Classic Speculative Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale

By Margaret Atwood

Published 1985

Read in 1986 and March 2019

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale shortly after its publication because I had read her previous four novels and looked forward to more.  It was sufficiently considered “science fiction” to be considered for the Nebula Award and to win the first Arthur C. Clarke award .  However, her “science fiction” has nothing to do with space or aliens.  Rather she terms her work “speculative fiction” which is a great description—what could the fairly near future be like if society continues some of its current paths…  This particular book, published in 1985, does not specify the specific timing

What I remember most distinctly from reading of the book thirty-three years ago (aside from what the Handmaid was…) is the overnight suspension of Compubank cards for all women.   My reaction was so swift and severe that I nearly called a friend, who had cheerfully indicated she paid for her groceries with an ATM card, to warn her of the dangers of relying on such devices.  While we haven’t had ATM cards shut off for all women since the book’s publication, some of the lines in the book remain remarkably relevant:

“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. ….. That was when they suspended the Constitution.  They said it would be temporary.  There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets.  People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.  There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on. … Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen.  Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said.  The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses.  Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.”

During my recent reading of the novel, I was again impressed with Atwood’s ability to engage you in the protagonist’s (Offfred) present day-to-day life while slowly reeling out both her personal past and the state of society as she could was aware of it given her new role.  Then Atwood then propels Offred into a new situation that is both destabilizing for and providing some potential hope for Offred and the reader. 

The abrupt and wonderfully ambiguous ending is followed by “Historical Notes” that are brilliantly written.  Atwood provides “a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies in June, 2195.”  Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavit introduces Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director, Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Archives, Cambridge University, England and the notes then record his talk.   The edition I read most recently was published by Penguin Random House as part of their Everyman’s Library of Contemporary Classics.  I first encountered Everyman’s Library when I read Cranford.  Interestingly, both books are about a woman’s world in a time when women’s place in society was in transition—Cranford about a society that was slowly dying out; Handmaid’s Tale about a society that could never have been imagined by the ladies of Cranford, nor, we hope, us.

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