Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (4 stars)

This novel has been getting a lot of attention recently, so I decided I'd better take a look. It's a near-future dystopian USA called Gilead where society is completely run by white men, and women have lost essentially all privileges to have any kind of control over their own lives.

I'm going to get straight into spoilers, so be warned.

How did today's America get transformed into Gilead? Offred (literally Of-Red, after the male commander she serves) our narrator drops a lot of clues about being unreliable, but here's what I cobbled together. Most of this isn't revealed until close to the end:

  1. There are riots about porn and abortion, the implication being either that the ultra-conservative government has taken both away completely, or that an ultra-conservative group wanted them taken away and the government wouldn't. "it was during the time of the porn riots, or was it the abortion riots, they were close together." 
  2. "...they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time."
  3. "...they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on."
  4. "Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said."
  5. "They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them."
  6. Fire all the women from their jobs, transfer their money and assets to their husbands or male next of kin. "It's the law, I have to. I have to let you all go". "They've frozen them...Any account with an F on it instead of an M." "They had to do it that way, the Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports otherwise?"
  7. "There were marches of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped."

This seems like a scarily plausible playbook for creating a dictatorship, and despite being written 30+ years ago, it's a cautionary tale that is still very relevant. Offred's experience and this dystopian world is chilling in many ways. I think mostly it shows the reader that modern values, rights, and cultural norms are all just ideas and conventions, that can be swept away with sufficient force.
It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it. 
4 stars.

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