Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

So, I just finished reading The Handmaid's Tale, by Margret Attwood.  It tells the story of a theocratic society that rises from a revolution which occurred in a fictional near future of the former United States.  In this near future vision, industrial and nuclear pollution has rendered the majority of women infertile.  Because of this epidemic of infertility the upper ranks of society utilize a select group of still fertile women to act as "Handmaids".

The title of the book is inspired by the titles from the Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer), and the inspiration for the role of the "Handmaid" comes from a verse in the book of Genisis (30:1-3) 

"When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, Give me children or I shall die! Then she said, Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her.'"

Although I consider myself a  religious person,  the novel presents a vision of what could happen if all of the Christian zealots in the United States got everything they wanted.  It is not a rosy future.

There were a few things in the book (originally published in 1985) that were very forward thinking, and not a little bit scary.  In particular, it is mentioned that the use of electronic money transfer was one of the key elements in allowing the revolutionary group seize control of the former US population.  Because cash had become obsolete and not used, the revolutionaries were able to freeze the bank accounts of all the women in the country as well as (presumably) any political opponents.  In doing so, they were able to completely subjugate all the women in the country with one swift move.  The most foreboding aspect of this is that in today's society cash is becoming more and more obsolete, which is consolidating a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the people who control the electronic transfer of money.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the book an I highly recommend it.  Don't forget to read the final section titled "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale", it is a clever epilog, written as an academic conference lecture set in the far future (approx 150 years after the events in the novel), that put a lot of the ambiguous parts of the story in perspective.   A movie was made in the early 1990s based on the book, which was pretty lousy.