Category: Dystopian

Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

The Parable of the Sower

Cover image for The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butlerby Octavia Butler

ISBN 9780446675505

“I’ve never felt that I was making any of this up—not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I mean, I’ve never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation.”

Lauren Olamina is part of the generation of children who do not remember the world before. Before the water shortages, and the walled communities, and the drug addicts who burn anything and everything just to watch the flames. Before the California-Oregon border was closed, and Alaska began to talk about seceding. Lauren believes the Earth is dying, and that sooner or later, humanity will have to take to the stars in order to survive. And Lauren means to survive. But how can she convince those around her that they must be ready, that the good times her father and step-mother talk about are never coming back? As the world outside the wall continues to crumble, Lauren hones the philosophy she believes to be humanity’s only hope, becoming the lonely prophet of a new religion born from the ashes of American civilization.

Although originally published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is set in what is now the near future, opening in the year 2024. Lauren has reluctantly submitted to being baptized into her father’s church, even though, for the past three years, she has not been a follower of his god. Rather, she has been slowly laying out the tenets of her own religious philosophy, premised on the seductive idea that God is Change. Therefore, every human action is the act of shaping God, whether deliberately, or carelessly. Lauren calls her religion Earthseed, and believes that the ultimate “destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” Lauren makes her first attempt to articulate this new philosophy to her best friend Joanna, but is repulsed, and so returns to biding her time behind the walls of the struggling middle class neighbourhood led by her father, as the world outside continues to deteriorate.

The story is told in the style of a diary kept by Lauren as she is growing up, and beginning to hash out her ideas about the world. She is coming of age at a difficult time, and constructs and elaborate system around herself that gives her hope for the future. The early part of the novel is spent inside the walls of her disintegrating community, as her father and step-mother struggle to keep things together, unable to admit that the old world is not coming back. Lauren also pens a lot of poetic or biblical passages, painfully earnest verses that try to convey her growing ideology, and her dream of sharing it with others.  But ultimately, she cannot achieve her destiny until the cataclysm finally comes that cleaves her from her home, and she becomes a sort of traveling prophet, gathering around her a group of people who are willing to form a community based on her unusual philosophy.

The Parable of the Sower is a complex feat of world-building. Butler creates both a crumbling dystopian vision of the United States, and simultaneously incarnates Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy out of that wreckage. She slowly and carefully balances the two, first introducing the reader to Lauren’s world, and then going deeper into her protagonist’s heart and mind to reveal her unusual belief system. What becomes clear in all of this is how much the more recent surge in the popularity of dystopian fiction stands on Butler’s shoulders. More eerie still is the resonance with reality; the novel’s presidential candidate is running on the promise to make America great again. Readers of contemporary dystopian will find much that is familiar here, despite the fact that this novel is nearly twenty-five years old.
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The Fate of the Tearling (Queen of the Tearling #3)

Cover image for The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansenby Erika Johansen

978-0-06229042-7

“For three long centuries the Fetch had watched William Tear’s dream sink further and further into the mire. No one in the Tearling could even see Tear’s better world any longer, let alone muster the courage to dig for it.”

By handing over the Tear sapphires to the Red Queen, Kelsea has bought a reprieve in the war with Mortmesne, but at a terrible price. She is taken captive, and imprisoned in a dungeon beneath the Palais in Desmesne. With her hold on her kingdom slipping, the Red Queen is desperate to master the magic of the sapphires before the dark threat from the Fairwitch sweeps her off her throne. The Mace is left in charge of New London, torn between his duty to rescue Kelsea as head of the Queen’s Guard, and his responsibility to rule Tear as her Regent. He cannot leave Kelsea imprisoned, but sensing an opportunity, the Arvath is attempting to wrest power from the crown, and Lazarus must move on two fronts. The fate of the Tearling hangs in the balance.

In The Queen of the Tearling, the series began as a traditional fantasy tale of a young monarch coming to power after being raised in secrecy for her own protection. In her first days on the throne, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn made powerful enemies by stopping the shipment of Tear slaves to Mortmesne. But from that prosaic beginning, the trilogy has made some unusual choices, revealing a dystopian twist, and a science-fiction turn that create an interesting blend of genres. Johansen has built a unique world, but one that requires a high level of buy-in from the reader, and acceptance that not everything will be readily explained. With The Fate of the Tearling bringing the trilogy to a close, there are still many questions and loose threads left over from the second volume.

Raised in exile by a historian, Kelsea believes strongly in the importance of history, and that the past can help her unlock their present predicament. Imprisoned in a Mort dungeon, she gives herself over to her strange fugue states, which mysteriously continue despite the fact that she has been separated from Tear’s sapphires. Though Lily Mayhew is still alive at the time, Kelsea is now seeing William Tear’s Town through the eyes of Katie Rice, the daughter of Tear’s trusted lieutenant, Dorian. As Tear’s utopian dream begins to unravel in the years after the Crossing, Katie is recruited for secret training to guard Tear’s heir, Jonathan. These flashback sections are more loosely framed than in The Invasion of the Tearling, possibly because with Kelsea imprisoned, there is little other action to interrupt.

Since Kelsea is imprisoned in Mortmesne, Johansen draws on the perspectives of wide variety of secondary characters to flesh out the wider story. In New London, Andalie’s daughter Aisa observes events from her new position as a member of the Queen’s Guard. Several chapters are seen from the perspective of Arlen Thorne’s witch, Brenna, who was captured and imprisoned in the Keep dungeon. The traitorous Gate Guard Javel follows the Queen’s Guard on their mission to Desmesne, more to find his long-lost wife than for any interest in rescuing the Queen. As usual, Johansen perfectly times her changes in perspective for maximum dramatic tension.

In the first two installments of the series, Kelsea relied heavily on the magic of the mysterious Tear sapphires, handed down through generations of Raleigh monarchs. Their precise origins and the source of their power both remained unexplained, making them a rather unsatisfying device. In The Fate of the Tearling, we finally get some answers, but perhaps not as many as some readers might desire. Despite the explanations, the sapphires are still overly-convenient devices, but understanding their history does mitigate this somewhat. This reliance on the sapphires weakens Kelsea’s character, and the series as a whole, but Johansen’s strong pacing, and complex characters such as Mace, the Red Queen, and the Fetch carry the series to an intriguing if not entirely satisfying conclusion.

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The Disappearance of Ember Crow (Tribe #2)

Cover image for The Disappearance of Ember Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullinaby Ambelin Kwaymullina

ISBN 978-0-7636-7843-2

“I was sad for everything the girl would never be and for a society that drove people with abilities into horrible places and horrible choices. For all the lost chances, and all the lost people.”

After rescuing the detainees from Detention Centre Three, and exposing Chief Administrator Neville Rose’s violation of the Benign Technology Accords, Ashala and Connor escaped back to the Firstwood. But Ashala has been living with her wolves since their return, keeping herself apart from Connor and the Tribe. As a Sleepwalker, she can affect the real world through her dreams, and since the events of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, she has been suffering fierce nightmares that make her fear she will hurt someone she cares about. But the disappearance of Ember, one of the other leaders of the Tribe, pulls her back to her duty. Ashala doesn’t really believe that Ember would leave the Tribe of her own free will. But has she been taken, or has she been caught up in something so dangerous that she is staying away in order to protect them?

Along with Georgie, who can catch glimpses of the future, Ember is one of the Illegals who helps Ashala lead the Tribe. Her ability to alter memories was central to the Tribe’s plans to infiltrate the detention centre and expose Neville Rose’s plans to the world. Ashala remains the narrator of the book, but significant portions of the middle section are related from Ember’s point-of-view. The use of Ember’s ability is a less explosive twist because it is no longer as much of a narrative surprise, but Ambelin Kwaymullina still finds clever ways to incorporate it into the story.

In The Disappearance of Ember Crow, dissent against the Citizenship Accords that bind people with abilities is growing thanks to the work of the Tribe, and a change in the leadership of Gull City. However, the narrative centers on developing the backstory of Ashala’s world, and specifically how their society grew up out of the ashes of the old world. The Reckoning itself is not much discussed, nor do we learn the origin of Illegals’ abilities. It is mentioned that immediately after the Reckoning, only very few people had abilities, suggesting that they are either an artefact of the new world, or a very rare carry over from the old that has now become more common. Instead, Kwaymullina focuses on Alexander Hoffman, the near-prophetic figure who was instrumental to defining the principles of the new society. We also delve into the origin of the Citizenship Accords, the laws that prevent Illegals from using their abilities, or existing as full Citizens.

In the midst of all these revelations, Ashala and Connor track Ember to Spinifex City, where another old world spirit sleeps. Ashala realizes that as with many of the Tribe, she knows very little about Ember’s life before the Firstwood. Her father may be dead, but it turns out that he was not the only member of Ember’s family. Her living siblings are as unique as she is, and some of them are even more dangerous. The Disappearance of Ember Crow is a promising and revelatory addition to the Tribe series, leading into the final volume of the trilogy, due to be released in North America in May 2017.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

the-interrogation-of-ashala-wolfby Ambelin Kwaymullina

ISBN 978-0-7636-6988-1

“Inside his mind, where Neville kept the story of himself, I was certain he believed he was a good man who’d been forced to do a few bad things for the sake of the Balance.”

Ashala Wolf, leader of the Tribe, has been captured by Chief Administrator Neville Rose after being betrayed by Justin Connor. Three hundred years after the Reckoning—an environmental disaster that ended the world as we know it—what remains of society is devoted to preserving the Balance so that such a disaster can never happen again. Unfortunately for Ashala, those who have developed supernatural powers have been deemed a threat to the Balance, and must surrender to the government to live out their lives in detention centres where their powers can be contained. Ashala leads the Tribe of runaways who live in the Firstwood, outside the reach of the government. But Chief Administrator Rose plans to eliminate the Tribe, and Ashala holds the key to his plans. Can she withstand interrogation at the hands of a machine that can invade her mind?

Some novels are simply better if you don’t know what you’re getting into, and I think that The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is one of those books. If you’re already planning to read it, stop here and just go do it! I will avoid major spoilers as usual, but the surprises will be that much more enjoyable the less you know what to expect from this book. But if you still need convincing, read on!

Diverse-SFF-book-clubThe Interrogation of Ashala Wolf begins with many of the trademarks of your usual dystopian novel. We have the Reckoning that ended the world, and the strange new society that rose up from the ashes, with rules shaped in reaction to the disaster. A ragtag band of kids stand in opposition to the government. While the Reckoning is long in the past, and not explicitly described, it has its roots in human destruction of the environment, making this an ecological dystopia. Racism has largely fallen by the wayside in this radically shifted world, but the word Illegals remains, coming to signify those who violate the Citizenship Accords by freely using their powers. Although race is not central, Ashala—like the book’s author—is descended from Australia’s aboriginal people, and their mythology plays a central role.

All of this feels comfortably dystopian in the usual fashion, albeit with Ambelin Kwaymullina’s own unique take on the genre. But about halfway through the book, certain details suddenly don’t seem to add up, and the story takes a big twist. If you are prepared to bear with being confused as the layers are slowly revealed, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf comes together in an explosive fashion. There is action aplenty, but also a journey through Ashala’s mind as the machine forces her to relive some of her worst memories.

It is hard to describe the plot of this book without getting too spoilery, but fortunately there is a plenty else going on. Kwaymullina’s world is also interesting because it features an essentially functional democratic government with which Ashala and the Tribe share most of their values. The exception is the Citizenship Accords, which dehumanize those who have a power, setting them outside of the Balance and posing them as a threat to it. But Citizens are beginning to ask the Question: “Does a person with an ability belong to the Balance?” Since the origin of the abilities is not revealed, society is being forced to consider that these abilities might actually be part of the natural order of the Balance.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is also full of interesting characters. The Tribe is led by an intriguing band of young women, including Ashala, whose ability is dream walking, and who shares an affinity with wolves. She is supported by Georgie and Ember, who also have powerful abilities that go beyond the usual skills such as manipulating the weather or running fast. Although they have useful abilities that help them lead and protect the Tribe, Ashala’s personal qualities are what set her apart, because she is a community-builder who brings out the best qualities in everyone. Her leadership-style poses a telling contrast to Neville Rose’s bid for power which he hopes to achieve by stirring up fear of Illegals. Georgie and Ember have key roles, and I hope to be seeing more of them in subsequent books. All three books are currently out in Australia, and the third will be released in North America in 2017.

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The Last Star (The 5th Wave #3)

Cover image for The Last Star by Rick Yanceyby Rick Yancey

ISBN 978-0-599-16243-5

“No one is ever going to read this. By the time I’m gone, there won’t be anyone left who can read. So this isn’t for you, future reader who won’t exist. It’s for me.”

Humanity has been devastated by wave after wave of attacks from the Others, disembodied aliens who have come to…well no one really knows what their goals are. Why would a disembodied consciousness need a planet? But Evan Walker—part human, part alien Silencer—knows that in four days, on the spring equinox, the Silencers will be called home to the mother ship, and the next wave of destruction will begin. The remaining survivors, Cassie, Sam, Zombie, Ringer, and Megan are almost out of time.

The Last Star opens on a priest, holed up in a series of caves in Ohio with some of the remnants of humanity. He says mass for the last time, having run out of wine and bread to serve as the host. The language of a Revelations-style apocalypse is worked throughout this final installment of the series, an on-going motif that helps evoke an atmosphere of imminent doom. In The 5th Wave, bodies as battlefields and cockroaches were the choice images, while rats and the silver thread connecting people featured heavily in The Infinite Sea. Here the motif is faith in its many forms; who and what do we trust or believe in at the end of the world?

From there, Yancey divides the story into four sections, one for each of the remaining days before the next phase of attacks begins. He continues to utilize multiple perspectives, often shifting between voices at key moments, but striking a better balance than he achieved in The Infinite Sea. Cassie’s voice in The Last Star is snarkier, more on edge. Writing in her journal, she tries to use humour to diffuse the almost unbearable tension, but it only serves to highlight the desperateness of the situation. Evan has a plan to use the fact the Silencers are being called in to strike back at the Others, but Cassie worries about all the many unknowns that could derail the plan. So many of their assumptions have already been overturned, and their reunion with Ringer only serves to further emphasize that fact. Yancey’s imagination remains gritty and horrific.

The 5th Wave was probably one of my favourite reads of 2013, though it didn’t make my top five, in large part due to a gross scene in which Cassie says no and Evan proceeds anyway. As I put it at the time, “authors, having your heroine say NO and your love interest ignore her IS NEVER ROMANTIC.” In The Last Star it was Ringer’s situation that bothered me on a number of levels, the least spoilery of which was Zombie’s ongoing crusade to get her to smile for him, just once. The intention was likely to show that Zombie cared about making Ringer happy, but forcing women to smile is loaded with cultural baggage. Apparently even the end of the world doesn’t excuse women from smiling for men. In the end, I couldn’t get on board with either of the series’ romances.

Like many YA series, The Last Star features an epilogue. As usual, I kind of wished I hadn’t read it. After such a gritty series, Yancey’s efforts to evoke some sense of hope feels forced and cliché. In terms of plot, this is a fairly strong conclusion that improves upon the scatteredness of The Infinite Sea, but the series struck enough sour notes along the way to leave me with mixed feelings.

We Stand On Guard

Cover image for We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughanby Brian K. Vaughan

Art by Steve Skroce

ISBN 978-1-63215-702-7

“They’ve never given a damn about land. This has only ever been about our water.

In the year 2112, Amber Roos watches the breaking news on CBC from her home in Ottawa as the White House burns. Soon, missiles are falling on the Canadian capital in retaliation, killing both her parents as a terrible war for Canada’s natural resources begins. More than a decade later, Amber is surviving alone, roughing it in the wilds of the Northwest Territories as the American military pushes those few who resist ever northward. It is there that she hooks up with the Two-Four, a small, motley band of Canadian resistance fighters. Yellowknife is about to become a hot zone, as the Americans set their sights on the bountiful waters of Great Slave Lake.

Vaughan’s story takes place in a future where the American use of drones has evolved and magnified to include giant robots in a variety of forms. However, the villains are diverse and complex. One major player is revealed to be Canadian-born, but raised in America, and questions arise as to whether Canada may have undertaken a pre-emptive strike after growing fearful about American designs on Canadian resources. Meanwhile, the protagonist has a relatable back story from the beginning of the war, but is pretty cagey about her recent history. I’ve seen criticism of the premise as unrealistic, but in a world dried out by global warming, leaving Canada as “the Saudi Arabia of H20” in the words of Brian K. Vaughan, it isn’t all that hard to imagine the United States going to war to get it the same way they have done for oil in the past.

With an American writer who is married to a Canadian, and a Canadian artist, it was interesting to me (as a Canadian who lives in the US) to see how We Stand on Guard signaled Canadian identity. The title is a great touch, taken from a line in the national anthem. French is sprinkled in largely untranslated, the Tim Hortons logo appears in the background, and the CBC changes from national broadcaster to resistance communications network. Vaughan credits artist Steve Skroce for slipping in a variety of other Canadian references, which make for great Easter egg hunting. Moreover, Vaughan doesn’t seem afraid to make America the villain, albeit in a far-flung future, allowing for a genuine conflict between the two identities.

The Deluxe edition collects the limited six issue mini-series from Image Comics, making this story really a slice of a larger conflict we may never get to hear more about. The issues are presented as chapters, with the original cover art beginning each section. Steve Skroce goes to town drawing outlandish animalistic war machines, but he also has a fine hand for expressive human faces, even in the smaller panels where some artists’ characters become indistinguishable. Unfortunately, many of them don’t get much time to shine before becoming collateral damage. This criticism could go for most of We Stand on Guard; the biggest problem is that there isn’t more, leaving little room to develop a large concept. But the glimpse we do get is brutal and fascinating.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover image for The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 0-449-21260-2

“I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, my eyes closed, and the name floats behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.”

Offred had a real name, once. Not this bastard name that combines a possessive piece of grammar with the name of the man to whom she currently belongs. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly part of the United States, she has been relegated to the taxing role of Handmaid, at once revered and entrapped by the fact that she possesses a rare set of working ovaries in an age of reproductive decline. Her long and tedious days are broken up only by a walk to the shops, since most forms of entertainment, and especially reading, are now forbidden to women. Most of her nights are spent either trying not to remember or trying not to forget her life before, when she had a husband, and a daughter, a job and her own bank account. Now, once a month, she must lie with the Commander, under the eyes of his dour wife, Serena Joy, and hope that he makes her pregnant before her time runs out.

The Handmaid’s Tale opens on a simple scene that is at once familiar and dystopian. Women sleep in rows of cots in what is recognizably a high school gymnasium with a wooden floor and painted with lines for various sports. But something is also obviously terribly wrong; guards patrol the aisles, and the women are forbidden from speaking to one another, or exchanging names. The opening scene is a great encapsulation of the subtle genius of The Handmaid’s Tale; there are recognizable elements of our own world in there, gone horribly awry. In Atwood’s own words, “there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country, or for which actual supporting documentation is not already available.” Dystopian fiction has risen to new heights in recent years, but Margaret Atwood was already scaling those peaks three decades ago.

A striking feature of the story is the way the women are made complicit in the regime and turned against one another. This is accomplished through stratification, and creating rivalry between the different classes of women. The Aunts, often older, infertile women, have saved themselves from work camps by becoming enforcers of the regime, training the younger women to dutifully accept their new status. Women knowns as Marthas are relegated to the role of household servants for the Commanders, and their Wives. The Wives ostensibly have the highest social standing, but they are resentful of the Handmaids, who are charged with giving their husbands sons where the Wives have failed. Econowives in the lower social classes are simply expected to perform all three functions, if they can. The women are kept wary of one another, largely unable to form valuable alliances due the suspicion created by the fact that anyone could be working for the Eyes. If the characters are a bit distant and unknowable, it is this separation that makes them so.

The events of The Handmaid’s Tale are largely quotidian, occasionally broken up by darker events, like a Salvaging, or a visit to the Wall where traitors’ bodies are displayed. Matters also become more fraught in Offred’s household when her Commander starts ordering her to pay him extra night time visits outside the confines of the Ceremony, and out from under Serena Joy’s watchful eye. But if most of The Handmaid’s Tale is very minute and day-to-day, the epilogue that follows it is anything but. Entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood zooms out to the year 2195. This epilogue is styled like a transcript from an academic conference, in which a Professor from the University of Cambridge chronicles the discovery and attempted authentication of the audiotapes that have come to be known as The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to providing a more distant perspective, the Historical Notes throw a new light on Atwood’s informal narrative style; she dispenses with quotation marks, ruminates on the storytelling process, and has Offred admit when she has conflated events or summarized a conversation to the best of her recollection. Briefly, Offred even assumes the voice of Moira, an escaped Handmaid whose bravery she envies. Revelations about Offred’s past, and how she lost her rights and became a Handmaid, are released in painful dribs and drabs throughout the text, suspended whenever she cannot bear to talk of it anymore. This fragmentation, which has caused some readers, understandably, to complain that it impeded their ability to sink into the narrative, suddenly makes more stylistic sense in light of this belatedly revealed conceit. The Historical Notes also reveal that the academics have had to edit Offred’s tale into their best guess at its original order, since the tapes on which she recorded her autobiography were not numbered. We have read a story about a woman who has been deprived of the right to read and write, only to discover that she has not written her story at all, but imparted it through the spoken word.

Now thirty years old, The Handmaid’s Tale is most often criticized for failing to come to fruition, which is rather ironic given that Atwood wrote it by using elements of history and current events. However, this simplistic view rather misses the point of speculative fiction, the writing of which does not require a crystal ball, a scrying glass, or other supernatural divination of the future. A dark future merely needs to be recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine. Neither 1984 nor Brave New World have come precisely to pass either, and The Handmaid’s Tale stands alongside these as a classic example of the dystopian genre.

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