Some Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

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This isn’t a proper review of Atwood’s famous novel but some of my impressions and reactions to it and a brief summary. Since the US election, the sales of books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale have risen. While I had read the former, I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood’s novel. In many ways it wasn’t what I expected at all. It’s interesting, complex, and clever but I don’t think it’s a book I’ll read again. There are amazing observations, long quotable passages, but as a whole, I found it dull. Even so, reading it infuriated me, which certainly proves that it’s a powerful book. Interestingly though, the element that triggered this response is an element that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve come across but it’s something that is essential to totalitarian and oppressive societies. The aspect I’m referring to is the instrumentalising of the oppressed. No matter what toxic system/government/injustice, it is hardly ever maintained without the help of the oppressed. This complicity of the oppressed is something that infuriates me in real life so much that I couldn’t overlook it. The fact that people don’t mention it, shows how astute Atwood’s depictions were. Just like in real life, it’s something so upsetting that it’s like a blind spot.

What is The Handmaid’s Tale about?  The book is set in a near future, in the state of Gilead, formerly known as United States of America. A series of ecological disasters and war have led to its people being mostly sterile. After a coup, a totalitarian group of fanatic Christians has taken power. Women are divided into groups. Those married to government officials, those who breed for those who can’t have children and those who are used in other ways – sent to the colonies where they will discard toxic waste, or those used to make the system work, instruct the breeding women.

Offred, the narrator, is one of the Handmaid’s, destined to breed. At the time when the story is set, this whole system is new, so women like Offred are the first of their kind. What makes their fate particularly harrowing is that they knew a “before”. They used to live normal lives that were pretty much the same lives we still live today. That life ends when their bank accounts are closed and all their money and belongings go to their husbands. Those who’ve had children are then ripped from their families and assigned to rich couples who can’t have children.

Offred describes her life in minute details. They don’t have any freedom at all. They are all dressed the same and basically not allowed to do or say anything, unless it’s according to the new laws. Public executions are a means to make everyone obedient. But there’s an underground movement and, as it seems Offred met one of the women of this movement.

I’ll stop the summary here because if you’ve not read it you might enjoy finding out, how this story is told. It’s structure is one of the best things and the only element that contains a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark and depressing tale.

Obviously, reading about a world in which women are owned by men and have no freedom whatsoever, is scary and infuriating but that’s nothing compared to the fact that women are in charge of the “training” of the handmaids. The way in which Atwood portrays how this system is regulated and reinforced is so clever.

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.

The quote shows that some women accept the explanations given by the government. They also accept to be the instrument of the government. In some instances because they believe that women are, in many ways better off than before, but also because becoming executors, helps them to escape either death or being worked to death in one of the toxic landfills.

Why is it that victims enforce the system that exploits them? Fear and self-preservation are some of the reasons, but there’s also something far more toxic – they have internalized the system.

The Handmaid’s Tale is bleak but there’s a glimmer of hope, as I mentioned before. While some of the oppressed help keep up the system, there are many who plot an uprising.

Before ending this post, I’d like to mention one other aspect that I found chilling. One reason why women were so easily disempowered was because pre-Gilead society didn’t use cash but only credit cards. That way it was easy to stop the women’s access and transfer their money to their husband’s account and to disempower them completely. They didn’t even have enough cash to buy a ticket to somewhere else and escape. I found this chilling because I know a great many people who say that we are moving away from cash and to the exclusive use of cards/online banking etc.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published, readers thought that Atwood depicted a Muslim society. Maybe she did. I think we shouldn’t read it like that. We should read it as a portrayal of the belief system and the functioning of a totalitarian government. Thinking that she wrote about a Muslim society is something we cannot afford. It can happen in other societies as well.

Now on to something different. Look at those covers! And I haven’t even posted all of those I found. Mine is the one on the far left. It’s not my favourite. The one I’m most familiar with is the second to the left, the one I like the most is the fifth from the left but I actually find the first and the last to do the book more justice. Do you have a favourite?

John Scalzi: Fuzzy Nation (2011)

Fuzzy Nation

Sometimes I’m easy to please. It took John Scalzi less than one page to win me over with his novel Fuzzy Nation.

See for yourself:

Jack Holloway set the skimmer to HOVER, swiveled his seat around, and looked at Carl. He shook his head sadly.

“I can’t believe we have to go through this again,” Holloway said. “It’s not that I don’t value you as part of this team, Carl. I do. Really, I do. But I can’t help but think that in some way, I’m just not getting through       to you. We’ve gone over this how many times now? A dozen? Two? And yet every time we come out here, it’s like you forget everything you’ve been taught. It’s really very discouraging. Tell me you get what I’m saying to you.”

Carl stared up at Holloway and barked. Carl was a dog.

The idea that the book is told by a main narrator whose best friend is a dog to whom he speaks as if he was a human, amused me so much. The best thing however was that the whole book didn’t disappoint. It was not only a fun and charming read from beginning to end, but interesting and thought-provoking as well.

John Scalzi is said to be the most accessible Sci-Fi author writing today. I can see why. Not only does he write in an engaging way, but he has a knack for dialogue and great characters and a wonderful sense of humour. He’s also far more accessible than others because his world-building is minimal. Just a touch of description here and there to set the scene, but nothing that over stretches your imaginative muscles. As much as I like sci-fi, when the world-building is too detailed, my eyes glaze over and I simply can’t see the worlds that are described. Another reason why Scalzi is easy to read is his use of older material, which we may be familiar with. Fuzzy Nation, for example, is a “reboot” of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.

The central theme of Fuzzy Nation is the question: What makes a sentient being? Jack Holloway is a contractor for ZaraCorp a huge corporate company who exploits foreign planets. While working on the planet Zarathustra, Jack accidentally explodes a cliff and discovers a seam of unimaginably precious jewels. Legally, ZaraCorp is allowed to exploit this seam and give Holloway his share, but only if the planet is really not populated by sentient beings. So far only two other sentient species have been found in the universe.

Jack lives outside of the city, in a tree house, high above the raptors who populate the forest below. One day cute furry creatures come to stay at his house.  Jack is amazed how intelligent they are, but when his ex-girlfriend , biologist Isabel, tells him she thinks they are not animals but people, Jack is reluctant to accept that. He would never harm the Fuzzys. He would never harm any animal, but he doesn’t think they are people. After all, they don’t speak. Or do they? In any case, it would be awful for him, if they really were people, because he would lose the prospect of making millions.

Fuzzy Nation isn’t only an adventure story, in which cute little animal-people are suddenly in great danger and other people have to make some tough decisions, it’s also an exploration of what makes a human. Is it understanding, intelligence, dexterity, the aptitude to use machines or language? In any case, once you’re declared a sentient being, you have the right to possess things. Before that, everything you own can be taken and destroyed.

I have discovered a new favourite author and I’m sure I’ll read more of his novel in the future.

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games (2008)

I bought The Hunger Games long before even part II and III were out but never read it. Too much hype. Not that there is less of it now but I’d like to watch the movie and figured, I should read the book before. I finished it in barely two sittings and even spent one night dreaming of it.

I went through a few different phases while reading it and finally I had to admit that a lot of the problems I had with the book were entirely mine and resulted in some misconceptions. Sometimes we expect something from a book or a movie that isn’t there. I’m not the only one, I saw this reflected in a few of the reviews I’ve read so far. This isn’t a poetical fantasy story, nor a subtle YA coming-of-age novel. The Hunger Games is a dystopian adventure/action story. Following the logic of adventure and action movies and books, there isn’t a lot of introspection. Switching from Virginia Woolf’s world of characters with a rich inner life, I felt a bit lost at first but once I saw the book like a new take on an old theme, namely gladiators in a dystopian setting, I started to enjoy the ride.

A modern-day gladiator novel is pretty much what The Hunger Games is. When you’ve learned Latin in school you are familiar with the expression “Panem et Circenses” meaning “Bread and Games/Circuses”. The story plays in a distant future, in America, in the country of Panem. There are a lot of other elements taken from roman history: the Capitol, some of the names like Octavia, …

The 24 tributes of the 12 districts of Panem, 12 boys and 12 girls are sent into an arena where they fight against each other until there is only one survivor left. The games are not only shown on TV but they must be watched. The questions the book could have asked but only brushes is “Would you kill to survive?” and “How does it affect you to be forced to witness killing on a regular basis?” or “Are these killings murder?”.  The book can lead to this type of discussion but it doesn’t really look into those questions at all.

Katniss, the main character, volunteers in order to save her sister. She prays that her best friend Gale isn’t going to be sent in with her. Since there can only be one survivor it would mean she might have to kill her best friend. The boy chosen instead, Peeta, isn’t a much better choice as he saved her life once. She can only hope that either she or Peeta will be killed by someone else before the last fight.

The arena is a vast landscape with forests and lakes, bushes and caves. The game masters can change the weather, they can send wild animals, ice and storm, fire and frost. This adds to the difficulties. Only those who are skilled in all sorts of survival techniques, those who know how to hunt and hide will make it.

It is a quick read and I was captivated, not so much because I wanted to find out who will survive, no, there was no suspense in that department. It’s pretty clear from the start but it isn’t clear how they will survive. And I was interested to see whether Katniss would have to kill someone as well. And if and how it would affect her.

The Hunger Games is a page-turner, exploiting and re-inventing the gladiator theme, with some surprising ideas thrown in but I still have a few reservations.

Did there have to be a love story and did it have to play such an important role? I’m not going into details as that would be a major spoiler.

And the writing? That was a problem. I’m not a native English speaker and can be more tolerant occasionally but nothing could make me miss the fact that it’s not very well written. There is a constant use of present tense, hardly any subordinate clauses, a very limited vocabulary and a lot of repetition. I’d like to emphasize here that this isn’t typical for YA novels or dystopian novels. I’ve read several that were very well written.

As I haven’t read Battle Royale, I can’t compare but the violence in The Hunger Games is minor. Nothing very shocking. It’s more the thought that they are so easily ready to kill each other that is shocking.

I think, if you know what to expect, you will enjoy this novel as it is fast-paced, captivating and I personally liked the main characters. Just don’t expect anything poetical or introspective. The emphasis is on action not on ideas or feelings.

Will I read the next one? I have already started.

If you would like to read other reviews here is the link to Iris’ very interesting post. She has included a huge number of other reviews.