Margaret Atwood didn’t make up anything in this book. All of the things that take place in the Republic of Gilead have happened at some point in histo...moreMargaret Atwood didn’t make up anything in this book. All of the things that take place in the Republic of Gilead have happened at some point in history (which now includes 1985, the year the book was published). She also arrived at the society depicted in the book by taking certain attitudes, both feminist & conservative, prevalent at the time, and taking them to extreme conclusions. So the place and the culture she depicts are believable. What comes across as far-fetched is the rapidity with which it occurs. In a little over a decade, America becomes so louche and licentious that the morally aggrieved have overthrown the government and set up a totalitarian theocracy totally at odds with the history of American governance. In a scant 10-15 years? I don’t really see that happening. Recently, I saw “the final cut” of Blade Runner. It takes place 11 years from now, but the world depicted looks like it should be 150-200 years from now. Things rarely change as quickly as novelists imagine. Architecturally, Manhattan in 1988 looked pretty close to how it does today. Watch a film from the 90's, and you’ll see people dressed in much the same clothes you see today.
Margaret Atwood had a clear idea of what sort of shape the story would take: it is a diary. The curtain is pulled back slowly, and we only know as much as our narrator knows. Even the “Historical Notes” section at the end doesn’t really answer that many questions. It definitely swings the open ending in one direction, but it doesn’t really give you that much extra information on the society of Gilead or how it came about. We never find out that much, and that’s kind of frustrating. I blame this largely on the narrator’s passivity. Passivity is a trait that rarely endears me to protagonists (or to real people, for that matter). She says she wants to know, but she just doesn’t make that much effort to find out. There is an echo of Nineteen-Eighty-Four when, much like Winston Smith, she is broken down. “They can do what they like with me. I am abject,” she says. This is in marked contrast to Ivie, the heroine of V For Vendetta. Ivie is active and engaged. It’s an interesting comparison as V For Vendetta and The Handmaid’s Tale have many similarities. Both were written in the early eighties. Both appear to take place in the late nineties. Both imagine a radical change in society coming after a perceived moral decline occurs in concert with ecological or nuclear disaster. Both feature secret police organizations called the Eyes. The biggest difference is that the government in The Handmaid’s Tale is explicitly theocratic, whereas the government of England in V For Vendetta is of the fascist and nationalist stripe. But the government of Gilead appears to have racist policies too, and the government in V For Vendetta certainly uses religion to legitimize its actions.
This book is heavy (in the figurative sense). There is no comic relief whatsoever. It is a near-total chronicle of misery, from start to finish. And it is depressing, in a way. It is depressing to think about how easy it can be for a small group of fanatics (whether they be communists, fascists or religious zealots) to take over a country. All they need is for the silent majority to look the other way, to keep quiet, to believe their promises of security & virtue and let them get away with it. That’s the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to stand up and voice dissent. There is always a minority that choose that path. But the bigger the majority you have looking the other way, the easier it is to deal with the dissenters and malcontents (preferably quietly). (less)
August 10th, 2006 was not a good day to fly. Those cats got busted in England with the gels and liquids. I was on my way up to Maine for the Oulette-K...moreAugust 10th, 2006 was not a good day to fly. Those cats got busted in England with the gels and liquids. I was on my way up to Maine for the Oulette-Karlins nuptial festivities. I'd brought this book with the idea of reading it over the course of the weekend. But as I spent almost the entire day in airports on Thursday (aside from a few hours at the Saugus Days Inn and the adjacent Bickford's on Route 1), I read almost the entire book. I was very happy to have such a good book. It has a great sense of time and place, and I like that it's languid, but not slow or uninvolving. There are several unusual things about the story, and they all work: the narrator who speaks as a collective voice, a sort of first person plural; the dearth of dialogue and consequent heavy use of descriptive language; but most of all the nearly spot-on description of the cloudy reality of adolesence, when girls really do seem like a separate species, both bewitching and inscrutable. I imagine there are many that can remember that feeling, but few can render it as vividly as it is in this book.(less)
I understand why people call this book fascist, but those people are kind of missing the point. It's definitely overtly anti-communist. He turns Karl...moreI understand why people call this book fascist, but those people are kind of missing the point. It's definitely overtly anti-communist. He turns Karl Marx's theories inside out and shows communism being historically eclipsed on the way to Heinlein's own personal idea of a future utopia. But it's a militaristic rather a specifically fascist utopia. He loves the military, and imagines that the more romantic of martial values (things like courage, duty, honor) learned on the battlefield can be inculcated on a larger societal level.
I enjoyed this book a lot, but in one sense, the critics of this book have a point: there really isn't much of a plot, and there are long passages that pretty much amount to lectures. In fact, they are lectures: they are delivered to Juan Rico, the nondescript protagonist, by first a high school teacher and then an OCS instructor. Both are just outlining Heinlein's view. I've always thought that most science fiction writers are much better an coming up with a great setting and background than they are at crafting a good story. This book did little to unsettle that view.(less)
It's short stories, so I can't really get into the plot, but WOW! This guy is great! I can't believe I've never read him before. Even though he was ac...moreIt's short stories, so I can't really get into the plot, but WOW! This guy is great! I can't believe I've never read him before. Even though he was actually a Cajun, his style is very New England (Dubus did spend most of his adult life Massachusetts and New Hampshire). Some comic relief might have been nice, as there is a lot of heavy shit here: death, divorce, premeditated killing. It's a good thing this collection closes with an optimistic, uplifting story.(less)