Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
“It was after the catastrophe, when 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.”
Once again, I wonder at the prescience of Margaret Atwood. I know that she was thinking of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, but it sounds exactly like a headline in next week’s paper. It is completely believable in 2015, a time when a shyster like Donald Trump stands on stages telling people that the Bible is his favourite book. We exist in a time when anyone who wants to be president of the US has to trumpet his religious belief, something which would horrify the founding fathers of the United States, who worked hard to separate church and state.
Fundamentalism seems is epidemic in the United States and the Middle East—Christians, Israelis, and various flavours of Islam, leaving the moderates in all of those religions frustrated that they are being represented worldwide by the extremists, being forced to apologize for their religions while also trying to point out that not all members of their religions are bigoted idiots. And one of the symptoms of fundamentalism is the desire to exert complete control over female sexuality and female lives.
Add to that the increasing comfort with violence—police who feel justified in shooting anyone who isn’t immediately completely submissive, politicians who feel increasingly justified in bombing the opposition, general media audiences who prefer explosions and shooting to relationships and sex, the prevalence of violent woman-hating pornography that has become common on the internet.
Ursula K LeGuin has noted that women can get to about the 30% mark of winning awards and gaining recognition for their art and then men start to protest that women are “taking over” and that there is some conspiracy against male artists.
“Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.”
Combine it all—fundamentalism, violence, and intolerance for female freedom & sexual expression, and The Handmaid’s Tale seems almost inevitable. Thankfully, although Atwood imagined it 30 years ago, we have managed to avoid fulfilling her prophecy for at least that long.
Book number 193 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.