The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)


Margaret Atwood (writer).


Read in 2018.




The exemplar of literal English-major science fiction. It combines the awkward, aching physicality and implausible motivations of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) with constant fragmentation and meditation on words and social nuances. Some of the portmanteau neologisms are silly: “prayvaganza”, “particicution”, “econowife”.

Thankfully, Atwood provides a few scenes to describe how the theonomist (“monotheocratic”) takeover happened, but it doesn’t make sense. Where were the Second Amendment militias? The police? The FBI? The judiciary? The world’s best funded military? Business leaders losing nearly half the workforce? State governments? Even in the epilogue, written by an in-universe historian, they’re never mentioned.

For that matter, where are the environmental activists who prevented the toxic holocaust in reality? Why did theonomy emerge instead as the accepted solution, given that infertility due to chemical pollution is not religiously stigmatized even in the case of the handmaids themselves? The drastic effects of pollution and the violent dudes on every street corner are pretty schlocky without an explanation.

The leaders of Gilead are so hypocritical that they run a whorehouse while misquoting The Bible (ca. 110 CE), not allowing it to be read. Oddly, they don’t seem to be full-on Nineteen Eighty-Four-style totalitarians for the sake of it. It is as if Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptists suddenly started running the country because of 9/11. It doesn’t connect, even with a CIA playbook for regime change. The worldbuilding seems to be an effort to combine the horror of Iran’s theocracy, Ceaușescu’s “heroine mother” decree, the Lebensborn programme, the heritage of US Puritanism and Lawrence Buell’s toxic discourse with worthwhile feminist musings, putting credibility somewhat in the back seat.

The protagonist’s despair is convincing on its own level. The narration is consistently rich and smart. It makes Offred seem realistically flawed and eerily reasonable to chicken out of active resistance. Like Winston Smith, she is largely ordinary.

References here: Children of Men (2006), The Hunger Games (2012).

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