The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling dystopia that feels real in every breath. It’s the story, told in pieces, through the eyes and life of one woman, of how the US slowly fell into being an oppressive religious dictatorship.
When you write mainstream fiction, you write about the truths of the human heart. When you write science fiction, you get to write about the truths of the human heart plus squids in space, how cool is that? Margaret Atwood is a brilliant Canadian feminist writer who has embraced this by leaving the literary ghetto and coming over to the science fiction side. This often isn’t easy, writers like P.D. James and Marge Piercy have embarrassed themselves trying to make SF work, because you can’t just write science fiction as if it were mainstream fiction, you have to know how to make it work, and reinventing the wheel from scratch gets clunky. Atwood however sails past this and uses SF techniques, not just in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a dystopia, but in the straight-forwardly near-future science fiction novels Oryx and Crake and sequel The Year of the Flood. It’s odd that Atwood so fervently denies writing SF, when other literary crossover writers who have mastered the technique, like Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro, don’t have a problem with the word. Ursula Le Guin has some wonderful snark in her Guardian review. But clearly, Atwood has a problem with the concept of squids in space. But she’s a terrific writer, and I’m very glad she did turn to SF, because I’d probably never have started reading her if it hadn’t been for The Handmaid’s Tale, which really is brilliant.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood takes a familiar form. I’m not sure if there’s a name for it. There’s a present time story going along, and there’s a lot of backstory, and the way the backstory got the character to the present time story is as important to the resolution as the events of the present time story. Atwood uses it in Lady Oracle and Cat’s Eye, and Ken MacLeod uses it in The Stone Canal and Cosmonaut Keep. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re presented with a first person narrator who is a handmaid in a dystopian future, and who used to be a women with a job and a husband. We learn slowly through layers of revelation what it means to be a handmaid, and we learn even more slowly what happened to the narrator and the world to get them both to that position.
The narrator’s voice is compelling and close up, present tense and focused on detail and description. The narrator, as a handmaid, is not allowed her own name, only “Offred,” i.e. “Of Fred,” meaning “Fred’s handmaid.” We learn about her time in the Center learning how to be a handmaid, and about her daily life. Atwood has thoroughly mastered the science fictional art of incluing, scattering in the information and trusting the reader to put it together. The details are perfect. Offred is forbidden to read, but in her room is a cushion embroidered with the word “Faith,” which she reads over and over. She hoards butter to rub on her skin, because she isn’t allowed handcream. The takeover begins when she tries to buy cigarettes and her card is invalid—all the women’s cards have been invalidated and given to their male next-of-kin. She loves her husband, but she also suddenly needs to rely on him, and it puts a barrier between them. (The whole card thing was an impressive piece of science fictional prediction—reading it now I was imagining my daily Interac use, but this was written in 1985.) The takeover happened slowly and one step at a time, and people didn’t complain until they were the ones in trouble. There’s an awful lot about it that’s very creepy and has horrible resonances. There’s a mention of seeing news about the resettlement of the “Children of Ham” (African Americans) in North Dakota, where they were supposed to farm. The Biblical literalism required for of making women into sex-slaves is exactly the way people do use selective Bible quotations for their own purposes.
This is a book about the absolute importance of feminism, the idea that women are people. This idea has not been the norm through history, and isn’t the norm everywhere on the planet now. In the afterword, an academic paper on the text from a hundred and fifty years later, Gilead is explicitly compared to Iran. There’s a moment where Offred is stopped in the street by a Japanese tourist and asked if she is happy, and she has to reply that she is very happy, because of course the translator is one of the secret police. This reminds me of interviews with women in Afghanistan saying how happy they were with the Taliban and the chador. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t hammer down its points, and it works better for being subtle. It also isn’t a book where all men are made out to be monsters. Even the man who is a monster, Fred, the Commander, is shown preferring it when the handmaid’s life is tolerable, playing Scrabble, breaking the rules. Luke and Nick are both shown as admirable, and as screwed over by the system as the women are. Gay men are mentioned (but not shown) as being early victims. The most important point isn’t about feminism though, it’s that democracy thrives when people have choices and aren’t afraid to speak out even when it isn’t their own ox being gored.
This is a very good book, but not a cheerful one. I really like it and admire it, but I don’t re-read it often because I don’t often want to read about how people give in, about the world becoming worse. But there is hope here, there’s a masterfully achieved ambiguous ending that’s as happy as possible under the circumstances, and it has great characters. It’s also written incredibly well and with a masterful command of technique. (It caused me to rush out and read all Atwood’s earlier work, and to read everything she’s written since.) It’s the kind of book that could only be science fiction, that goes beyond what it’s possible to write within the narrow space to which mimetic writers feel themselves confined. This is what science fiction is. There are no squids in space. But oddly enough, we can cope without.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.