The Handmaid’s Tale

It’s a sign of the times, I imagine; but apparently classic dystopian novels are selling like hot cakes just now – 1984, Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve only just got round to reading. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. I’m a great fan of cerebral Sci-Fi, and my favourite Sci-Fi writer is another woman, Ursula Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness (featuring gender-shifting humanoids), and The Dispossessed. A movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale is coming out in April. I mistook it for another film showing in Stockholm just now, The Handmaiden, which isn’t the one. Luckily I found that out before I bought the tickets. It’s an ‘erotic, psychological drama set in Japan’. At my age, I can give that a miss.

The Handmaid’s Tale is extraordinarily good at drawing the reader into Atwood’s frightening world of women cultivated merely as wombs, under a claustrophobically totalitarian regime run according to Mayflower Puritan – or Christian Taliban – rules. (This is Le Guin’s great virtue, too: her ability to convey complete empathy with totally alien societies. Is it a woman thing?) I found myself immersed, almost drowned, in Atwood’s world. And I’m a man.

In one way, however, I found it slightly dated politically – as if that matters. Religious tyranny might have seemed the most likely form of fascism in 1980s America, when the book came out; but it would seem to have little in common with our present nationalist, nativist, populist and anti-rational kind. I suppose the sexism in the book might ring a bell; and if you think that pussy-grabbing is an essential aspect of modern-day Trumpery, which I’m prepared to hear argued, you may find the book resonates. But any religious aspect to most of our modern American and European proto-fascisms – apart from the ‘pro-life’ thing in middle America – escapes me for the moment. Of course, it could come; and The Handmaid’s Tale may be looked back on in the future as just as prescient as 1984 seems today. In any case, it blew me away.

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