Musings of a Reader: The Handmaid’s Tale and Why Dystopian Fiction is Necessary

Published in Zau magazine in March 2015

Up until quite recently, I used to be one of those literary snobs. You know the ones I’m talking about – those who turn up their noses on “genre” fiction, pooh-poohing at the intricately-built worlds of fantasy or the implausibility and outlandishness of the crazy science of sci-fi. “What do those books have to do with the real world,” I would say to myself derisively, as I devoured book after book of “realistic” fiction. (The irony of the fact that the worlds of the realistic fiction I loved so much were every bit as constructed as the worlds of fantasy or sci-fi was, of course, completely lost on me.) It seemed to me a lazy escapist move to lose yourself in worlds that are so far removed from “reality” – from the social order and the issues within this social order that “realistic” fiction, I felt, explored and critiqued. What was fantasy or sci-fi or dystopian fiction if not a bunch of characters having wacky adventures in a world nothing like our own? Then, something happened that made me reconsider my (ignorant) position on at least one of these genres: I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

I had been aware of the term “dystopian”, of course. It’s difficult not to, given the explosion of YA dystopian fiction that occurred with the publication of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy some years ago. YA dystopian fiction is currently the most lucrative trend in Hollywood (screen adaptations of numerous of such books have come out – Lois Lowry’s The Giver, James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, to name a few), and as with anything that becomes too popular, this trend has been met with eye-rolling and scorn. The idea is that this is just another one of those formulas that seem to appeal to the masses for arbitrary reasons, and that it will soon phase out, much like the vampire trend epitomized by the infamous Twilight series. I was, I admit, one of the people doing the eye-rolling and scorning. I had read the first part of The Hunger Games, and then never bothered to continue the series, being too put off by the detached and ineffective writing to consider the themes explored with any seriousness. Then I watched the films, and was a little more impressed – Collins’ world where children are forced to murder each other to help their starving families survive a pitiless, ruling elite offers fascinating insight into the cruelties of war, the costs of revolution, the emotional toll of violence, and the way violence is commodified by the media as entertainment. So while The Hunger Games franchise didn’t make me fall in love with the genre, it did make me open myself to the possibilities the dystopian genre offers.

The Hunger Games did not, of course, singlehandedly create dystopian fiction. The term dystopia was first used by philosopher John Stuart Miller back in 1868, who used it to criticise the policies of the British government towards the Irish. The word comes from the Ancient Greek words dys (bad) and topia (place), and so the term roughly means a society not pleasant to live in. Today, 146 years later, this term is used to describe a whole subset of fiction, which in itself comes under the broader genre umbrella of speculative fiction which is, to put it simply, fiction that explores what society and humanity might look like in the future (or might have looked like the in the past or might look like in an alternate present). Dystopian literature has been written for centuries, way before the term was used to describe this genre. Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are the ones most easily recognized. And what exactly does dystopian fiction write about? Contrary to my uninformed opinion that it explored worlds completely alien to ours, dystopian fiction actually creates a hyperbolic version of our world, exaggerating actual social ills in order to make a point about society’s flaws. So dystopian fiction leads the problems of our society to their logical conclusion, exploring what exactly humanity is headed for.

The Handmaid’s Tale does exactly that, which is why it is one of the most brilliant and also the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. It tells the story of Offred, a woman living in The Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), a vicious, male-controlled totalitarian nightmare. In Gilead, the birth rate is perilously low, so Offred is forced to become a Handmaid, a woman assigned to a high ranking official for one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, your standard of living depends on your gender, your sexuality, and race, with only the elite living like times never changed. In Gilead, the Handmaids are nothing but the sum total of their biological parts, and the Handmaids are actually better off than unfertile women, who are shipped off to Colonies, for a life of hard labour, where they die slowly of radiation poisoning. What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so absolutely terrifying is its entirely convincing plausibility – this is something that could very easily happen. In fact, Atwood wrote that every single thing that happens in Gilead has an actual, historical precedent. No horrifying thing that happens in the story is anything that human beings have not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology does not already exist. Another interesting thing about Atwood’s dystopia is the utopian idealism that runs through its veins – the dictatorship of Gilead only came to be possible due to its aspiration to make a better world. But as Offred says in the book, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”

Another aspect of the story that makes it so effective in its horror is that we actually see how this nightmarish society emerged from the society we are so familiar with. Whereas in 1984, Big Brother had already been established before the story began, in The Handmaid’s Tale we see, through flashbacks, how a modern society slowly devolved into Gilead. The steps taken to establish Gilead are frighteningly simple and could easily be taken today. First, every woman’s bank accounts are frozen and closed, their assets transferred to their male relatives. Then, it is made illegal for women to be employed. Cutting off women economically is a very real means of their oppression today, and so Atwood just takes this oppression to its extreme, thereby giving us an opportunity to view the restrictive power structures that exist in contemporary society.

Dystopian fiction is criticised today for painting too bleak a picture of humanity’s future, and has been accused of creating unnecessary hysteria among people now terrified of what is to come. But as critic Devon Maloney argues, “Dystopian fiction mimics what it actually feels like to be in the world, so if it ends up scaring people, well, that’s because the world is scary.” The often dark and bleak genre serves as a vehicle for catharsis for our pre-existing anxieties and fears about the society we live in, and dystopian fiction embodies human beings’ ability to intelligently criticise the existing social order and power structures of society. The fact that so many teens and young people are interested in dystopian fiction should not be laughed off as a passing fancy for cool adrenaline-packed, action-driven stories, but should, on the contrary, be lauded. Their interest in dystopia shows that they are more and more willing to intelligently think about and critique the existing social structures in today’s increasingly terrifying world.

My evolved opinion about dystopian fiction has made me much more open to reading different genres, and made me question my own assumptions about what a literary genre can or cannot accomplish. I find that the more I dip my toes into genres I had previously written off, the more the world opens up to me and the more I am able to view myself and the world around me in new and exciting ways. I also realize that it is boring and stupid to restrict yourself to specific literary genres – it is much more rewarding to keep an open mind and step out of your literary comfort zones. Thank you, The Handmaid’s Tale, for that invaluable lesson (and also for scaring the shit out of me, in the best way possible).

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