In the past Atwood has dismayed those of us who enjoy genre writing by trying to disassociate herself from science fiction, but thankfully when the issue of The Handmaid’s Tale being within a science fiction tradition was raised in the interview she didn’t argue against it – although she seemed more comfortable associating herself with the likes of Huxley and Orwell.
I didn’t read the book when it first came out, but I was eighteen when it was lent to me by a male suitor. (Yes, the way to my heart is through books, although his choice was rather intriguing!)
I’d been reading sf/horror/fantasy since I could choose my own books so it wasn’t a revolutionary step for me to read a novel like this, but I remember the impact the book had upon me quite well. I found it utterly compelling and frightening because the central concept – that women could be disenfranchised and subjected overnight by a totalitarian regime – did not seem like a fanciful idea to me, even as an eighteen-year-old woman. There are plenty of examples of such movements, past and present. The idea seemed completely plausible, and that made the struggles of the novel’s heroine Offred to gain any agency over her life more agonising.
Atwood hits upon this in the interview when she talks about her impetus for writing the book:
“People would blithely say ‘It can’t happen here.’ That is the most chilling statement that anybody can make, because all of this can happen anywhere given the right amount of social disruption and turmoil.”
I think this book brought home to me that I should never take my freedoms for granted. I’m grateful to live in a society where I have the right to vote and to determine my life’s course, but that means I have a responsibility to guard it and to help others achieve the same rights.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be published and discussed because it’s a powerful examination of some of society’s more disquieting impulses.