I don’t much care for science fiction. But I thoroughly enjoy the handful of well-written science-fiction novels I’ve read: including 1984 and Brave New World (reviews: forthcoming). As a writer and a human, my chief interest is in human behaviour. Broadly, ‘the human question’ as I see it is: How do differences in personality and ability interact with differences in environment to produce the mind-boggling array of human desires, needs, frustrations, and achievements?
Realist fiction scrutinises the first part of this question: inter-individual differences in personality and ability. To focus on the second part of the question – differences in environment – we turn to genre fiction. Historical fiction. (How was it possible for the educated, cultured, lovable white Americans of Gone With the Wind to treat black Americans as subhuman?) Or science-fiction. (How is it possible for the world order to become subsumed, in a few decades, by the totalitarian regimes of 1984 – and how is it possible for legions of liberal, educated people to become fanatical, bloodthirsty followers of such regimes?) The best-written science fiction manages to remember that it is fiction, not a grant proposal for a new technology. The best-written science fiction conjures a novel environment in order to confront us with those aspects of human behaviour to which, in our day-to-day reality, familiarity makes us blind. The best-written science fiction is fiction that tosses flesh-and-blood human beings into challenging environments – in order to confront us with uncomfortable truths to which we’ve become comfortably blind.
The Handmaid’s Tale is well-written science-fiction.
Handmaid’s first-person narrative reads like a character study set it in the dystopian Republic of Gilead (formerly Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA). This dystopia is in many ways disarmingly attractive: its pavements are tidy; flowers flourish in its rainbow gardens; its citizens are reassuringly colour-coded; everyone knows his/her role; women have been freed from the tyranny of beauty; and women feel safe again: on the streets, at home, and in their workplaces. Through Offred’s eyes, we see, reluctantly, that even a world essentially nightmarish to us – and to Offred herself – has its charms. Of course it must: it was humans who created this world. Humans misguided, but well-meaning.
Handmaid’s narrative is slow, accumulating via a mass of at-first-sight trivial details. Descriptions of aforesaid flowers in the Commander’s garden. Descriptions of household objects. Soon, we realise that Offred’s immersion in these details is deliberate: she has undergone a series of traumas, which she recollects in scraps over the course of the novel. Offred’s anchoring herself to the banal details of her present is a volitional act undertaken to preserve her own sanity.
The narrative fluctuates between the present – Offred’s life with an unnamed Commander: one of the men in power in this dystopian regime. Offred is the Commander’s handmaid: a concubine for strictly procreational purposes, symbolically offered up to him by his infertile wife. It was an epidemic of infertility and birth defects in the old world order that motivated its violent political usurping by one Christian sect. Offred’s job is to produce a healthy child – following which she will be transferred to another Commander. As long as she obeys the rules, Offred’s routine is tranquil, and her lifestyle more privileged than that of most of her contemporaries.
About the precursors and nature of this regime change, Handmaid offers only a few details, and that well into the novel. Handmaid’s engagement with science/technology is minimal. Atwood herself calls Handmaid not science-fiction, but speculative fiction: fiction that speculates about alternative futures, with the aim of inspiring us to take collective action to forestall the unsavoury alternatives.
Across the developed world, fertility rates have been declining for decades; this trend is now also appearing in the developing world (even without government intervention). As a citizen of the world’s second most populous country, and as someone who believes that population control (but, much more importantly, curbing our runaway conspicuous consumption) are essential to mitigating our environmental catastrophes – I consider declining fertility the opposite of problematic. More impersonally, while declining fertility often creates economic challenges, declining fertility results, rosbutly, from prosperity. However, the socioeconomic destabilisation posed by declining fertility can, very plausibly, if not addressed by existing governments, set the stage for the kind of violent regime change that Handmaid envisions.
Handmaid’s narrow scope enables it to pursue one of speculative fiction’s most fruitful endeavours: analysing how the human psyche responds to sudden and extreme change. And there’s no question that Gilead is a dystopia: there are public hangings of anyone who threatens the regime: from a Christian of the wrong sect to a ‘gender traitor.’ Offred undergoes ritual rape every month. None of the people involved in The Ceremony is having a good time. Nobody has autonomy in this or any other aspect of life: the hoodwinking of the system that Offred’s Commander – who is, belying his title, equally at the system’s mercy – indulges in are repetitive, and schoolboyishly trivial.
But Handmaid’s focus remains human, and remains trained on Offred: who, though well-individuated, exquisitely embodies the typical human response to an atypical situation. Offred isn’t a true believer in this regime: but she’s afraid to say so, and so are her walking-companions, her fellow handmaids. Offred doesn’t want to be a walking womb: but she, and her fellow handmaids, nevertheless become possessed by both triumph and envy when one of them gives birth. There is an underground resistance afoot: but Offred is lukewarm about even peripheral participation; and, when she falls in lust with a forbidden target, even her tentative revolutionary sympathy is swallowed up in her base desires. Offred behaves, in short, very much as most of us would behave in her situation: her resistance remains unarticulated, her conformity sufficient to perpetuate this dehumanising dystopia.
Herein lies Handmaid’s genius: confronting us with uncomfortable truths. To wit: dystopias can be lavish and orderly; dystopias coopt their denizens in insidious ways, consoling them with tiny triumphs that we make sufficient; dystopias sustain themselves on the solid basis of the typical human tendency to knuckle under and find meaning (or sex) wherever we can.
But Handmaid is not pessimistic. By the novel’s end, Offred possibly escapes Gilead. The Epilogue occurs in a post-Gilead world. How did we get from Gilead back to a semblance of normality?
That, Atwood insists, depends on us. On us, the mass of humanity. On us: who can choose between knuckling under and consoling ourselves with pleasures equivalent to pacifiers – or daring to challenge corrupt regimes at risk to our own lives.
Handmaid works as science-fiction because it works as fiction. It confronts us with the humanity we share with angels and monsters and Jane Does (or June Offreds).