A huge financial crash has devastated large areas of America. The north east has been hit especially hard with 40% of the population unemployed. The area has become known as the rust bucket. The population are increasingly homeless, jobless and without hope; crime and lawlessness have become the norm.
Stan and Charmaine are just two of the many people affected. Stan lost his job at Dimple Robotics, and Charmaine hers at the Ruby Slippers Retirement home. Now they live in their car, Stan in the front in case looters try to break in during the night. They move from car park to car park, relying on the small amount of money that Charmaine makes from her job behind the bar at PixieDust.
One day behind the bar, Charmaine sees an advert for the Positron Project: a twin city designed to help increase employment and decrease poverty. Inhabitants have a duel life: one month they spend in the walled town of Consilience, in a clean home with a bed and fresh towels, working in jobs that support the town. The following month they spend in Positron Prison. During their time in prison, their ‘alternates’ live in the house until the time comes to swap over. If you are accepted by the project and choose to stay then it is a permanent decision.
This is Margaret Atwood at her best. In a dystopian near future, she captures the bleakness, fear and desperation so well. Even once Stan and Charmaine are accepted into Positron, there is still a feeling of foreboding, a sense that all is not as it seems. The book is written mostly in the present tense which adds to this. You live alongside the characters, immerse yourself in their world. The characters themselves are great. Flawed; full of self doubt, jealousies, fear. I really enjoyed the way they develop over the course of the book.
If I had one qualm, it would be that Stan’s story flags a little bit about 80% of the way through. It is Charmaine’s story which takes over here and it is important that it does, but I wanted that continued build up of tension. Stan’s plot line took me out of the moment a little bit.
It tackles big questions. What drives us as humans? Charmaine and Stan want to be safe, ideally in a home with clean sheets. To be a useful member of society, to contribute. Positron offers all of this. But as the book progresses we start to ask more questions. Who decides who is useful and who is not? Money and power are the driving forces, even in this microcosm of society.