'Future Home of the Living God' an eerie look at a possible future

Saturday, November 25, 2017 - 10:20am

No matter where on the political spectrum you land, we can all agree that the last two years have been chaotic at best and, at worst, downright terrifying. The line between truth and lies has been increasingly and deliberately blurred, the validity of both the free press and the government has been called into question and the stakes for continued human existence on this planet have never seemed higher. That’s some heavy stuff. However, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel: 2017 has been manna from heaven for dystopian fiction writers and fans. Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, “Future Home of the Living God,” comes at a perfect time, when our day-to-day routines are forced to coexist with a moment of profound social, political and existential anxiety.

“Future Home of the Living God” tells the story of Cedar, a woman of Ojibwe descent adopted at birth by white Minneapolis liberals. Cedar discovers that she’s pregnant at the same time that evolution begins to move rapidly backwards for all of the earth’s organisms, including humans, and pregnant women are claimed as property of the state, hunted down and forced into hospitals and prisons. To protect herself and her unborn child, Cedar must go into hiding as she navigates her shifting relationships with her adoptive and birth families and her romance with her baby’s father.

Let’s get this out of the way: if the plot sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s eerily close to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” fresh in the popular consciousness after Hulu’s successful adaptation for TV earlier this year, which also speculates about the subjugation of women following a natural disaster that reduces reproductive viability. But this isn’t to say that Atwood fans should skip Erdrich’s version altogether; what “Future Home of the Living God” lacks in originality of plot, it makes up for in a clear-eyed understanding of our current sociopolitical and environmental circumstances, an intersectional focus on feminist issues and Erdrich’s remarkable compassion for human power and frailty.

“Future Home of the Living God” offers what feels like it could be an uncomfortably on-the-nose portrait of life at the end of the world. Erdrich is a staunch realist; what makes her dystopia so terrifying is that it’s also so plausible, even in its most outrageous aspects. The foundations of her vision of the apocalypse — the takeover of fundamentalist religious sects in mainstream politics, the hyper-legislation of women’s bodies and the cultural understanding of pregnant women as public property, and the progression of climate change past the point of no return — are all so predicated on reality that her more outrageous claims — the reversal of evolution, disembodied voices and government omniscience — all feel disturbingly unremarkable. Erdrich’s dystopia is even more plausible because of the way it acknowledges racism as an undercurrent in the disintegration of society (an element that is notably less prevalent in “The Handmaid’s Tale”). For example, people of color disappear from the media almost overnight, and the unborn babies of white parents are prioritized over all others.

Perhaps the most unnervingly realistic element of the novel, however, is the way that the end of the world seems to be happening in the background as many elements of normal life carry on. Erdrich writes, “This is how the world ends, I think, everything crazy yet people doing normal things.” Erdrich fuses this with an understanding of how privilege can, for a time, shelter some people from the events of the apocalypse more than others. Cedar is aware of the fact that, in the enclave of her white, wealthy family she is able to ignore events that are apocalyptic for more vulnerable people. In this way, Erdrich offers a compassionate criticism of the way many of us cope with global tragedy and change in our own world.

Ultimately, this is a novel not only about the end of things, but about beginnings: birth in the midst of death, life moving forward even as evolution moves backwards. Erdrich’s comfort with this ambiguity, and her ability to see her characters both critically and compassionately, make “Future Home of the Living God” a valuable contribution to the growing canon of dystopian fiction as we move into a brave new world.