Sunday, June 24, 2018

Looking at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

This isn’t going to be a conventional book review.  In terms of how great a work of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale is, too much has already been said that I really can’t add to it.  Published in 1985, the novel has gone on to be ranked with other classics of dystopian fiction, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and It Can’t Happen Here.

Think of this as more of a meditation on The Handmaid’s Tale in The Age of Trump.

Most people know the basics of the plot.  The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a near-future America, where, thanks to series of environmental disasters, the birthrate has crashed. A group of religious fundamentalists, the Sons of Jacob, have staged a coup and have assassinated the president and much of Congress and replaced the Constitution with the dictatorial Christian theocratic state, the Republic of Gilead. Civil rights are heavily curtailed, and you're out of luck if you're a woman.

Offred, a young woman, is the protagonist.  She is the titular handmaid to a Commander, a high-ranking member of Gilead’s elite. Because of the decline in the birth rate, Handmaids are tasked with producing the offspring for the higher-ups. We know she was married with a child in The Before Times, but after she was intercepted at the border with her family, trying to escape to Canada, and she lost all contact with them, not even knowing if they are still alive.

So, what do we make of The Handmaid’s Tale? Certainly, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it was tempting to use the book and the television series to mirror then-current events. The election in November 2016 and the subsequent swearing in of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States seemed to grant The Handmaid's Tale added relevancy. I think what was perhaps most shocking was how suddenly it turned, from The Before Times, and the logic and sobriety of Barack Obama, to the Long Present, and the willful autocracy of Donald Trump.

Should we have been surprised? Not really. The autocrats have been on the march for a long time. Most famously in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has established a kleptocracy, bent on enriching himself and crushing his opponents.  It is all but certain that Putin meddled in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, which brought Donald Trump to power. The great divide and stalemate in U.S. politics – red states vs. blue states and a gridlocked Congress – is a logical outcome of the U.S. two-party system. Putin and others took advantage of that, gaming a broken system.

So, what’s that got to do with The Handmaid’s Tale?

I’m getting to that. Whenever there is a time of perceived uncertainty, people look for an individual on a white horse offering simple solutions to complex problems. In the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, the solution was the false comfort of prepackaged religious fundamentalism. In our history, much the same thing has happened. In the 1930s, as the Depression took its toll, people turned to men like Hitler and Mussolini to provide those easy answers. (It almost happened then in the U.S., as per my novel, War Plan Crimson.) Flash forward a few decades: many Americans, frustrated by government gridlock, the loss of good-paying jobs, and the feeling that somehow their country has lost its way, have turned to a man on a white horse. This time, he is a man who played a billionaire on television and claims he can make their country great again.  

No authoritarian would be without their scapegoats, their outsiders.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, “unwomen,” and other undesirables are scapegoated and brutalized by the state and either are exiled, executed, or sent to be worked to death in the Colonies. In the America of Donald Trump, the scapegoats and outsiders are mostly Latino migrants who are illegally crossing the border. I don’t deny for a moment this is a problem, and nations must be able to enforce their immigration laws. But there are ways and then there are ways of doing things. And surely separating migrant children – some as young as only months old – from their parents and putting them into camps is not the way to do it. It is inhumane and brutal. Donald Trump’s partial climb-down earlier this month only leaves this ghastly spectre hanging over our heads without resolution in sight.

We are nowhere near the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, thank God. So perhaps we should be grateful to Margaret Atwood for providing us with both a mirror and a warning. Hopefully, we got the warning in time.

What’s Next?
I will be working on few things over the next couple of months. First, I will review Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, which was discovered and published after his death. Second, I will follow up with the latest paperback edition in Taylor Anderson’s long-running Destroyermen series, Devil’s Due. Third, I am also looking forward to reviewing Mecha Samurai Empire, a novel by Peter Tieryas, set in the same alternate universe as his earlier United States of Japan, which I reviewed earlier in this space.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.