In most dystopian fiction these days, we humans are clearly to blame for our ruin: We launch nuclear missiles, we pollute the planet, we engineer viruses (digital and organic) that get the better of us.
In Louise Erdrich’s philosophical yet propulsive 16th novel, Future Home of the Living God (Harper, 288 pp., ★★★ out of four), the source of the chaos is harder to pinpoint. Evolution has inexplicably ceased, turning the world regressive and violent. Was it something we did? Didn’t do? “Maybe God has decided that we are an idea not worth thinking anymore,” muses Cedar, the novel’s narrator.
The glimpses of nature in this stalled new world are discomfiting: Cedar hears of “ladybugs the size of cats,” and spies a “sabertoothy cat thing” eating a dog and a dragonfly with “a three-foot wingspan, golden green eyes the size of softballs.”
The real terror, though, is social. Cedar is 26 and pregnant, and in the panic over a changed world, pregnant women are being rounded up for uncertain purposes: protection, study, or something more nefarious. Women are rapidly disenfranchised, hunted down, and forced into “female gravid detention.”
That’s a phrase worthy of Margaret Atwood, and Living God does bear a strong resemblance to the dystopias of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood. Women are menaced by evangelists: The Minneapolis street Cedar lives on has been renamed after a Bible verse, and UPS trucks have been repurposed by a group called the Unborn Protection Society.
Trapped first in her home and then in a prison-like maternity ward, Cedar fears what awaits the child she’s scheduled to deliver on — symbolism alert — Christmas Day.
“Hell is what’s happening right now, here on earth,” Cedar’s mother tells her, but that’s a notion that Cedar, like Erdrich, works to resist.
Cedar is born Native American, adopted by Minneapolis Buddhists, and became a serious Catholic — and before the world became warped as if by a funhouse mirror, she ran a religious magazine called Zeal.
Erdrich, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for her novel The Round House, interweaves the plot with Ojibwe folklore and writings by Catholic thinkers like Thomas Merton, spiritual lifelines for Cedar as she plots her survival….