharmed, until someone told on her to the feds. Then she gets dragged into a painfully slow legal process, and five years later she finally finds herself on her way to a very short (15-month?) stint in minimum security prison.

Right off the bat, Kerman acknowledges that her experiences are not, probably, the average experiences of an inmate even in her own prison. She’s white and upper-class and had a fantastic (and highly-paid) lawyer and has a huge support system of friends who keep her stocked in books and magazines and money for everything she needs. But no matter what her world outside is like, she still has to live in the same cells and eat the same food and do the same work and be denigrated by the same guards as all of her inmate friends and enemies, and so I’m pretty sure her descriptions of those things can be trusted. Some of those descriptions don’t seem so bad: Kerman gets guaranteed meals (though of dubious quality), learns basic electric repair, and has the opportunity to go for runs and do yoga. But the parts where Kerman describes verbal abuse from the guards and other authority figures, or where she talks about having to “squat and cough” to prove she’s not smuggling contraband after a visit from her family or friends, paint a pretty bleak picture. It is clear that the punishment of jail is that you get a place to live for a while, but not a place where you can live. And to imagine doing that for years or decades, as some of Kerman’s neighbors had to? No thank you!

Kerman does describe some terrible prison experiences when she has to transfer from her cushy “camp” to some larger, higher-security prisons in preparation for a court date, but I think that the most horrifying parts of the book are when she describes how her minimum-security friends are prepared for release. These women are given the most cursory of explanations of how to interview for a job or apply for an apartment without learning where they can go to find jobs or homes or what to do while they’re waiting to be accepted to either. They’re taught not by professional social workers or employment specialists but by people who work in the prison, and they are never told how to stop associating with the people who got them in trouble in the first place.

It’s a tough book, and it is certainly not fun or entertaining, but I found it to be really enlightening, and I think most of my book-club-mates did, too, even if they wanted to have watched the show instead. File this under: Memoirs that are Not Terrible.

Recommendation: For people who want to know more about the prison system from a rich white person’s perspective.

Rating: 7/10