All hail the sex robots! Margaret Atwood's new book explores how tech meets human fear

While some of her other dystopian fiction becomes preachy, even hectoring, here a character hears about a sex robot that is “like a super-dildo, only with a body attached”.

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“Stan has a new job. He’s an Empathy Module adjustor for UR-ELF Las Vegas, Robotics Department.” Aldous Huxley would find nothing surprising about those lines from Margaret Atwood’s new novel, save for this: in Brave New World, that sort of matter-of-fact techno-industrial formulation was always subject to unambiguous criticism, whereas in The Heart Goes Last, the protagonist’s gaining of employment under such conditions is a happy turn of events.

That is only evidence of just how awful Stan’s situation has been up to this late point in the story, owing to his experiences as a willing participant, alongside his wife, Charmaine, in a corporate-sponsored social experiment. Before, they were a homeless married couple in their early thirties, living in a near-future United States that has been economically and socially devastated. Sleeping in a car, embittered by low prospects and fearful of lurking rapists and thugs, Stan and Charmaine are almost getting by on the wages that Charmaine earns at a brothel-like dive bar until, one day, a man in a seemingly clairvoyant ­television commercial asks her, “Tired of living in your car? Of course you are! You didn’t sign up for this. You had other dreams. You deserve better.”

Easily convinced, Charmaine tells Stan about the opportunity and soon they join the Positron Project in the town of Consilience. Riffing in part on “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), Ursula K Le Guin’s short fiction about a utopia that depends for its existence on a child being imprisoned and tortured so that everyone else can enjoy life in a perfect world, Atwood has her characters join a community whose members alternate, from month to month, between a stable suburban existence – clean homes, steady jobs, plentiful food, television – and confinement and forced labour at a nearby prison.

But never mind Huxley and Le Guin, or Kafka and Orwell, for that matter, all of whose works find some resonance in Atwood’s latest story. Likewise, forget about all of the many novelists who are peddling harrowing, dark futures these days. Atwood has long been writing dystopian fiction, including The Handmaid’s Tale and, more recently, the MaddAddam trilogy. These novels have advanced pointed ideological critiques – feminist, environmentalist, feminist-environmentalist – through the stories of ordinary people who are either caught in the middle of grimly victorious totalitarian systems or trying to survive in a world that has been all but destroyed by them.

The Heart Goes Last shares this premise, if working more squarely within the conventions of the standard utopian-dystopian narrative. The lead characters proceed from enjoying the respite they have found from a hard and failing world to sensing that something is amiss in this paradise, then to discovering that their lives and those of others are at risk and that they have been betrayed, before risking it all to expose the truth.

In this particular case, while not knowing exactly what the other is up to, thanks to convenient cases of mistaken identity and faked deaths, Stan and Charmaine soon become involved in a sex-filled shaggy-dog caper that culminates in a multi-pronged espionage mission to Las Vegas, featuring Elvis sex-bots and a woman who has been neurologically rewired to hump a teddy bear. The caper is part of a larger plan to publicise the evil doings in Consilience. Stan and Charmaine agree to do their part, mostly to save themselves and to salvage a relationship that has been wrecked by the shabby personal choices they make after moving to the town.

Through all of this, Atwood has many ­serious points to make, primarily about what happens to ordinary humanity when predatory capitalism and technocratic triumphalism encounter desperate, fearful people in possession of crushed spirits and easily tempted bodies. While some of her other dystopian fiction often becomes preachy, even hectoring, here she relies mostly on mordant humour and scouring satire, as when a character hears about a sex robot that is so effective that it is “like a super-dildo, only with a body attached”. His response: “Wish I felt like that.” What kind of world would inspire someone to that sort of shudder-worthy envy?

It’s a world that Atwood coolly renders as being uncomfortably like our own. Sincere arguments against immoral business practices, for instance, are dismissed with righteous observations such as “Jobs are at stake” and “Folks out there have bills to pay” – even when those jobs involve manufacturing and marketing child sex-bots for paedophiles. Elsewhere, corporate types talk up all the money to be made from the latest health craze in a wealthy and ageing society: “Ed says the next hot thing is going to be babies’ blood, by the way. It’s being talked up as very rejuvenating for the elderly, and the margin on that is going to be astronomical.”

In the end – spoiler alert – Stan and Charmaine survive and help expose (if not era­dicate) assorted dehumanising evils. They find a more credibly stable life beyond Consilience and the greater American badlands. Then, through a revelation wonderfully fraught with irony and moral profundity, Atwood leaves her characters with a difficult choice. Charmaine and Stan can either continue to live out a clean, happy life, even though its foundations have been proven to be false, or struggle through a messy situation that is far more genuine – which is to say, far more genuinely human.

Randy Boyagoda’s “Richard Niehaus: a Life in the Public Square” is published by Image

The Heart Goes Last is available now from Bloosmbury (£18.99)

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War