An intimate dystopia

Speculative fiction is the term that Margaret Atwood chooses to describe her Madaddam trilogy and her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Speculative is my favorite kind of fiction and Atwood accomplishes it with admirable discipline.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 as an example of a sprawling, panoramic fiction that attempts to showcase all the speculating that the author has done. In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood does the opposite: she gives frustratingly little background and she chooses a very narrow lens.

You see only what the handmaid sees — which is very little. An educated woman, who once had a career and a family, she’s now reduced to a creature without personal identity, dependent, passive. She’s not allowed to read, not even shop signs. Her world has collapsed to the dimensions of the Commander’s house and the route of her daily walk. She doesn’t know what is happening in the other parts of town, not to mention the rest of the country or the world. There is a sense of claustrophobia much more convincing than the subway tunnels in Metro 2033. The rigid totalitarian system is smothering. The boredom is deadly.

The world of The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling place, all the more so when you realize that very little of it is actually speculative.

My rules for The Handmaid’s Tale were simple: I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.

Atwood writes about it in a Guardian article and also in her non-fiction book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination — both very recommended.

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