I love me a good dystopia and I enjoyed this futuristic satire despite the slightly jarring shifts in tone, especially towards the end when it seemingly abandons all restraint and dives into (still very entertaining) surreal silliness.
The beginning of the book is fairly grounded: in the near future, a financial crisis has reduced a large part of the USA to an unemployed wasteland. Charmaine and Stan, a married couple down on their luck, are living in their car, getting by on tips Charmaine makes working at a seedy bar, scavenging for food, always on guard from the roaming bandits. They’re in fact prime candidates for a socioeconomic experiment called the Positron Project, which they see advertised one day. It is located in the town of Consilience, and provides the lucky applicants with jobs and roof over their heads. The catch? One, every other month, they have to swap the occupancy of their house with the Alternates – a couple just like them they’re never supposed to meet – and spend a whole month in the on-site prison. Two, the project is for life and you can never ever leave Consilience for the outside world.
Sure enough, Charmaine and Stan promptly sign up and at first things are ok, even though the happy-happy 50s aesthetic of the town, down to the selection of music you’re allowed to listen to, is rather dull and antiseptic (no rock music or anything else deemed overly stimulating). Charmaine seems happy in her new surrounds, but Stan begins to find their marriage stale and sex too vanilla. His imagination is set on fire when, one day, he finds a love note under the fridge, presumably written by the female Alternate who shares their house, hinting at the kind of sexual abandon he craves. Unable to stop fantasising about the woman, Stan is determined to meet her, even though such contact is against the rules. Little does he know what massive shocks expect him.
Of course there’s much more going on than a tale of marital infidelities, and soon enough the story dives into – surprise – the dark side of the Positron Project, getting increasingly sinister and absurd and involving sexbots, knitted blue teddy bears, gay Elvis impersonators… among other things. At times it gets almost too silly, yet its bleak view of humanity and the scary places future technology and corporate greed might take us to don’t feel all that far-fetched, sadly. The novel is perhaps more uneven than some of the other Atwood books, but her imagination and caustic wit are a delight as always.