The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

A wholly unique and morbidly refreshing take on the dystopian genre. The Handmaid’s tale is an account of ‘Offred’ as she tries to survive and hold onto her identity as a human being, in a future where America is a Theonomy.

Offred has been assigned to ‘Fred’ who is married to Serena Joy, the two of whom, like many couples in this setting, can’t have children and must then ‘rely’ on a surrogate for a child. While the story spends a lot of time setting this unique world up, it never ceases to be fascinating as it proposes thoughts and observations that are wholly unique.

Many male authors over time have captured the brutality of fascists states. Many male authors have extrapolated from present day class and racial divisions, a future entirely based on said divisions. From Asimov who talks about the collapse of galactic empires and considers the building pieces of civilisation, to ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) which explores the existential question of what makes us human, much of present day society’s shortcomings have been investigated through the lens of the future.

Atwood then stands apart from all of these because of the perspective she offers. While her idea that women may be used in such a dystopian future as breeding mates, is not wholly unique. The insight she offers into what these women might think and feel, is. She explores in depth the emotional and mental state of not just the women but the men in such a setting and covers, with great care and empathy the various players in this setting and the different manners in which they are being violated.

For example, Offred, who is violated by her ‘commander’ on a monthly basis, suffers a different inhumanity than the ‘Wives’ who are subject to watching their husbands breed with another woman in front of them. Then there is the inhumanity visited upon these ‘Commanders’ who no longer may feel freely but must perform their role as patriarchs perfectly. Of course, the degrees of violence vary but Atwood argues, I believe, that in the end, in a ‘Utopian’ state where everyone must conform to an ideology of suppression and uniformity, everyone is some sort of victim.

The brilliance of the work holds because it mirrors our present day society. While no society on Earth is exactly like the one she describes, Atwood carefully mirrors cultural aspects of various religious and political groups, thus lending, as I believe all speculative fiction should, a sense of authenticity and plausibility to her world. One can imagine a future wherein a society like the one described in the book exists, because at the end of the day fascists are unimaginative and authoritarian rules have to use violence and censorship to function. Thus no matter the colors or names, the tools they use are always the same.

A brief story with a slow start, this is one book I think we should all read.

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