Oct 29, 2015 · 10 minutes

“What they want is compliance. The opposite of disruptive.”

Margaret Atwood has become an avid consumer of startup technology: Twitter, Byliner, Wattpad, Medium – she’ll grab onto just about anything that she thinks may get more people reading or writing, with almost none of the fear or elitism the rest of the publishing industry of “haves” has.

And yet, dammmmmnnnnnn, has she written the most eviscerating novel of what some of the ugliest corners of the startup world could turn into if they continue unchecked.

Her knack for writing such cold dystopian narratives –mixing the borderline absurdity of a pet rakunk with “oh this shit could actually happen…” chickienobs chills – is why I can’t wait to interview her on stage at Pandoland next year. (Book your tickets here.) I mean, when Snopes has to investigate whether your greed-soaked, walled corporate campus, genetically modified fictional world is actually occurring already, you might be onto something more plausible than we’d like to think.

But that was the Oryx and Crake Trilogy. (Some of the best stuff written in modern fiction for my money, and a current project in development by HBO.)

Her new novel, The Heart Goes Last, continues the absurd-but-not-absurd-enough view of a world where investor greed goes unchecked and humanity suffers. This time she’s no longer aiming at the world of genetics, but so squarely at the worst parts of Silicon Valley culture to have popped up in recent years, it makes me actually squirm reading it. If she wasn’t already a fantastic guest to open a tech conference in 2016, she is now.

I haven’t reached out for an interview about the book, because I want to have this conversation with Atwood on stage with 700 people in the room.

I also don’t want to spoil the ending like so many reviewers have. (One spoiler below that comes mid-way through the book, and is one of the less dramatic things that happens in the page-turner.) But I bought it Saturday and have carried it with me everywhere, stealing 10 minutes here or there to devour another morsel when gaps between kids and startups allow.

It’s as spellbinding as Atwood’s other post-apocalyptic work, while also feeling less literarily dense. There was more subtlety in Oryx and Crake. The Heart Goes Last is as close to beach reading as I’ve read from her. It’s like Margaret Atwood cotton candy. And as you would expect, it’s both delicious… and I feel sick from gorging on it.

It is a story of an unemployed couple in a future world, where the rich have gotten so rich they’ve seceded from the continent and are mostly living on floating platforms at sea. (SOUND FAMILIAR, SILICON VALLEY?) With the rich no longer living “on shore,” service jobs have gone the way that manufacturing jobs and unions went before them. The rich have their own chefs on their private seasteading compounds. The result is catastrophic unemployment and similarly catastrophic crime stemming from that, the sort of thing you see in most post-apocalyptic waste lands. Dirty, violent, hungry gangs roaming around attacking one another. You know the drill.

It isn’t any sort of actual disaster that’s felled humanity (not even a man-made one like in Oryx and Crake). Just crazy unemployment, brought on by a financial crash. (SOUND FAMILIAR?) Turns out, humanity didn’t need a natural disaster to lose its shit. (Uh-oh)

The answer? The private market, of course! Some pioneering entrepreneurs and investors white-boarded out a thought experiment to solve both problems – unemployment and crime: A twin-city with a prison inside. Those unemployed folks suffering on the outside can “enlist”– for life – and get guaranteed full employment and a house and all their basic needs met. All they have to do is agree to spend a month in prison every other month.

But don’t worry, this prison has been disrupted. The ingenious “hack” has meant that, for instance, the food is awesome – after all, guards and staff become prisoners the next month! Since everyone takes a turn, there’s no stigma around incarceration. And of course, this city/prison of Consilience and Positron is just the first of many that investors hope will be rolled out globally.

It’s the ultimate “careful what you wish for” to those who say Silicon Valley should stop trying to make money through apps and start trying to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Like most of the absolute worst companies in Silicon Valley, the experiment makes great sense in an investor deck, given the magnitude of the problem humanity faces – and that’s what makes Atwood such a master. And even as it all starts to unravel for the couple who enlists, you still can’t necessarily fault their decision given what was going on outside. Free will, or safety and basic needs met? It’s a hard call, one that only the libertarian disrupters rich enough they don’t have to face the it themselves, or the wet liberals who want to choose for everyone out of principle, can pretend is a “no brainer.”

This is the world we live in, this is where technology is going. What other choices are there? How many times have we heard the same essential justification for why Uber hopes to rip out “expensive” and inconvenient drivers and replace them with self driving cars one day?

“Wait a minute,” says Stan. “Nobody’s exploited?”

“I said nobody *feels* exploited,” says Bulge. “Different thing.”

The orientation is astounding. And sounds like an extended version of oh-so-many demo days. The CEO “Ed” is just as amazing in his painstakingly crafted storytelling framing the initiative and televised all-hands to the town. With his insistence that he’s only trying to help humanity, and that everyone should live in these cities one day, he’s downright Kalanick-ian: “When I look down from the top of a building, and see all the cars, I ask: why aren’t those all Ubers?”

Most chilling to me was a two page rant about the shady journalists who are seeking to twist and distort all the good work that his company is doing because – you know – they just hate for there to be good things in the world. We should hold them responsible for people who get attacked on the outside because they don’t enlist in Positron!

Oh wait, sorry that was what Emil Michaels of Uber actually said about me warning women off taking Uber – that I should be held personally responsible if they get raped in cabs. Said Paul Graham once on Twitter “Uber is so obviously a good thing that you can measure how corrupt cities are by how hard they try to suppress it.”

That’s right: Just criticizing a company like Uber could mean you not only have a different point of view or are wrong, but you are corrupt. (Yes, astoundingly, he means the same Uber that UN Women couldn’t be associated with because of its toxicity.)

“The Consilience model has been, in a word, so successful that it has created enemies. As successful enterprises always do.”

The journalists have to be stopped, because, well, you wouldn’t want to lose your homes and jobs right? That was in the book, and also something we have heard that CEOs have told staff about us in the last few years. Pando has survived several direct blows from people we’ve covered trying to damage our business. (Which is one reason we changed our model. Subscribe now if you don’t want them to win.)

And SPOILER it turns out the journalists in Atwood’s world aren’t wrong, and the company is insanely evil. Sure it started out noble, but it was corrupted by greed, a total lack of oversight, and the availability to make even higher profits. Cofounders defected in disgust. One-time friends were turned against each other. And – sorry, ACTUAL SPOILER – Ed and his investors ultimately wind up harvesting people for organs. Not evil enough? They also steal blood from babies because old rich people have come to believe that replacing all their blood with the young will keep the alive forever. Come on, old rich people actually believing money can buy eternal life? Now Atwood has really gone off the deep end....

“Stan doesn’t know whether to say ‘evil’ or ‘brilliant’”

The usual Silicon Valley justifications are all there too, uttered by sympathetic bloggers and the rank and file.

“There were a few rotten apples, but without them it wouldn’t have worked.”

And about a product line that indulges pedophiles: “The vertical is a big earner… hard to argue with the bottom line.”

To be clear: I don’t actually believe that the Google founders, Larry Ellison and everyone else who claim they can hack death are planning on harvesting baby blood to stay alive. But then again, I didn’t believe Uber would tell a table of reporters they planned to destroy me by going after my family. And we were all shocked at the lengths to which insanely wealthy tech giants went to steal wages from their employees. In the last year or so, I’ve wondered how well I know the soul of Silicon Valley. I hope such qualms are the result of an age of excesses, soon to be flushed out of the system to some degree.

The word “libertarianism” is nowhere in this book and the only time I caught “disruptive” is the quote above. But it’s the ultimate post-apocalyptic telling of that strand of entrepreneurship running amok and completely unchecked. A world where ultimate free will – you can check yourself into prison! – turns into no free will whatsoever. (“We pay people to quit after we train them! We only want people truly committed to our cause!”) Where the line between right and wrong is constantly shifted to meet quarterly earnings at the expense of those not in the senior offices. (cough, cough, Silicon Valley’s epic wage fixing scandal, or as Steve Jobs would put it: :) )

Either it’s an uncanny coincidence, or Atwood understands the evils of the machine behind all those consumer apps she fully embraces – better than many of the tech reporters obsessed with access who eagerly chronicle it. Likely the latter, as she wrote the bulk of this story as a Byliner original back in 2012-2013.

And that’s what’s great about fiction: A lot of people will read this book and say “it’s so scary because it could happen” even as they say that negative news about actual startups is a “bummer” or tut tut over Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary about Steve Jobs because of all the troubling questions of the greatest tech hero it raises.  

I’m not going to go so far as it say it’s a good thing most people assume a crash is coming in the venture world. Thousands of jobs could be lost, and that’s never a good thing. Dreams will explode. Founders will get screwed out of their equity as downrounds proliferate. There’s still way more good in this ecosystem than bad.

But a “correction” may strangle this ugly, greed-soaked weed of entrepreneur who argues he’s doing something for the common man, even as he seeks to put them in a prison and harvest their organs...er, replace them with self-driving cars.

So if you can’t handle “bummer” news about startups actually doing bad things, at least read The Heart Goes Last. Don’t worry, it’s far enough from reality, you’ll still be able to dismiss it as fantasy.