Atwood read the blueprint

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. [Don’t let the bastards grind you down.]
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaids have entered the Texas legislature.
Nan L. Kirkpatrick‏ @nanarchist Mar 20:
The Handmaids have entered the #txlege. #sb415 #fightbacktx pic.twitter.com/Fpa9cNGHR0

The rate at which proposed  regulation, crafted by the American Far (“Christian”) Right, targets women’s most basic rights has been accelerating over the last several years. Bills that used to be outlandishly unthinkable are now commonplace, what with the Republican Party having wholly embraced the right-wing fringe, especially in its Dominionist flavour.

A protest against proposed draconian restrictions on abortion last week at the Texas legislature was only the most recent to draw parallels with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about an ultra-Christian future of gender-regulated servitude, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Of course, the upcoming release of Hulu’s series based on the novel has also brought the book to the forefront of pop culture again, but the novel has been increasingly mentioned in news, streams, threads, and conversations about the Right’s treatment of women.

Earlier this week I was reading about the original critical reception to Atwood’s landmark book. It was darkly funny to learn that some reviewers — like the New York Times’ Mary McCarthy (Feb. 9, 1986) — felt its premise was too unbelievable to be successful:

“Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue. That was the effect of ”Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its scary dating, not 40 years ahead, maybe also of ”Brave New World” and, to some extent, of ”A Clockwork Orange.” “

“It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing from Margaret Atwood’s very readable book ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” offered by the publisher as a ”forecast” of what we may have in store for us in the quite near future. A standoff will have been achieved vis-a-vis the Russians, and our own country will be ruled by right-wingers and religious fundamentalists, with males restored to the traditional role of warriors and us females to our ”place” – which, however, will have undergone subdivision into separate sectors, of wives, breeders, servants and so forth, each clothed in the appropriate uniform. A fresh postfeminist approach to future shock, you might say. Yet the book just does not tell me what there is in our present mores that I ought to watch out for unless I want the United States of America to become a slave state something like the Republic of Gilead whose outlines are here sketched out. “

It’s worth reading the entire review, it seems like a point-by-point comment on current news, 32 years after publication. It’s hard to believe these days that McCarthy found A Clockwork Orange’s dystopia more likely than the one in Atwood’s “palely lurid pages.”

[Edit: Here are some very current topics touched on in The Handmaid’s Tale which I jotted the last time I read the book:

    • Patriarchy and kyriarchy
    • Rise of religious fundamentalism
    • Feminist reactions to pornography
    • “Freedom to” versus “freedom from,” and safety versus liberty
    • Abortion, contraception, and reproductive choices
    • Self-determination, ownership of one’s body
    • Right to take one’s own life
    • Environmental degradation
    • Surveillance and information technology
    • Gun control
    • Sexual orientation and choice
    • Non-reproductive sex
    • Citizenship
    • Poverty
    • Access to education, knowledge as power
    • Status of and relationships between U.S. and Russia
    • Public apathy and the creep of authoritarianism
    • Isolationism
    • Televangelists and the Christian media industry

And I bet I missed some.]

Partisanship has been increasing over the past 25 years. The Republican Party now controls the U.S. Presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives, as well as the “trifecta” (governorship + both State congressional houses) in 25 state legislatures, the senate in 12 more states, the house of representatives in six more states, and governorship in eight more states, and soon the ninth and deciding seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The trend is clear, and it is frightening.

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Credits: Photo by Nan L. Kirkpatrick, as seen on Vulture.

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Pop Culture Gilead?

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"So I joined a follow-up reading group on Goodreads which participants in my recent SF/F class created in order to continue discussing fantasy and science fiction books of note in-depth.  The plan is to have one book a month to read and discuss, alternating between works of science fiction and fantasy.  We are starting with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for April.

Margaret Atwood is well-known for refusing the label “science fiction” for her work.  In fact, three decades later I still have trouble thinking of her work as a science fiction; I grew up looking at what my parents — both avid readers — were reading and my mom had all the early French translations of Atwood’s works.  My mom has never liked science fiction, ergo, Margaret Atwood didn’t write science fiction!

You can view the book online on OnRead.com.  It had the distinction of making No. 37 on the American Library Association (ALA)’s list of 100 most challenged books of the 1990-1999 decade, but dropped to No. 88 in 2000-2009, woo-hoo!

You can read many of Atwood’s works: books, short stories, essays, articles, interviews, as well as reviews or her books, etc. on Unz.org.

The discussion of the book’s motifs on TV Tropes is worth browsing.  I think it’s fair to say that as a place to live in, the Republic of Gilead sits as far as it can from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.

There is a 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, and Robert Duvall as The Commander; the link has the entire movie with original English audio but German subtitles on YouTube.

A dramatic adaptation of the novel for radio was produced for BBC Radio 4 by John Dryden in 2000.  Listen online to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of 3.

"The Handmaid's Tale" opera productionThere is even an opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders; you can sample and buy tracks here.  From what I can see, the visuals in the English National Opera’s production were very dramatic even if the music got lukewarm reviews from critics.

Someone used Storify.com to make a sort of visual summary of the book using images from edition covers, stills from the 1990 movie, and images of the opera productions.

I think it’s fair to say that Atwood’s book had far-reaching influence, even in unabashedly entertainment-oriented science fiction.  Gilead is a dead ringer for several dystopias in later books, like David Drake’s Protectorate of Grayson (the redeemable version of Gilead) and Masada (the hard-core version) in his Honor Harrington series; and Elizabeth Moon’s New Texas (known in our household as “the Space Stupids”) in her Familias Regnant universe.

An interesting perspective from a self-described Mennonite feminist, The Femonite: The Handmaid’s Tale – Atwood and Feminism Then and Now.

Once again, I’m going to mention the game Shock: Social Science Fiction (Glyphpress), which is a fiction game of culture and future shock. Based on the works of masters of speculative fiction, the game pushes the players to make stories that matter to them — stories about politics, philosophy, love, and death.  It is a very good way to re-create a story in the style of Atwood’s various thought experiments.


Top illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso, winners of a Gold Award from The American Society of Illustrators, for the Culture Label deluxe edition.  No copyright challenge intended.

Photo of English National Opera’s production of the opera version obtained from The Guardian UK.  No copyright challenge intended.