Friday, September 17, 2021

The Handmaid's Tale

      Margaret Atwood has always been a bit sniffily assertive about not writing science fiction, so much so that even Ursula K. Le Guin (who quite happily wrote science fiction, SF that sold well and was a literary success) gently took her to task over it from time to time.  As a result, I hadn't read any Atwood, since I find most "mainstream" fiction dull and pretentious.  If she was going to insist that was what she wrote, I would respect her claim by not reading it.

      But a copy of The Handmaid's Tale showed up at the used-book store, there was a Hulu series that went multiple seasons (of which Atwood said "it could have been worse."  I haven't seen it), and I thought I might as well read it.

      It's well-written.  Atwood's world-building is good, and her "what-if" is pretty obviously "what if a Christian sect went as far as or farther than Islamic extremists in rebuilding society?"  You get one unquestioned assumption in SF and I'll give her that even though she disdains SF.  Starting from there, she throws in declining fertility rates in Western countries (a true thing, though probably more related to affluence and the enormous decline in infant and child mortality*) and gets...what she gets.  It's a disturbing future.  It's intended to be.

      The story is told non-linearly, in two interwoven, discontinuous narratives with an afterword.  Her villains commit their worst villainies offstage; onstage, there's rather more "banality of evil" and, worse, the deliberate weaving of it into everyone's lives.  The weakest part of the background is the neo-Puritan religion, a consciously distorted Christianity; she does her best to never treat it in more detail than her viewpoint character could know.  While I'd like to tell you it's completely implausible, it isn't.  There are women alive today who have been in the thick of something only too similar, in Afghanistan and the former "Islamic State."  It does require a number of precursors or pressures that the real world hasn't got.  Published in 1985, there are scenes and elements that today seem dated -- as happens to all fiction.

      It is an entertaining book, not a screed; the characters are no better or worse than they are, all ordinary, all trapped even if they wove the snare.  As SF, it holds up well.  Alas, Ms. Atwood doesn't want to be on those shelves with the robots and rayguns, spaceships and time travelers.  Like Le Guin, I can understand (and resent) the impulse, but I'm not quite sure I can forgive her leaving James Tiptree, Jr. and Joanna Russ alone out there with the slavering aliens.  After all, she knew how dangerous it was.  She spent an entire novel saying so.
* We don't realize this, but it's true; my father, born in 1927, lost three siblings in childhood (of ten total), two before he was born, and his family was not atypical.  Having small families is a luxury of the (relatively) well-off and healthy.


Glenn Kelley said...

Her stock answer is that there is nothing in the book that hasn't already happened. I think she would resist any classification . She doesn't like being put in a box.

She also has a very dry sense of humour that should be factored into anything she says.

Roberta X said...

Oh, I'll grant her the very dry humor. I respect not wanting to be boxed in. But she has a history of realllllly looking down her nose at the SF ghetto, and I resent the hell outta that.

Cop Car said...

Having read purchased and read The Handmaid's Tale while it was still hot off of the press, I found the tale thoroughly chilling. I recognized, too well, the possibilities of its being fact not fiction. (I didn't know about Ms Atwood's disdain for being labeled.) I'm pretty sure that Ms magazine must have set me onto the book.

BTW: Two of my siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, died before age 1 in the mid-1930s and early 1940s. That was from a total of five live births. As you mentioned, this was not uncommon in those days.