Margaret Atwood’s novel, like Anthem, is supposed to take place in the future but deliberately written without any of the new technology one would expect from scifi (even the dystopian variant). For Ayn Rand, that was precisely because she regarded technological progress as good that her dystopia should be backward. For Atwood, it’s because her novel is not actually about the future, but is instead populated from elements from various times and places of the past. In recent years as the TV series (whose first season I watched in the year it was released) raised the profile of the book there has been commentary about it as a warning about the future, but it wasn’t intended that way and doesn’t really work as one. Frank Herbert could make the universe of Dune an aristocratic one and borrow heavily from Islamic history, handwaving away the absence of computers & firearms with his “Butlerian jihad” (long in the past of his original novel so we don’t need to think about its plausibility) and shield technology somehow vulnerable to melee weaponry. Atwood doesn’t bother with such technobabble, and while her narrator is placed early enough to remember & prefer our familiar society (thus making her closer to Anthem’s narrator than the less relatable one from We) she has limited understanding of how the United States transformed into the Republic of Gilead, and the culturally relativist future academics engaged in “Caucasian Anthropology” at the end (in my favorite section, though it’s only about 10 pages) bemoan their own enormous gaps in knowledge about it.

The conceit revealed at the end is that the preceding material was transcribed from a collection of unordered & misleadingly labeled audiotapes partially taped over by the titular “Handmaid” known only as “Offred” in what is presumed to be a stop in “The Underground Femaleroad” arrived at after the last chapter. We get where the title of the work itself comes from (with a lecturer even chalking it up to another academic’s sexual double-entendre), but not where the titled sections (with 15 Roman numerals, every odd number being named “Night”) that divide up the material come from, or the smaller divisions of chapters with Arabic numerals. The least plausible part of the conceit is that Offred was supposed to be a relatively normal woman who worked in the office of an insurance company prior to the takeover, and she’s been restricted from reading or writing since she was forced to become a Handmaid, but the book definitely reads like the product of someone with multiple novels behind her. The ordering is of particular interest because it jumps around in time (to provide flashbacks prior to her becoming the concubine of Commander Fred), using the present tense even when she’s clearly narrating well after the events in question. This all seems more like a literary technique than what one would expect such a person to record.

It happened that I recently read some discussion about whether it’s really plausible that one’s political outgroup would welcome The Handmaid’s Tale. Taken literally, this is not an ambiguous question. The society as depicted is not actually a utopia (ambiguous or otherwise) by anyone’s lights. Even for an extreme pro-natalist, the very low fertility of the society makes it dystopian and their method of resolving it via directly allocating fertile females to the elite (making Atwood a more realistic anthropologist than Steven LeBlanc) flounders because the government refuses to contemplate the contribution of male infertility (which both the upper-class of the society secretly and the future academics more openly blame for a large part of the problem). The Republic is in the midst of civil war with Baptist rebels, and internally undermined by other sects like Catholics & Quakers. Atwood is explicit in her foreword in being inspired by the Bolshevik purges of rival communist/socialist sects, and in an odd synergy with the non-fiction book I was reading alongside it (Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands), these purges also extend all the way up to the elite Commanders of the society (who are often hypocrites indulging in banned aspects of the past they regard as fine for them but not the masses).

Because of the deliberately lower-status perspective of the narrator, we don’t know that much about such high level purges until the aforementioned final section. The focus of the novel is instead about the experience of people who were less likely to write histories, such as illiterate slaves and/or concubines who were denied much agency. It is also about how the people around them act toward them, with the elite wives notably unhappy about it even as they greatly desire the child the arrangement is explicitly for and venting their frustrations against the Handmaids themselves rather than their husbands. When Atwood has denied the label of “feminist” applied to the work, you can see some of her point (aside from how Gilead has clamped down on things bothersome to feminists at the time like pornography & street harassment) in the distinct lack of solidarity among women, not only from the wives and “Aunts” above the Handmaids but also the infertile servant “Marthas” regarded as below them. A huge difference from that one season of the show I watched (which adapts basically all of the novel but the last section in which Offred is taken away) and the book is that the former ended with Offred narrating about how the Handmaids had inadvertently become like an army complete with “uniforms”. There is none of that here, and the event which inspired that is revealed to be a successful deception of the Handmaids on the part of the regime. Amongst the mutually suspicious (since they are vulnerable to spying) Handmaids, the closest thing to resistance is not anything overt but instead gossip (in the infrequent case where enough trust has developed) and potentially suicide. In that latter aspect Atwood more resembles the fictionalization in the film version of 12 Years a Slave, in which Solomon Northrup is asked by a slave mistress to kill her, than Northrup’s own account (in which he was asked by the wife to kill the mistress). I suppose this aspect of both works reflects a less religious society with fewer scruples against suicide.

While I’m very far from the reader most likely to relate to Offred (rather, in her old life she would find me an unrelatable mutant), I still found this a better book than Anthem. I don’t think it was quite as thought-provoking as The Dispossessed, and it’s not really that original since George Orwell had already transmuted some of the same historical material into a nominally future regime (though one he could have found a more plausible future at the time) in his 1984 (whose appendix referring to a final edition of Newspeak implying an end to Ingsoc is an inspiration for the academic obituary for Gilead here), but there’s more to fiction than that and being a talented writer over an ideologue distinguishes Atwood from Rand.