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Margaret Atwood in Toronto on March 6, 2012.


The future that Margaret Atwood postulates in this meaty cautionary tale is built upon our present age. Contemporary issues lead to the social experiment staked out in the story. Faltering economics, unemployment, starvation and violence have brought about a state so desperate to mitigate chaos that the citizens volunteer to become inmates. Literally. Here is a solution for a crime-ridden time: Put everybody in the slammer, and leave the criminals and miscreants outside.

The logical outcome of intransigent fear is an economy of control. In a landscape of foreclosed houses and jobless times, going to prison seems like deliverance, an alternative to a world collapsing on its axis. Prison's "viable economic units" offer food, water and gainful employment – in short, security, that precious commodity so under siege.

And so, participants in a brave new experiment, the characters in I'm Starved for You commit themselves to "Positron" in a community dubbed Consilience. As an alternative to rank unpredictability, prison seems like a good idea. A respite from free will's inevitable turbulence, Consilience appears calm and benign, although of course, no universe of Atwood's imagining is ever so temperate.

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Inevitably, nothing upends a controlling regime so much as desire. The naked disorder of desire resists wire fences and surveillance cameras alike, oblivious to the rules that monitor and restrain. Take away free will and the avid wish to evade control will almost inevitably materialize. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the real danger to structural confinement arises from human connection, where violence and pleasure and turmoil are enacted.

Atwood's employment of language to measure the insidious persuasions of a state apparatus is superb. The compounding of "Conciliate" with "Silence" in the experimental "Concilience" suggests the extent to which language can be complicit in the placation of an unruly populace. And the title implies the one condition that would enforce compliance with state control: starvation.

What makes this story so impressive is Atwood's management of detail. She sets up a completely plausible universe, as seamless as a stocking, and shockingly believable. In fact, she is so good at imagining such a society that it's obvious she'd make a great Minister of Protocol.

Her wry humour (especially when it comes to chickens) is as formidable as ever, and as disquieting. How she manages to make so dark a world both comic and terrifying is truly remarkable, a measure of her unerring skill.

And in keeping with her role as Canada's Cassandra, Atwood cuts no corners in gesturing toward our need to be wary of those who would build more prisons, and those who believe that imprisonment is salubrious, or even a solution.

Beware, she cries, beware. If only we would heed her augury.

Aritha van Herk lives and writes in Calgary.

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