Book Review

Two dystopias for the holidays: We & The Handmaid’s Tale

Two dystopias for the holidays: We & The Handmaid’s Tale

For novelists, there is a bright line between speculative and let’s say speculation fiction. In speculative fiction, the author’s goal is to hit the fast-forward button on our thinking, offering us a context to consider the patterns and trends we observe around us and see how they (may) play out. In contrast, “speculation fiction” (or plain old science fiction) just plops us in a whole new world, with no extension from our reality needed or implied.

Dystopias are interesting because they almost always end up on the speculative side of the divide, even when they might otherwise work better as pure speculation. Their authors want readers to meditate on certain matters precisely, and so creating a continuity with today is paramount for believability and thus, reflection. And so Aldous Huxley connects Brave New World through Fordism, and George Orwell brings us to the world of 1984 both through its title and also through a connective history of how the three world powers of his work came to be.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale follows directly from this lineage. Set in none other than Harvard Square, the book analyzes a future America defined by declining birth rates and religious fundamentalism. Women who are capable of birthing children are a precious commodity to be allocated by the government to its most loyal and elite citizens, and the core ideology of the regime is that of the Old Testament.

The novel was originally published in 1985, and Atwood was projecting forward the rise of the Religious Right in the United States and where the policies of that movement could lead if taken to their logical extremes.

The challenge for Atwood though is that creating a continuation between her present of 1985 and the world of her new nation-state known as Gilead required a number of at times stupefying logical leaps that otherwise disrupted a deeply compelling narrative. In describing Gilead’s rise, Atwood’s protagonist describes how (pretty much) suddenly all property was assigned to males by the government, and women’s credit cards were simply deactivated, with women quite literally showing up at stores to find that they no longer had the legal right to commerce.

Maybe this is a function of my current milieu, but that just seems … impossible? As a work of speculation, that would be fine, but the novel is clearly trying to trace a path from the present to the future (there are pages of the novel devoted to this history). Where are the other constituencies? Did shop owners just not care to complain that half of their customers suddenly couldn’t make purchases one day?

Maybe it’s my default economics and finance lens, but the challenge with The Handmaid’s Tale’s speculative narrative is it completely rejects economic power as if it is irrelevant. Indeed, while there is clearly a black market (more accurately, black markets) depicted in the book, economic considerations seem almost completely missing from the novel. That absence is even more obvious when the novel is placed in relief against 1984 or Brave New World.

Speculative fiction obviously has to elide some details, but economic considerations have to be at the core of the transition. Economics — and by extension finance — are ultimately the foundation for any regime or society.

Okay, so that annoyed me. But on the brighter side, The Handmaid’s Tale does (finally) add women to this little dystopia canon. Atwood is at her absolute best when meditating on feminism and power, whether through poetic scenes with delicate flourishes or through her imaginative social structure of Commanders and aunts.

Take the politics of childbearing itself. Atwood’s world engenders a deep tension between the individual needs and wants of its women with the requirements of a society desperate to reach population replacement levels. Gilead is one speculative constellation of how those two opposing forces might arrange themselves, but at least here the continuation with the present is much more taut, and thus far more open to reflection and consideration.

While Atwood’s more than three decade old novel has taken the world by storm (thanks Hulu), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is a much quieter novel, but one that packs an incredible dystopian punch.

Written in Russian in 1924 and set in the 26th century AD, We is the story of D-503, a rocket scientist who is building a spaceship for a totalitarian government called OneState. Human names have been replaced with numbers, all time is metered down to the second through a Table of Hours, and even sex is prescribed for specific times and between certain people, indicated by approved pink tickets.

Fundamentally, OneState is trying to create a world of perfect human machines, bereft of emotional turbulence (like love) or fatigue. In this way, Zamyatin is clearly connecting the novel to the Soviet project then underway, as well as the management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, which was also partly the inspiration for Huxley in Brave New World.

While We is certainly a sort of speculative fiction, it’s perhaps best viewed as speculation, of how humans respond to a world of pure mechanization. Zamyatin does connect his world to our present, but he doesn’t dwell on it, and indeed, his first-person narrator frame prevents him from doing more than the minimum naturally.

While We is the older work of these two dystopias by far, I found it much more relevant to the world we find ourselves in than The Handmaid’s Tale. Zamyatin’s world of mechanical humans would not feel out of place in an Amazon distribution facility, where workers have to negotiate the timing of their bathroom privileges and meet strict schedules (not to mention Zamyatin’s constant mentions of an omnipotent “Benefactor,” which would be an obvious allusion to a particular individual at Amazon). Contrast that with Atwood’s theocratic state, which seems more remote by the year.

And so, there is a bit of a strange conclusion here, in that the speculative fiction of The Handmaid’s Tale seems remote and the “speculation” fiction of We seems omnipresent in our modern industrial relations. It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction, but maybe a better way to say it is pure speculation may be far more real than we ever imagined.

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