Thursday, 16 September 2010


Like a certain Scottish novelist, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has a foot in both literary- and science-fiction camps. She labels her forays into the latter as "speculative fiction", but regular readers of science fiction may have trouble spotting the difference. Actually, since Atwood's writing is at a standard much greater than the rest of the genre, perhaps it wouldn't be so difficult. Anyway, after detours with her more recent "speculative" novels, I finally got around to reading probably her best known work, the 1985 dystopian fable The Handmaid's Tale.

Set at an unspecified date in the near-future, the novel is narrated by Offred, a woman living in a secure compound in the household of the Commander, a senior figure in the Republic of Gilead. As she goes through the details of her daily life, Offred's gradually sketches out the nature of Gilead and, most significantly, her role within it. Through this narration it becomes clear that this new republic is the result of a secretive coup d'Ă©tat by Christian extremists that eliminated the United States government, blamed it on Muslim terrorists and stealthily took power to "restore order". Exploiting the nation's fears, and leveraging itself into power using the media and control over electronic banking, the coup's leaders created Gilead as a new theocracy which (re-)installs a militaristic, and chauvinistic, Christianity at the heart of society.

However, all is not well within this New Jerusalem. Because of pervasive environmental pollution, fertility has declined, and seemingly fertile women like Offred are highly valued, particularly by the ruling elite keen to father the next generation. But since this is a Christian nation where the sanctity of marriage is paramount and the divorce of infertile wives cannot be permitted, the leaders of Gilead have devised a suitably Biblical workaround that draws from the story of Rachel, Jacob and Bilhah. Offred's role in Gilead is to bear children for the Commander and his wife, a prominent televangelist prior to the coup, and to do so in a bizarre, literalist take on the text from Genesis, in which all three are present at conception.

But Offred is not conceiving, and Handmaids who do not produce children are dispatched to an uncertain future. The Commander is also showing an interest in Offred that extends beyond her formal role as an indentured surrogate mother, and exploiting his position and influence to gently woo her with contraband items such as books and makeup. Furthermore, Offred's fellow Handmaid and neighbour, Ofglen, whom she first suspects as a spy, instead reveals herself as a member of the resistance against Gilead. While their closeness offers Offred a route to escape from the Commander using an "underground railroad", it also has the potential to lead to both of their deaths at the hands of a regime quick to publicly execute all those who refuse to conform. The collision of these factors, and the rediscovery of Offred's pre-Gilead friend Moira, who escaped while Offred passively resigned herself to her Handmaid fate, brings events to a climax.

While reading The Handmaid's Tale, it's easy to forget that it was written a quarter of a century ago. With Dubya and post-9/11 fallout still fresh in the mind, it's almost worrying how fresh this novel seems to a contemporary reader (well, this contemporary reader at any rate). While Atwood was almost certainly moved by (or reacting to) the revival of political Christianity in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, and especially its conflict with feminism, the themes of The Handmaid's Tale are at least as relevant today. If anything, the stranglehold that it has over civic discourse gives right-wing Christianity an even more significant (and divisive) role in the US now than it did when Atwood was originally writing. Who says there's no such thing as progress?

Leaving aside the novel's continued relevance, is it any good? Well, yes. As well as creating another plausible future based on the projection of a (then and now) present phenomenon, Atwood does so in an enjoyably elegant and economic style. The reader uncovers the history of Gilead, as well as that of Offred, piece by piece, at a pace that holds attention but which completely avoids the exposition-overload characteristic of much science fiction. While it does include a somewhat tangential coda, the narrative isn't burdened by any last act revelations of the sort frequently used in science fiction to reframe and add (frequently pompous) weight to dystopias.

In reading the Wikipedia article on this novel, I looked up a couple of other novels that were listed as having similar themes. A quick glance through their plot summaries, especially that of Heinlein's If This Goes On-, shows just how well Atwood balances the various elements of setting, plot and character. The Handmaid's Tale narrows its focus to the perspective of a single character, and the essentially small-scale events that occur in her life, to flesh out a portrait of a whole society with occasional, almost impressionistic, observations. There are no (well, almost no) fast-paced adventures, no grand plots to overthrow Gilead, and no climatic table-turnings for the "bad guys". Instead, Atwood lets Offred tell her small story naturally, mixing in her memories with the day's events, and letting her reflect on her increasingly precarious situation. Were Heinlein re-writing the novel (or, frankly, any regular SF author), Offred would doubtless progress through a long series of violent scrapes and come to head up a full-scale rebellion that would ultimately leave the Commander's head on a pole!

Though I've focused on the religious themes above, the novel is most interested in how the theocracy of Gilead consciously and systematically diminishes the role of women in society. Atwood imagines a world in which the role of women is once more curtailed to reproduction, and in which they are thoroughly objectified by a ruling (and hypocritical) patriarchy. While Offred is treated humanely while she is compliant, it's abundantly clear that she cannot stray from the "norms" reinstated by Gilead. Of which, Atwood has almost created a mirror-image version of the Islamic Taliban, but projected into a modern, Christian nation. Viewed this way, the plausibility of the transition that Atwood describes makes the novel read as a warning of what could happen to secular, western states if they cede ground to sexist ideologies from our past. A quick glance around discussions of the novel on the web reveals many related nuances and details that completely passed me by, but it's fair to say that I'm not a big reader of feminist theory (though I like to think I'm a supporter of those portions I'm aware of). But it's refreshing to read a novel that is both deftly written and which weaves in such important themes (even when I don't spot all of them). Worthy themes, clunkily bashed across the head of the reader, is much more the norm for science fiction.

One aspect of the novel that is somewhat incongruous, and may well put off some readers, is the coda already mentioned. This is set some time after the main narrative and takes a completely different literary form to the rest of the novel. Essentially it is a transcript of an academic seminar, and reveals Offred's narrative as a series of tape recordings that she made to tell her story. The seminar partly attempts to investigate the fates of the characters Offred describes, but is focused more on using her words to build up a picture of Gilead, and to analyse its society. As a quasi-academic myself, I really quite enjoyed this portion, though that's partly because I recognise the portrait it paints of academic inquiry. The seminar does also somewhat settle the preceding ambiguous ending, which is exactly the sort of thing that an investigating researcher would try to do, but it is unnecessary and I'm sure detracts from the novel for most readers (Atwood's later deflation of Oryx and Crake's ending in The Year of the Flood marks her as a repeat offender).

Anyway, The Handmaid's Tale gets a doubleplusgood dystopian recommendation from me. I strongly suspect that I'll be returning to Atwood's back-catalogue before too long.

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