This one’s a resurgent classic. It was first published way back in ’86 and took its place also alongside Orwell’s 1984 as one of the most of the most chilling views of a dystopian state-run future that the literary world had ever seen. And like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale has found a new audience, as many believe that recently drafted policies by the current US administration mean that perhaps its time has finally come.
The book is set in what I suppose you could call an Alternative Dystopian Now. Birth rates across the United States are in freefall thanks to biological and radioactive pollution, while prenatal birth defects are skyrocketing. Poverty leads to civil unrest which leads to civil war. Part of the country is effectively annexed from the rest of the nation, and within this walled state, the religious right ascends to power.
As you’d expect, the grey-haired men in charge set about dialing things back a couple of centuries: women’s rights are swept away overnight, reducing half the population to little more than property; abortion is banned; homosexuality is outlawed; and a secret police force takes to the streets to ensure that religious law is observed under pain of death. The book details this new state order from the point of view of a Handmaid; one of a large group of women forced into providing surrogate children for the elite. The Handmaid’s are seen as vital to restoring the birth rates, but at the same time they’re despised by the wives of the men they’re forced to breed with.
The genius of this book is that Atwood has set it in the now, rather than some obscure future. This makes everything seem uncomfortably familiar and does give the reader the real sense that this could actually happen – that it might actually be happening now. How would a government go about removing the rights of women almost overnight; well, according to the book, it’s actually quite easy: