Friday, August 15, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood

This is only the second thing I've read by Margaret Atwood, and I found it pretty powerful stuff. As far as I can tell Atwood writes dystopian fiction from a woman's point of view. I don't think she's generally classed as a science fiction writer, but there is some element of extrapolation about the future in the works I've read so far.

The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a near future society in North America. The US government was violently overthrown, the constitution suspended, and most women's rights revoked. Within the very strict regime that took power (in what is now called The Republic of Gilead) women are essentially property. And here we meet Offred, the heroine of the story, and a handmaid to her Commander, one of the people in power.

The term "handmaid", though, doesn't convey the nature of the relationship. It's a euphemism. As it happens, the Caucasian birthrate has dropped severely. Many or most of those still in Gilead are infertile for various reasons having to do with pollution, nuclear leakage, etc. But it isn't acceptable for a leader to have no children, so if someone important is in that situation it is assumed his wife is infertile (it must be the woman, of course; men can't be infertile) and he is given a handmaid to bear his children. A bit of the Bible (Genesis 30: 1-3) is cited to justify this.

Amusingly, when I did a google search on "Genesis 30: 1-3" the first hit that came up was Study Guide to Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1986).

Atwood discusses the history that brought about this challenging culture, and the personal events that got Offred into her current situation in flashbacks. It's a dark and difficult story, with enough possibility in it to scare any sensible reader.

Highly recommended. I'll be reading more of Atwood's work.