Let’s be clear here. This is not science fiction. The author says so. It’s “speculative fiction”, positing an alternative future to explore ideas about our world as it is now. Science fiction, according to Atwood, has “monsters and spaceships, while speculative fiction could really happen”. Despite this, the book won several prizes for science fiction when it was first published and China Miéville, author of our October read, has criticised her for trying to distance herself from the genre (a move he even calls “the Atwood”). To be fair, they seem to be on good terms now.
So on to the book. It’s a future dystopia in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World, both of which we’ve read in the book group. The setting is a near future America, now known as Gilead, in which a religiously inspired revolution has taken place and instituted a totalitarian regime. Women are reduced to roles – wives, domestic help and the titular handmaids.
The handmaids are given to powerful members of the ruling elite whose wives can’t conceive, for the purposes of breeding, based on the old testament precedent of Jacob. The story is written largely from the perspective of Offred, handmaid to – and possession of – Fred, a senior member of the Gilead hierarchy, who describes both her life before the revolution and her experiences in the new society.
As with all the best dystopias, it describes a world that you feel could be plausible. It even has precedent – Iran, after the fall of the Shah, and even Afghanistan, which in the 1960s was a far more liberal society that it is today. This is not to single out a particular kind of theocracy, as the society described in the book is brought about by a nominally Christian regime and it’s easy to believe that the more extreme Christian right in America today would be sympathetic to it. In fact the scariest thing about the book is how prophetic it feels. It seems as, if not more, relevant now than when it was written.
Most importantly, it’s a good read. You want to keep turning the pages to find out more about the society and how it came about. Even the bits that have dated, due to the onward march of technology, don’t feel jarring and – while the mechanics may be different – still have relevance today. In particular, one of the keys to the success of the revolution was that it was a cashless society and those who control the electronic methods of payment hold the keys…
So regardless of the genre, it’s well worth a read and is up there as one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended.in Books