BOOK REVIEW: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

written by David Steffen

The Testaments is a 2019 near-future (or I guess alternate-history at this point?) novel by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to the well-known 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed here) (which in itself spawned the ongoing Hulu TV series of 3 seasons, seasons 1 2 and 3 reviewed here). Note that for the purposes of this novel, the tv series is not part of the same continuity, so don’t expect the two to reconcile.

The Testaments takes place over a span of time but beginning approximately fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale was the reader’s introduction to Gilead, a Christian fundamentalist dystopic nation born from the ashes of the United States after a violent coup. The first book followed a single point of view, of one of the handmaids known only as “Offred”. The handmaids are a lower class in Gilead society, who are believed to be sinners, and who are considered to do a public service by serving as breeding stock in this future where healthy birth rate has plummeted.

In this new book, rather than a single point of view from a handmaid, there are three first-person points of view interleaved with each other. The first one is a familiar character from the first book: Aunt Lydia, one of the women who was responsible for acclimating the Handmaids to the brutal new conditions they would be living under, taking on the guise of a teacher but with brutal torturous methods.

The other two points of view are young women, one young woman who is the daughter of a Gilead commander, and the other a young woman living in Canada. Their importance and connection to each other becomes apparent as the story unfolds.

The novel is an interesting addition to the tale of the nation of Gilead, but it lacks the impact of the first novel in large part because it doesn’t have the novelty of the original. While it’s interesting to see some different points of views from different occupations, and it casts some new light on the characters (Aunt Lydia in particular since we’d never had her own account before). It’s well worth a read, and it flowed from beginning to end, but it felt like an addendum to the original story to tie up some things than something strong in its own right (when I thought that the mystery of the original was a strength of that book).

So, it’s worth a read if you thought the original was powerful, or if you have followed the TV show as an alternate series of events from a similar origin, but not as impactful as the original.

TV REVIEW: The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 1

written by David Steffen

The Handmaid’s Tale is a TV show presented on the Hulu streaming service, based on the 1984 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, which was previously reviewed here, about a near-future dystopia in which the USA has become an extremely oppressive theocracy in which women are second-class citizens, especially the handmaids who are little more than breeding stock. Season one aired on Netflix in 2017.

In the near-future world of the story, a worldwide infertility epidemic is affecting the whole world, and the United States has been overthrown by a violent fundamentalist Christian regime and renamed Gilead. The leaders of Gilead think that the world’s problems are a punishment from God for their wickedness, and have taken over to enforce their own view of morality on their citizens.

One of the largest of these changes is the introduction of handmaids, fertile women who are assigned to commanders whose wives have not borne children, to be raped every month when they are ovulating with the intent of bearing a child that will then be taken by the commander as his own child.

The protagonist of the book is June (Elisabeth Moss), who is a handmaid officially known as “Offred” (as in “of Fred” because Fred is the first name of the commander she is assigned to(Joseph Fiennes)), who had a husband and a young child before the rise of Gilead and she was made a handmaid because of past infidelity. She is trying to survive despite the extreme circumstances, and she is trying to make her place in this new world with potential friends like the commander’s driver Nick (Max Minghella) and maybe make a difference to someone and if she is very very lucky, make a mistake.

Besides the monthly “ceremony” when she is ovulating, she also has to deal with the passive-aggressive tendencies of the commander’s wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), and the overbearing leadership of Aunt Lydia who oversees all of the local handmaids.

For those who have read the book, the first season pretty much matches the timeline and major events as the book, also ending in pretty much the same place. It has been a couple years since I’ve read the book but the parts that I remembered matched the book quite closely.

The writing, the casting, the music, the production, everything about this show is done very well. It is not a show for the lighthearted, and is as relevant (or more relevant) than the story was when the book was originally published in the mid-80s–it is all too easy to believe some of the dystopic religio-political beliefs in Gilead taking root in some current trends. The Handmaid’s Tale is a good story, but even more so than other dystopias it is a warning about where we might end up if we don’t resist changes that would take us to that dystopia.

Highly recommended, if you feel you can handle something so dark.

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.