Diamond Age 75 (4)
April 7, 2019
One in a series of posts about the 75 best science fiction novels published during the genre’s Diamond Age era (from 1984–2003, according to HILOBROW’s periodization schema). For Josh Glenn’s complete Diamond Age Sci-Fi 75 list, click here.
Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
In the not-too-distant future, perhaps 20 years from the time of the book’s writing, the United States has suffered a coup transforming an erstwhile liberal democracy into a theocratic dictatorship. Because the American population is shrinking due to a toxic environment and man-made viruses, the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. A puritanical Republic of Gilead, whose capital is Cambridge, Mass., has been established — and the regime’s elite have fertile females assigned to them as Old Testament-style “handmaids.” Drawing on historical atrocities from sumptuary laws, book burnings, the child-stealing of the Argentine generals, and the history of American polygamy, Atwood depicts a dystopia in which social control is perpetuated not only by violence but through everything from clothing to language. “Offred,” the central character, whose journal we are reading, used to be named something else; now she is “of” (belongs to) Fred, a former market researcher who has become one of the architects of the new republic; Fred’s wife, a former televangelist, is presumed barren — and bitterly resents Offred, while yearning for Offred’s child. Offred and some of her fellow handmaids attempt to reclaim their lost individualism and independence; some of this experimentalist novel’s sections describe the lives of handmaids who may or may not be Offred. Interspersed with these snapshots are Offred’s memories of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, including her indoctrination at the hands of government “Aunts.” The ending is ambiguous — will Offred escape? Will anyone?
Fun facts: Gilead’s Secret Service is headquartered in Harvard’s Widener Library, where Atwood once researched the Salem witchcraft trials. The Handmaid’s Tale won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award; it has been adapted into a 1990 film, a graphic novel, and a much-discussed 2017–present TV show created by Bruce Miller. Atwood has announced a sequel, The Testaments, which will appear in 2019.
DIAMOND AGE SCI-FI at HILOBROW: William Gibson | Bruce Sterling | Margaret Atwood | Ann Nocenti | Frank Miller | Alan Moore | Octavia E. Butler | Iain M. Banks | Grant Morrison | Neal Stephenson | Jonathan Lethem | Charles Burns | China Miéville.
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