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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Religious Offense

Jesus and MoThere’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about religious offense (according to Wikipedia, that means “any action which offends religious sensibilities and arouses serious negative emotions in people with strong belief and which is usually associated with an orthodox response to, or correction of, sin.”) And I, for one am mightily tired of suffering religious offense.

I’m offended every time someone suggests that posting irreverent cartoons might deserve murder.

I’m offended every time someone tells a kid that their friend who isn’t of the same religion will go to hell because of it.

I’m offended every time a woman is treated as being half a man’s worth because someone’s god supposedly decreed it so.

I’m offended every time a child is molested by a religious authority, and I’m fucking mad as hell when the higher religious authorities systematically cover this up.

I’m offended every time a girl suffers genital mutilation in the name of purity.

I’m offended when people are denied basic rights, harassed, jailed, even murdered for their sexual orientation in the name of religious belief.

I’m offended every time a pharmacist, doctor, counsellor, or other health professional withholds contraception from a woman because of their religion.

I’m offended when a child is denied medical care because their parents have religious objections.

I’m offended every time I see a barrier to holding office based on religious belief or lack thereof.

I’m offended people are jailed, beaten, mutilated, murdered under the law of the land for blasphemy.

In short, I’m religiously offended all the time. So if you’re one of those people who care deeply about religious offense and like to tell me how I should adopt a gentler tone, won’t you please, pretty please, fuck right off?

Credits: Jesus and Mo is used under Creative Commons License for noncommercial purposes, under the same license. Joe Forde, I made a donation to Jesus and Mo’s Patreon site for you. You’re welcome.

In Praise of Defiance and Pride

Mohamed overwhelmed by fundamentalists: "It's rough, being loved by idiots..."
Mohamed overwhelmed by fundamentalists: “It’s rough, being loved by idiots…”

Why is anyone asking seriously whether cartoons of Mohamed (or any other naughty cartoons) should be published? Why is anyone asking whether the people murdered at Charlie Hebdo “asked for it”, “deserved it”? And why is anyone hesitating for a moment to answer “Yes!” to the first question, and “Are you fucking kidding me?” to the second?

I’ll tell you, I’m damn tired of people who want to protect free speech as long as it’s pleasing and fluffy and considerate. Unobjectionable, accommodating speech is not an endangered species; controversial speech is what needs to be free, and protected. (That includes posting irreverent cartoons and outrageous articles, not committing murder, so we’re clear.)

And on a related topic, I’ve had it up to here with the privileged telling the marginalized, the colonized, the subjugated to be patient and wait for good things to fall out of the social piñata by magic. Women, visible minorities, LGBTQ, handicapped, and other marginalized people have never achieved, and will never achieve, anything by being demure and polite. Sure, we need the diplomats and the peace-makers but we also need the firebrands and the shit-stirrers. Otherwise, nothing ever changes. For those who don’t know, Charlie Hebdo pretty reliably challenges the powerful on behalf of the marginalized.

Ahmed MerabetWhile I’m at it, here’s another thing I’m fed up with: one-size-fits-all mentalities. No, not all Muslims, and not all men, and not all white people, and so forth… Not all any one characteristic defines anybody. At least two Muslims were killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo: a police officer and an employee of the magazine. Ahmed Merabet was not terrifically happy of the treatment he sometimes received as a Frenchman of Arab origin, and as a cop. I bet he didn’t agree with everything Charlie Hebdo published (I sure don’t), but his job was to protect the place because of the 2011 firebombing, and he did his job with professionalism. If you have a problem with “those people”: show some fucking respect.

In conclusion: if you are qualifying your support for free speech with “Of course the cartoonists  and journalists of Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t have been killed, but…” then fuck you. And if you think “I don’t have anything against the Muslims, but…” then fuck you.

Humanist Advent Calendar

Advent Photo-a-Day theme listMy friend Chris Owens posted this list and an invitation to rethink Christmas. Naturally, this was directed at Christians (Chris is a Methodist pastor) but since they are human concepts and values, I thought I (barely?) qualified to participate.  🙂

I just think it’s a wonderful thing when we’re all celebrate the rebirth of light, totally coincidentally around the time of winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere; I was pleased that Hanukkah was beginning the night before American Thanksgiving this year.

Thus, I’ll try to contribute an image a day, though I suspect I will feel more inclined to create gesture drawings than photos. Oh, and for reference, here is my big list of holidays to celebrate:

November

3 – Diwali
4-5 – Al-Hijra (Islamic New Year)
14 – Day of Ashura
17 – Life Day
27-Dec. 5 – Hanukkah
28 – American Thanksgiving

December

? (when convenient) – Pastafarian Holiday
1-24 – Advent
6 – National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women (Canada)
8 – Bodhi Day
10 – Human Rights Day
21-25 – Pancha Ganapati
21 – Winter Solstice
23 – Festivus
24 – Christmas Eve
25 – Christmas
25 – Natalis Invicti
25 – Yule
26-Jan.1 – Kwanzaa
26 – Boxing Day
27 – Kepler’s Day (That’s mine)
31 – New Year’s Eve
32 – Hogswatchnight

January

1 – New Year’s Day
5 – Twelfth Night
6 – Epiphany
13-14 – Mawlid al-Nabi
31 – Chinese New Year – Year of the Horse

Paths to Forgiveness

Autumn LeavesYesterday I asked Pastor Chris Owens: “A central tenet of Christianity (at least in the “good parts version”) is forgiveness. Is that a topic you talk often on when advising people? Is that something a lot of people ask about? What do they ask? What do you say?”  Understandably, Chris asked me to be a little more specific, so here we go.

I was thinking about the role of rituals in coping with life’s hardships.  For example, we have a lot of such rituals to help us cope with loss and death, particularly religious rituals but also social and cultural ones.  Religious rituals may be couched in terms of helping the souls of the deceased leave this world white secular ones will talk about helping the living let go of the dead, but they tend to meet in the middle.

Creating rituals can help us orient ourselves, find the next step when we are at a loss for what to do, how to cope.  We may debate whether there really are seven stages of grief and what they are, whether they always occur and always in the same order, but at least we name our pain, and this helps us handle it.  This is denial.  This is bargaining.  This too shall pass.  Which is not so different in some ways from I sit shiva.  I offer a mass.  I light a candle.  It’s a little dot to help us make it to the next dot, put one foot in front of the other.

Or take the example of 12-step programs to help one struggle against addiction.  Although there are secular versions of this model, it’s far easier to find religious and especially Christian ones.  They don’t replace medical help, psychological counselling, etc. but they provide a framework. a path to walk, to make each step a little less daunting.

Rituals don’t have to be only for unpleasant, painful moments: we have secular and religious rituals for celebrations: birth, coming of age, marriage, thanks giving, etc.  I even turn making the morning coffee into a little ritual because frankly, before I’m caffeinated in the morning, it really helps to have a little step-by-step routine to get me to the first cup!

But I was thinking that for such an important social need, I don’t know any rituals that deal with the need to forgive.  Now, to be clear, I don’t mean the conscious decision to let go of a grudge for a slight or a quick word.  It seems to me that has more to do with bruised pride and voluntary forgetfulness of the offence.

No, I mean forgiving when you have been hurt, forgiving and letting go when the pain caused is still real; hence the close comparison with mourning. I frequently read admonitions to letting go of hate, resentment, etc.  There are probably some books out there somewhere that suggest steps in getting from Point A: Pain to Point B: Forgiveness, but they are certainly not as well known as rituals and processes to help with grieving.  And let’s face it, in a way we can “forgive” death for taking a loved one because in the end we know that it’s impartial, nothing personal, and we’ll all die some day.

But how do you let go of the pain caused by a loved one when the past cannot be changed, you’re hurting, but you genuinely want to reach forgiveness?

And what about the time factor; they say time wounds all heels heals all wounds, but what if this dulling doesn’t happen, or takes very long?  Can we do something positive to resolve issues and actively move towards forgiving, rather than waiting passively?

Tell me what you think, what you’ve read and heard on the topic!  I’m interested in constructive discussion and comparing perspectives.

Essay: The “American Gods” Trinity

Greg Gibbs: Capturing the NightTime for the essay on the monthly book club reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  (Spoilers, of course!)

I spent a lot of time following connections between symbols, mythological figures, and themes; I was struck by the deliberate choices in which gods were represented and which were not.  When you think about different pantheons, you can come up with all kinds of symbols being represented, and not all symbols appear in every pantheon.  Gaiman made the choice of using very specific types of gods connecting thanks to very specific symbols; here is my essay on the topic.

This is only my second book essay where visual support is actually part of the critical argument; the previous one was on Alice in Wonderland.


Three groups of traditional deities or complexes prominently feature in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: gods of light and (re)birth, cthonian gods of death and destruction, and gods of knowledge and trickery.  These are not factions, all the gods from one complex are not working together; but they represent the domains, the groups of symbols, that form the core of the novel — the solar myth.  A mind map below shows some of the associations we can make.  Continue reading “Essay: The “American Gods” Trinity”

American Gods: First Impressions

American Gods coverI started the July book for my reading group, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a week early and I took advantage of yesterday’s holiday to finish it.  I wrapped up my reading notes this afternoon; I have eight pages typed in 11-pt font…I had to plow through it quickly and without pause because otherwise I would have forgotten all the little details between reading sessions.

I liked it, largely because I paid a lot of attention to the aforementioned details and played connect-the-dots.  In terms of superficial story or characters, it was enjoyable but not sweeping; it’s the tapestry of references and allusions that were the meat of the book.

I will be curious to see if the same will come across in the HBO television series that is planned to air in late 2013 or early 2014.  It is certainly doable; the excellent Carnivàle, for example, and to an extent Kings, gave just that kind of impression.  Unfortunately, both of those were cancelled early, so I’m not sure how much mass-market appeal the style would have.

Pop Culture American Gods

american gods

Odin from "American Gods" by freaky-dragonlady
The book club reading for July is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), so as usual, here are some pop culture links.

In Print

First, those who only know him from his novels may not realize this, but Neil Gaiman got his fame with this essentially pop culture medium, writing comic books, most notably The Sandman and the initial story arc of The Books of Magic.  There are several cross-references between American Gods and, in particular, The Sandman and its spin-offs, all pulished under DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Cover of The Sandman #50: RamadanThe Sandman is excellent and remains strong for a long time.  If you ever want to sample it but don’t want to get tangled in a long story line, I recommend trying issue #50 (June 1993), which has a lovely standalone story.  If you like it, try buying the collected books from the start; if you don’t like it, this comic is probably not for you.

Gaiman also wrote the mini-series 1602 for Marvel Comics in 2003-2004, which ties well with American GodsContinue reading “Pop Culture American Gods”

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.

Without an Eye in the Sky

The Island of Doctor Moreau - coverThe Week 6 reading assignments for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World were H. G. Wells‘ novels The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man, and the short stories “The Country of the Blind” and “The Star” from his collection The Country of the Blind and Other Stories.

It was a lot of reading, but it was also a treat; in the first five weeks, we had not had anything I think truly belongs in the science fiction category.  Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Poe’s more pseudo-scientific tales like “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” do not actually spend more than a short description on anything science-like; more importantly, they do not bring anything from the realm of science as more than trappings in a few scenes, whereas Wells uses its ideas and methods in constructing the structure of the novels.

I also enjoy Wells’ ability to use very different tones and styles from book to book — for example, The Island of Doctor Moreau is adventure and horror, The Invisible Man has a little bit of scariness in it but mostly humour.  In fact, I nominate The Invisible Man as a precursor in the British tradition now exemplified by the long-running Doctor Who, of mixing fear, adventure, and humour.

Here is my 300-word essay — not all that insightful, but sometimes you just have to phone one in.  Continue reading “Without an Eye in the Sky”