BOOK REVIEW: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

written by David Steffen

The Handmaid’s Tale is a near future dystopia published in 1985 about a United States of America that has become an oppressive theocracy.  ((It has also very recently become a TV series streaming on Hulu, but I haven’t seen the show so I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about that)

Offred lives in Gilead, the theocratic country that the United States has become in a near future.  The Christian Bible is the rule of the land, or at least a very strict interpretation of a very selective subset of the Christian Bible.  Tales of the “way things used to be” are a constant mantra told by those in power to justify the extreme measures taken to uphold the current law, tales of when women could not walk the street without being harassed, when women were expected to paint themselves for beauty, when women had to fear rape and assault.  Women are safe now, they say, treated as the precious vessels they are meant to be, to bear children as God intended.  There is a wall in town where the body of criminals are hung on display: atheists and homosexuals and adulterists and traitors and others.  All for the safety of the good citizens of Gilead, of course.

A lingering effect of the way things used to be is low fertility across the population, caused by some mixture of chemicals, diet, medications, intentional blocking of fertility, and other causes.  In the new world women who can’t produce children are unwomen, sent to labor camps to live short miserable lives.  Lower class women, at least.  Upper class women may be assigned handmaids who, inspired by the tale of Jacob’s handmaiden in the Bible, may act as a pregnancy proxy for an infertile wife (according to the dictates of Gilead, no man is infertile, it is always the wife).

Offred is a handmaid, assigned to a military officer.  The rise of Gilead is recent enough that she had had a family before the change, a family that was torn apart as Gilead declared second marriages void.  Even her name has been taken–“Offred” is not the name that she had before, but is derived from the man she is beholden to, as in “of Fred”.  She is watched very carefully, as she is considered a valuable vessel, and she is protected from everything, even herself–her room has shatter-proof glass in the windows, the ceiling fan removed, and the knives in the kitchen are locked away.  Every month when she’s ovulating, she performs her duty in order to become pregnant, and time is running out before she is declared an unwoman.

In the prologue to the book, in the copy of the book that I read, Atwood talks about some of the narrative choices she made.  When she decided to write a dystopia, she decided to do it without predicting any future technology, so nothing in the book is anything that wasn’t possible with technology at the time the book was written.  This sets it apart from stories like 1984, which depends on the possibility of thought control, or The Hunger Games, which uses various future technologies.

Another thing that sets it apart was that Atwood wanted to base the theocracy of Gilead on actual scripture, and to base all the things people do to each other on actual things from history.  This gives it a very different feel from many dystopias, because it feels like it could be just around the corner.  The book was published more than thirty years ago, but I’m not surprised that it has become a recent show, because many of the concerns and issues at the root of this book are still concerns today–especially with too many members of the US government passing laws based in theocracy.  Despite the separation of church and state inherent in the founding of the country, there are those who cling to the Puritan roots of that more than the word of the Constitution.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling cautionary tale about where we could end up if we are complacent in the face of the rise of fascism.  I can’t recommend the book enough–it is a dark read, so brace yourself.  It is very well written, chilling, poetic, and moving.  I don’t have Hulu but I’d like to pick up the show when I can, perhaps if it comes out in a box set.

 

BOOK REVIEW: 1984 by George Orwell

written by David Steffen

1984 is easily the most well-known dystopian novels, and one of the most famous science fiction novels in history (whether or not Orwell would call it science fiction).  The book was written by George Orwell, and published in 1949.  Almost seventy years later, the political ideas in the story are as relevant as ever, and many of the concepts have since entered everyday vernacular even when those speaking are not familiar with the book itself.  .

In the future of the story, there are only three super-nations across the entire globe–Oceania (which contains the former United States and United Kingdom among others), Eurasia, and Eastasia.  The three super-nations are constantly at war with another in ever-shifting alliances.  The super-nations are all authoritarian states, which maintain control by a combination of ever-present surveillance, constant revision of history, and the limitation destruction of language.

The protagonist of the story is Winston Smith, a writer working for the Ministry of Truth in Airstrip One (the modern name of the region that had once been England.  Every day he makes “corrections” to historical records, part of a systematic and ongoing rewriting of history to suit the goals of the Party.  The Party is the political group in power under the leadership of the tyrant Big Brother.  Winston is a member of the Party (though not of the super-elite Inner Party), and in exchange for some small comforts over the lower-class proles he must live with constant surveillance and expectations of his every behavior as they even try to police his very thoughts.  On the surface he is like any other person, seeming to fit in.  But in his heart of hearts he feels a growing rebellion against the oppressive social environment.

As part of his job, Winston is well-versed in Newspeak, the official language of government communications which is phasing into becoming an official language of everyone.  Newspeak is the only language in history whose vocabulary decreases from year to year, an intentional destruction of nuance and opposing viewpoints to stifle criticism and debate of political views–when the transition to newspeak is complete, the language will only be usable to express ideas approved by the Party, anything else will not be able to be expressed in speech and therefore will not even be able to be expressed in thought.  There are rumors of an underground rebellion, but Winston isn’t sure if they are anything but rumors.

1984 is a cautionary tale warning about the ways of power-mongering political groups who exist only to increase their own power and will do so by any means at their disposal.  I had been familiar with the surveillance basis of Oceania, but the detailed discussion of the destruction of language to suit political purposes was chilling and new to me because it felt all too familiar–limited vocabulary, using established terms incorrectly so that no one can be sure what is meant by them, statements in polar opposition to the actions at the same time like a magician distracting you with a wave of their hand.

The book does have a bit of a reputation for being a bit pedantic, and that’s not inaccurate–there are entire chapters in the book which are chapters from a political book within the book explaining the basis of the society.  But, honestly, those chapters were some of the best in the book–a lot of detail laid out quite concisely and I was discovering it as Winston was discovering it so my reaction was his.  You can look at it as just a long political discussion, but I thought Winston was a believable if not entirely likable character.

It is also a romance, at least for part of the book, something I didn’t expect, the element of which is in stark contrast with the constant control of the society of Big Brother.

I wish it felt more fictional.  It is disheartening that after nearly seventy years, we have apparently not learned anything to end up with these leaders over and over again.  Although I guess to look on the optimistic side perhaps we haven’t reached the point of no return that has been reached in 1984 with no apparent way out.  I read the book now because I kept hearing references to it with the current administration, and it is very relevant now (maybe it is always this relevant, but the resemblance seems almost derivative at the moment).

MOVIE REVIEW: The Lobster

written by David Steffen
The Lobster is an internationally-produced 2015 dystopian black comedy film.

In the near future, all adults in society is expected to be in a long-term relationship and violation of this expectation is illegal.  If you find yourself single you are required to go to a special hotel where you have forty days to find a new long-term partner.  If you haven’t found a partner at the end of forty days, then you will be turned into the animal of your choice (or if you have violated other rules, the animal you would least enjoy), where you will have another chance at romance in the animal kingdom.  You can’t just partner up frivolously, either, you have to be able to demonstrate a major thing that you have in common.  Residents can gain extensions to their stay by hunting and tranquilizing single people on the run in the woods.  (There are other rules, as well)

David (Colin Farrell) discovers that his wife has left him for another man and he is brought to the hotel at the start of the movie, with his dog (who had been his brother) in tow.  He quickly befriends a couple of other men and sets out to find a woman to partner with.

This movie is incredibly weird, in turns bleak and hilarious.  The movie is largely built out of awkward silences in the various odd situations, and the movie throws you right into everything without explaining anything so you have to figure out much of the premise for yourself as the movie goes on.  I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a puzzle or who likes dark comedy or weird worldbuilding.

 

The Unaddressed Issues in YA Dystopian Fiction

written by Maria Isabelle

The future of mankind is dark, desolate and generally pretty frightening. At least, that is what dystopian fiction like The Giver and The Maze Runner would have us believe. Dystopian fiction pictures a future world where many of our current problems are escalated to extreme proportions.These fictitious works are set sometime in the future after we have continued down our current path of destruction and the end result is a world overrun by violence, greed and sometimes even a creepy monster or two. There is an overarching presence of oppression by some sort of political force in all these works of fiction, and it is when citizens of these dystopias realize the system they live in isn’t the one they want to live in, that the story typically begins.

This is not a new genre of fiction, but it has seen a rise in popularity in recent years, especially in the growing young adult market. While there may be many reasons for this rise in YA dystopian fiction, the fact that many of these stories feature an oppressed hero ready to fight for freedom speaks directly to the oppression many teens feel as they grow up. Unfortunately, this oppressive feeling also highlights what is really lacking in many dystopian works including the minimization of racism, sexism and a number of other issues plaguing modern society.

While issues such as technological dependency, government control, and environmental destruction get A-list exposure, real problems teens (and adults) face on a daily basis are mostly ignored. Right now, there is a big discussion happening on the role both racism and sexism play in YA dystopian fiction. Hit properties like the Divergent series actually go right for societal separation, which one would think is the perfect place for a discussion on racism and equality. Instead, Divergent (and its sequel Insurgent – streaming info for both here) avoids all of that messy real-life drama and instead chooses to base its separation on virtues instead of race, which is unfortunately far more likely the way our evil future-selves would run things.

Along the same thinking, The Hunger Games features a predominantly white world with little room for race issues. Sure, there are some minority characters in the film, but not too many fans likings. During casting of The Hunger Games, it was announced that Willow Smith may play Rue, a young girl that was written as a minority in the books, and the internet went wild.

All over Twitter, blogs, and forums fans of the series were coming out in droves to bash the casting of an African-American girl as Rue. These comments varied from the downright hateful to the more passive-aggressively racist, but the general sentiment was the same. Following the movie’s premier, the comments continued and even though Smith did not play the role of Rue, Amandla Stenberg put forth a sensational portrayal of the character even the harshest of critics couldn’t ignore.

It comes as a surprise to many that in comparison to other dystopian fictions, and actions movies in general, the main protagonists in these films are strong female characters. Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley have been dominating screens in these films for a couple years now openly challenging gender stereotypes. The underlying tone of female empowerment present in these series is great for the young girls that are typically fans of the genre. But rarely are the serious issues many women face on a daily basis like discrimination and harassment addressed.

While most dystopian fictions feature some element of racism or sexism, they barely scratch the surface of the issues and their repercussions in the real world. By tackling these major issues in young adult fiction, we are encouraging the youth of today to openly discuss the real-world problems they face now and will in the future, possibly opening up the genre to a whole new reading and viewing public. Ignoring these real-world issues are akin to simply saying they do not exist or are not important, and we all know that is not the case.

 

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Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy.