The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Science Fiction (Speculative Fiction)
Set in the dystopian future society of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the perspective of Offred, a woman who is only allowed to live as long as she can bear children. In this future where the white birthrate has plummeted, fertile women like Offred are given to Commanders (ruling elite) to impregnate. The story takes place in a system that divides women into strict categories of socially acceptable and unacceptable, denies them the ability to read, forces them into a conservative dress code, and operates on an Old Testament based system of morality. However Offred remembers a life before Gilead, when she had a husband, a good sex life, a child, a job, a feminist mother, a lesbian best friend, and could make her own decisions about her own life. When her attempts to get pregnant by the Commander prove unsuccessful, she begins to look for other ways despite the deadly consequences for adultery and learns that there are still people who resist the oppression of the Gileadian state.
Geographical Setting: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Time Period: Never precisely defined, an alternate future sometime between 1970-2000 (remember that the novel was written in 1985)
The strong feminist and women’s themes in this book make it appealing to any feminist, pro-feminist, or women’s studies reader. Likewise, the harsh criticism of theocracy and Biblical morality is both an appeal characteristic and a red flag. Descriptions of people, places, and events are rich, long, and extremely detailed. Reminiscences of the past are interwoven with descriptions of the present, but details about Offred’s past unfold slowly in the beginning of the novel, picking up pace towards the end. One could argue that not a lot happens in this book and despite its futuristic authoritarian setting this is not a story about massive resistance to the state, but the value of small rebellions and contradictions in Offred’s day to day life. Since Offred’s character is isolated from others, supporting characters are not strongly developed, with the exception of people Offred knew before becoming a handmaiden.
Read-alikes: Margaret Atwood has written many novels, poetry collections, and short stories that prove ideal as readalikes. For readers that enjoyed the dystopian speculative fiction elements of The Handmaid’s Tale, her 2003 book Oryx and Crake deals with science and corporate greed run amuck in a future dominated by genetic engineering and the near destruction of the human race. Readers that enjoyed the female protagonist and slow unraveling plot and back story might enjoy her latest work, Moral Disorder, where the main character slowly unwinds 60 years of her life in a series of poignant moments . Those who enjoy her long detailed descriptions might also enjoy Unless by Carole Shields where a mother grieves for the loss of her estranged daughter. Readers who enjoyed the mix of present action and past reflection might also enjoy Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, where the past and present mix for a woman dying in a hospital. Readers that enjoyed the harsh criticism of theocracy might enjoy Inquisitor by Catherine Jinks, where a Vatican member of the Inquisition finds himself on the wrong side of a unjust theocratic society set in 1318, or Heaven by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen set thousands of years in the future where a religion of peace and tolerance is really just a front for control and the persecution of heretics. In the authors interview at the end of the 1998 edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood says that the book was inspired by the speculative fiction works 1984 by George Orwell, where the main character Winston chafs under living in a totalitarian society and longs to join a government resistance organization, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley where voluntary chemical-driven happiness has left people mindless automatons to totalitarian rule, and Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange, where the protagonist Alex is corralled in a government program to rid him of violent impulses though aversion therapy after committing a series of horrible crimes. The dystopian and totalitarian elements of these books make them ideal readalikes.
Red Flags: Harsh criticism of theocracy and biblical morality, strong feminist themes, frank depictions of sex, adultery, executions (including one man who is physically ripped apart by a state approved mob), and gruesome display of corpses.
Oryx and Crake (2003)
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
Snowman, who is presumably the last surviving human, lives tenuously as the protector of the Crakers, a group of genetically modified beings that exist harmoniously with nature and are distinctly beautiful with luminescent green eyes. Surviving off of collected rain water and salvaged canned food, Snowman journeys back to the RejoovenEsense compound to collect additional supplies. As he travels, he recounts how his adolescent friendship with Crake and besotted love affair with Oryx culminated in his betrayal and involvement in the outbreak of a worldwide plague. Aside from his emotional turmoil, Snowman also faces terrifying feral animals that were once part of genetic engineering experiments along his perilous journey. SPOILER: Through Snowman’s digressions, we learn that after perfecting the Crakers at RejoovenEsense, Crake used Oryx to distribute pills that contained a highly contagious bio-virus. Oryx discovered Crake’s plan only after a pandemic had broken out. Crake murdered Oryx to protect her from guilt and Jimmy (a.k.a. Snowman) murdered Crake for revenge. Jimmy survived the pandemic because Crake had injected him with a counter-agent so he was immune to the virus.
Geographical Setting: Undefined but somewhere along the Eastern coast of North America
Time Period: Some time after the 20th century
Atwood uses digressions to flesh out her characters. The story is told from the perspective of Jimmy, but readers get an intimate look into the lives of Oryx and Crake through their interactions with him. The driving force of the novel is a dual plot line: (1) the triangular relationship between Jimmy, Crake, and Oryx; and (2) the journey Snowman undertakes to collect additional food supplies from the RejoovenEsense compound. Atwood employs a very deliberate pace by revealing contextual details only at calculated intervals. This gives the novel a mysterious element because the reader is seduced into piecing together clues to figure out what is happening. The novel is also thought provoking and explores the philosophical issues of genetic engineering and warns against the desire of scientists to “play God.” The tone is foreboding, even at the ending, which is left open-ended and the reader is kept in suspense. Atwood has a strong command of the English language; her writing style is concise and she uses clever word plays to add multi-layered meanings to descriptions.
Read-alikes: Readers who like Atwood’s literary writing style and multi-layered plots will also like Penelope Lively’s The Photograph. Set in London, The Photograph is about a widowed man’s attempt to understand a sordid love affair involving his late wife and another man. Told from multiple view points, this novel delves into the psychological aspects of infidelity and secret lives. Never Let Me Go by Kauzo Ishiguro is a good choice for readers who like philosophical discussions about the ethical issues of organ transplants, organ donors, and human cloning. Like Oryx and Crake, Never Let Me Go is a deliberately paced novel that reveals the chilling story of three high school students as they learn an unspeakable truth about their existence. Readers who enjoy dystopian societies should try Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian novel We. Set in a communist-like society named One State, We tells the romantic story of D-503 and I-330 and how their love threatens to destroy the society they complacently live in. Readers will draw a parallel between the love relationship in We and the cataclysmic relationship of Oryx and Jimmy. For a novel about genetically modified animals try The Xeno Solution by Nelson Erlick. This medical thriller is set at the Institute for the Research of Animal Compatible Transplantations (IRACT), where genetically altered pigs grow human organs for human transplants. When a deadly virus breaks out, it is up to Dr. Scott Merritt to prevent a pandemic from spreading. Non-fiction readers will enjoy Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley. This work is easily accessible to readers without a scientific background and describes the roles and functions of 23 human chromosomes.
Red Flags: strong language; graphic depictions of sexuality, particularly child pornography and prostitution; genetic manipulation of animals; animal abuse.