Canadian, Dystopian, Fiction, Speculative Fiction

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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Canada Reads, Canadian, Dystopian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2014: The Year of the Flood

Cover image for The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 978-0-385-52208-2

According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.

Continuing the dystopian world of Oryx and Crake, in Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood leaves behind the secure compounds where Jimmy and Crake grew up, and ventures out in the pleeblands where the rest of the population of this disintegrating society must try to survive. The central characters are Toby and Ren, both members of the God’s Gardeners cult, a pacifistic religion which prioritizes environmentalism and rejects consumerism. Both Toby and Ren are dubious believers; Toby found refuge from an abusive employer amongst the Gardeners, and eventually rose into the group’s leadership despite her doubts. Ren was dragged into the Gardeners by her mother as a child, and then extracted just as abruptly. By chance, both women survive the plague that wiped out most of the population in Oryx and Crake—an event which the Gardeners call the Waterless Flood—but their temporary refuges will only sustain them for so long before they must face their new dystopian world.

Although Year of the Flood is the second book in a trilogy, it’s pacing is very similar to Oryx and Crake. Like many middle books in a trilogy, Year of the Flood does not advance the plot tremendously so much as add to it, and set up the conclusion. Toby and Ren must figure out how to live day-to-day in the present, while recounting their time with the Gardeners, and how they came to survive the apocalypse. The timelines come together at the end of the novel and overlaps with Oryx and Crake, revealing surprising intersections of characters and events. The timeline goes only a little beyond the ending of Oryx and Crake, so in many ways, Year of the Flood is not so much a sequel as the same story told again from a very different perspective. Atwood further reveals her projected corporate dystopia through contrast, by delving into the beliefs of its most extreme opponents, so that the same events can be seen again in a very different light. The world is as much a character in this narrative as the few people who remain to inhabit it.

One of the most compelling aspects of Year of the Flood is the construction of the world view preached by Adam One and the God’s Gardeners. Atwood skillfully appropriates and adapts Christian concepts and imagery to create the ideology of the God’s Gardeners by synthesizing Christianity with environmentalism and resistance of capitalism and consumerism. Although Toby and Ren are ultimately helped by the skills they acquire during their time with the Gardeners, their doubting natures also prove critical to their survival. Through her involvement in the leadership, Toby learns that general membership doesn’t really know what is going on at the higher levels of the group. The eco-terrorist label that seems so ridiculous based solely on the teachings of the Gardeners may not be as unfounded as it initially seems. However, Atwood does go a little but overboard with her construction of this religion; Adam One’s sermons at the beginning of each chapter are little more than over-expository information dumps clearly directed to the reader rather than the Gardeners he is ostensibly speaking to. Atwood skillfully builds a world within the narrative of each chapter, without needing to resort to this kind of blatant exposition.

Although there is much to recommend Year of the Flood, it was the first book voted off of Canada Reads 2014 today, despite the carefully crafted defenses of Stephen Lewis, who argued that climate change and the consequences of capitalism are two of the most pressing issues facing Canada. Canada Reads is an annual event that seeks to identify the one book all Canadians should read, but this year there is a special focus on championing titles with the power to inspire social change.  Although the panelists cited their inability to relate to the characters as their primary reason for eliminating the book, I think that Year of the Flood suffered for being the only speculative fiction title in contention. While the panelists seemed to feel that Atwood’s story was too distant to have a real impact on readers, I felt that it was a strong contender precisely because it so clearly illustrates the potential perils of continuing on the present course. Wab Kinew initially identified Year of the Flood as the best book other than the one he was defending, because of the importance of the issues it addresses, but at the end of the debate he ultimately delivered the decisive vote against it on the reasoning that it was weaker than the other titles. Arguably it was not actually weaker so much as too different; genre fiction is frequently dismissed as being insufficiently serious, and I think that was ultimately the death of Year of the Flood in this year’s debates.  Lewis described it as “brilliant evocation of a collapsing society as a result of environmental destruction,” and I think that the intersection of these two issues would have carried any other title much further into the week, if not to victory.


You can watch the Canada Reads debates on the CBC website.

Canadian, Dystopian, Fiction

Oryx and Crake

Cover image for Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 9780385721677

“Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain, a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

Jimmy, known as Snowman, may be the last human on earth. He has survived a plague that seems to have spared no one else, save for the genetically modified human-like creations of his best friend, a brilliant but troubled scientist known as Crake. Jimmy and Crake grew up together on the Corporation compounds, the gated communities that protect the ruling class of scientists from the dirt and crime of the pleeblands that surround them. Jimmy is an average student at best, but Crake is a terrifying genius with a brilliant future in the Corps ahead of him. As an adult, Jimmy is a word-man in a world of numbers people, and so is recruited by Crake to do the advertising campaign for a new product called BlyssPluss, which is in turn sold by a mysterious woman named Oryx who seems to believe that Crake is the world’s saviour. Jimmy is troubled by Crake’s work, but he can’t leave without Oryx, who becomes entangled with both men. But all that is a memory for Snowman, who must find a way to survive in the shattered remains of the world, while also trying to guide and protect the Crakers as they leave the compound for the first time. Although the Corporations have been destroyed, the evidence of their depredation remains, their genetically modified animal creations, from Wolvogs to Pigoons, threatening to dominate the vacuum in the ecosystem left behind by the passing of humanity.

Originally published in 2003, Oryx and Crake remains a prime example of the literary dystopian novel, and a staple of Canadian literature. Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic world is clearly realized through the hyper-exaggeration of modern advances in technology and science. These inventions stand out even more starkly in contrast to Snowman’s post-apocalyptic life, where he cannot even figure out how to explain toast the Children of Crake, because the world has changed so much that they have never seen bread. Although the story’s frame narrative describes Snowman’s post-apocalyptic life, this turn of events is only important when seen alongside the parallel narrative, told by Snowman through memories; it is the story of why the world ended, and how Snowman managed to survive.

Jimmy’s troubled adolescence and early adulthood stand in contrast to the simple innocence of the Crakers, who are trusting and inquisitive. Yet compared to Jimmy, the Crakers are unsatisfying characters, lacking in complexity, and not particularly relatable. Jimmy, for all his flaws and shortcomings, is human, with all the history and memories that entails. The alienness of the Crakers, however, is understandable, a deliberate contrast to the humans who came before them.  Crake, and Oryx, while human, are equally remote, and almost completely inscrutable. I longed to get inside Crake’s head and understand his motivation for creating BlyssPluss and the Paradice project. Oryx deliberately remains aloof, never fully opening herself up to either Jimmy or Crake, so the reader cannot know her either. The lack of insight into these crucial characters is frustrating, because we know they are not the gods Snowman has turned them into in the eyes of the Crakers.

Despite the existence of the Children of Crake, this is in many ways a last man narrative, in which Snowman must confront the fact that he may well be the final unaltered human, about to be superseded by a race of beings genetically engineered for superior adaptation to the new environment. Read alone, Oryx and Crake hangs open-ended, posing more questions than it answers. Only at the very end of the story do other humans appear, leaving the world open for Atwood to continue the narrative from another perspective in Year of the Flood (2006) and Madd Addam (2013). For those craving more answers than Oryx and Crake provides, these sequels will undoubtedly be crucial to their satisfaction with the story.


More Dystopian Fiction:

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee