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2005 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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First published 2005 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd

1 2005

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A companion to science fiction / edited by David Seed.

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Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaids Tale
Faye Hammill

Science fiction is a way of looking at things, and its a way of looking at things that is
very hard to do in any other kind of fiction. Its a creation of a different kind of metaphor.
Margaret Atwood (Tidmarsh 1992: 24)

The Handmaids Tale (1985) remains the outstanding success of Margaret Atwoods
career, and is the novel that made her an international celebrity. On first publication,
it stayed in the New York Times best-seller lists for 23 weeks, and received the Arthur
C. Clarke Award for science fiction and the Governor Generals Award, Canadas
highest literary honor, as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Atwoods sub-
sequent books have achieved both extremely high sales and critical respect, and she
has won dozens of literary awards, culminating with the Booker Prize in 2000. But
she is still frequently identified by readers, reviewers, and websites as the author of
The Handmaids Tale. The only one of her books that has been made into a film and,
more recently, an opera, The Handmaids Tale is also repeatedly selected for school and
university literature syllabuses. In the twenty-first century, a new reading of this book
is needed: one which places it in the context of Atwoods later science fiction writing.
Her two latest novels are the most relevant: The Blind Assassin (2000) contains within
it a pulp-style science fiction narrative composed by one of the characters; while Oryx
and Crake (2003) is a dystopian novel which has been compared to The Handmaids
Tale by almost every reviewer. In all three books, Atwood creates a different kind of
metaphor by constructing temporally distant societies whose apparent unfamiliarity
only barely disguises their direct relevance to the novelists present as well as to various
earlier periods of human history.
The Handmaids Tale describes a near-future USA society, the Republic of Gilead,
a totalitarian theocracy governed by white, male supremacists. Birth rates have been
drastically reduced by epidemics and nuclear and industrial accidents, and women
with viable ovaries (Atwood 1986: 135) are now routinely removed from their fam-
ilies and compelled to act as handmaids, or surrogate mothers for the childless wives
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale 523

of the ruling elite. These fertile women are referred to by a patronymic based on the
name of the Commander with whom they currently live, as in Offred, the novels
narrator. Appended to her narrative is a partial transcript of the proceedings of the
Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies . . . which took place at the University of
Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195 (Atwood 1986: 281), a pseudoacademic com-
mentary on the story of Offred and the history of Gildead.
Critics often compare The Handmaids Tale to classic dystopias such as Nineteen
Eighty-Four, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451. It has rather more marked similarities
to John Wyndhams Consider Her Ways, the title story in his 1961 short fiction col-
lection, in which the narrator finds herself transformed into a giant breeding-machine,
able to give birth to four babies at once, but forbidden to engage in any autonomous
or intellectual activity. Atwood herself, while acknowledging the influence of writers
such as Orwell and Huxley on her own work, notes that: The majority of dystopias
. . . have been written by men, and the point of view has been male (Atwood 2003c).
She identifies an alternative genealogy for The Handmaids Tale, consisting of female-
authored SF texts: I was self-consciously writing in the tradition of other women that
goes right back to Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Ursula Le Guin, . . .
Joanna Russ; etc. (Tidmarsh 1992: 24). Herland is a Utopian romance of an all-female
society; Le Guins The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) creates a new model of gender based
on ambisexuality; and Russ The Female Man (1975) constructs three hypothetical com-
munities on other planets, comprising two dystopian societies and an all-female
Utopia. The Utopian elements in the novels cited as the precursors for The Handmaids
Tale should alert us to the presence of a Utopian space within Atwoods own text.
Raffaela Baccolini argues that many feminist SF novels break down boundaries
between Utopia and dystopia by containing both elements at once:

Traditionally . . . utopia (in the sense of utopian hope) is maintained in dystopia only
outside the story: it is only if we consider dystopia as a warning, that we as readers can
hope to escape such a pessimistic future. This option is not granted to the protagonists
of Orwells 1984 or Huxleys Brave New World. . . . Conversely, Burdekins Swastika
Night and Atwoods The Handmaids Tale as well as other novels by Le Guin, Butler,
and Piercy allow readers and protagonists to hope by resisting closure. The ambigu-
ous, open endings of these novels . . . maintaining the utopian impulse within the work.
(Baccolini 2000: 18)

In fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four concludes not with Winston coming to love Big
Brother but with a historical note on Newspeak, demonstrating that it has become a
thing of the past. This provides a precedent for the Historical Notes section at the
end of The Handmaids Tale. Winston himself, however, still seems doomed, whereas
Atwood permits a greater measure of optimism by leaving open the possibility that
Offred will escape. Her narrative ends when a van comes for her. It is apparently a
police van, taking her to be executed as a subversive, but it may in fact belong to the
underground rescue operation. The very existence of the underground movement in
524 Faye Hammill

Gilead, together with the Handmaids success in recording her story, offer hope that
the ideology of the regime can be challenged, and transforms the novel itself into a
site of resistance against patriarchy and totalitarianism.
Atwood commented in a 1992 interview in an SF fan magazine: I call The Hand-
maids Tale speculative fiction. Its not science fiction in the classic sense, that is, there
is no time travel, there are no other planets, there are no things we couldnt do now
(Tidmarsh 1992: 24). There are some unfamiliar-sounding pieces of equipment men-
tioned in the novel, such as the Compuchek, used to verify peoples ID cards, and
Compunumbers which relate to bank accounts, but these are all based on credit card
and identity checking technology that already existed in the mid-1980s. In fact, the
futuristic Republic of Gilead is modeled, to a significant extent, on past societies, as
is the planet Zycron, the setting for the science fiction tale in The Blind Assassin. This
is actually consistent with the conventions of the genre: Adam Roberts, summariz-
ing arguments put forward by several critics, writes that although many people think
of SF as something that looks to the future, the truth is that most SF texts are more
interested in the way things have been (Roberts 2000: 33). Atwood herself, elaborat-
ing on her description of science fiction as the creation of a different kind of
metaphor, explains:

None of us have actually been to Venus so going to Venus has to be a metaphorical con-
struction. Then you try to figure out what it is conveying, this journey to Venus? . . .
Then again, the distant past or future might as well be Venus. (Tidmarsh 1992: 24)

Atwoods conception of time travel, then, does not involve a tardis but an imagi-
native reconstruction of an unfamiliar society, which may exist in the past or future,
or as in The Handmaids Tale both at once.
The novel can be related to a range of distinct historical contexts. Most obviously
Gilead replicates aspects of the patriarchal social order described in the Pentateuch.
One of the epigraphs to the novel tells of the childless Rachel, who said to her husband
Jacob: Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees,
that I may also have children by her (Genesis 30: 3). This is the biblical precedent
for the role of the Handmaids in Gilead, who are both impregnated and delivered
whilst lying between the legs of the infertile wife to whom they have been assigned.
Interestingly, the legal provision for a childless wife to use her maid as a surrogate
also exists in the Babylonian law system, proclaimed by King Hammurabi. This law
is cited by the narrator of the science fiction story in The Blind Assassin as one of the
inspirations for his imagined city of Sakiel-Norn on Planet Zycron. His lover assumes
that the rigidly hierarchical, brutally disciplined society of Sakiel-Norn is a political
allegory or dystopia, but he claims: The culture I describe is based on ancient
Mesopotamia. Its in the Code of Hammurabi, the laws of the Hittites and so forth
(Atwood 2000: 17).
These historical precedents may seem too distant to give a genuinely terrifying
sense that the events described by Atwood have happened before, and may happen
again, but both novels also relate to far more recent history. One of the epigraphs to
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale 525

The Blind Assassin, taken from Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinskis description of the
horrific events at the Persian city of Kerman (now in Iran) in 1794, alerts us to an
additional historical model for Sakiel-Norn:

Imagine the monarch Agha Mohammed Khan, who orders the entire population of the
city of Kerman murdered or blinded no exceptions. His praetorians set energetically
to work. They line up the inhabitants, slice off the heads of the adults, gouge out the
eyes of the children. . . . Later, processions of blinded children leave the city . . . singing
songs about the extermination of the citizens of Kerman.

The children in Atwoods embedded SF story have also lost their sight, through
hours of close work embroidering the beautiful carpets for which Sakiel-Norn is
famous, as Kerman still is today. The violence of Middle Eastern history is echoed in
the cruel treatment of these children, and of the sacrificial virgins of Sakiel-Norn,
whose tongues are cut out to prevent protest against their fate. Modern Iran provides
a reference point for The Handmaids Tale: one of the historians of Gilead has
published a book entitled Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Mono-
theocracies (Atwood 1986: 282). The Handmaids Tale appeared just a few years after
the imposition of martial law in Iran (1978) and Ayatollah Khomeinis overthrow of
the Shah and establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic republic (1979). The paral-
lels with the Christian fundamentalist state of Gildead are clear. The compulsory iden-
tical robes and winged head-coverings worn by women are suggestive of purdah, a
practice which developed in Persia and flourished in ancient Babylon, and is adhered
to by many modern Muslim communities.
Barbara Rigney, commenting on the Handmaids red gowns, argues that these
women are personifications of a religious sacrifice, temple prostitutes (Rigney 1987:
117). This reading of the handmaids connects them to the sacrificial virgins in The
Blind Assassin. The virgins, in their turn, relate to the lives of Iris and Laura, who are
both sacrificed by men in the interests of power and wealth. In order to restore his
failing business fortunes, Iris father marries her off to Richard Griffen, an aspiring
politician and successful industrialist. Laura too is sacrificed to Richard: he forces her
to sleep with him and she becomes pregnant, which precipitates her suicide. Iris per-
sonal memoir, narrating these events, is interspersed with installments of The Blind
Assassin, a modernist love story supposedly written by her sister Laura, but eventu-
ally revealed to be Iris own work. This novel-within-a-novel itself incorporates the
extended SF fantasy told by the male protagonist to his lover. It conforms accurately
and self-consciously to the conventions of 1930s pulp SF, yet also comments directly
on the interwar Canadian high society recalled by Iris, providing exaggerated
reflections of its hierarchies, corruption, and political plotting. Iris witnesses the sleaze
and corruption of 1930s and 1940s Ottawa and Toronto at close range, but like
Offred, she endures rather than protesting openly, and thus is vulnerable to
accusations of complicity. Yet both Iris and Offred defy social dictates by engaging
in illicit affairs, and subsequently offer a more effective form of protest through
recording their stories.
526 Faye Hammill

As well as relating to Hebrew and Middle Eastern theocracies, Gilead has many
affinities with the ideologies and behaviors of seventeenth-century Puritans. This
context is immediately revealed in the dedication of The Handmaids Tale to Perry
Miller, influential historian of the American Puritans, and to Atwoods ancestor Mary
Webster, who survived being hung for witchcraft by her Puritan community, and is
commemorated in the poem Half-Hanged Mary in Atwoods 1995 Morning in the
Burned House collection. The term handmaid comes from the Gospel account of the
Annunciation, when Mary accepts her calling as the mother of God by saying Behold
the handmaid of the Lord (Luke 1: 38), and this phrase was adopted by the Found-
ing Fathers to refer to all women. Many aspects of the Gilead regime are distortions
of Puritan teaching, particularly the emphasis on patience, acceptance of ones lot,
repression of personal desires in the interests of the common good, continual thanks-
giving to God, examination of the conscience, and obedience to authority. These ideals
are set out in the writings of the New England Puritans, such as John Winthrop and
William Bradford; and are used by the ruling elite in Atwoods novel to maintain
their own position and regulate the behavior of the people. Gilead also reintroduces
the Puritan practices associated with childbirth (Evans 1994), while the Womens Sal-
vagings, public hangings to punish crimes against the social order, such as adultery,
are suggestive of the Salem witch-hunts. The Salvagings like the impregnation cer-
emony, the virtual imprisonment of Handmaids, the destruction of all reading mat-
erial, and the uniform robes are part of Gileads strategy to repress female sexuality,
which is perceived as a subversive force.
The attempt to contain female desire and limit womens autonomy is also remi-
niscent of Victorian thinking, extreme versions of which are discernible in the rules
and conventions of Gilead. The ideology of separate spheres is rigidly enforced, with
women confined entirely to domestic, reproductive, and maternal functions, and
denied any participation in decision-making or public life. Gileadean women cannot
own property, which was also the situation of wives in Britain and Canada up until
the late nineteenth century; while divorce which was severely stigmatized in both
countries during the Victorian period is outlawed in Gilead. Women are, however,
protected and honored for their role as mothers of the race: Offred remarks that
handmaids are viewed as sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (Atwood 1986: 128).
They are also indoctrinated to perceive protection as more important than freedom
in a key passage, Offred remembers jogging in the time before:
I never ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.
Women were not protected then.
I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew:
dont open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. . . . If anyone whis-
tles, dont turn to look. Dont go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.
Now . . . no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom
from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.
(Atwood 1986: 24)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale 527

The ideas voiced by the Aunts, the female control agency in The Handmaids Tale,
read at times like a grotesque parody of the 1870s social purity movement, whose
primary aims were the elimination of prostitution and of the sexual harassment and
abuse of girls and women. The movement demonstrated an interesting fusion of fem-
inist impulses within an old fashioned purity agenda (Jeffreys 1997: 195). Towards
the end of the century, some of the new generation of social purity feminists began
to inveigh against the abuse of wives by husbands in unwanted sexual intercourse,
but this line of thinking was taken to repressive extremes by certain commentators,
who even questioned the necessity of sexual intercourse except for the purpose of cre-
ating children (Jeffreys 1997: 1978). This last is precisely the approach adopted in
Gilead. Offred describes the impregnation ceremony as follows:

Whats going on . . . is not exciting. It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance
or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to with
sexual desire . . . Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a
symptom of frivolity . . . This is serious business. (Atwood 1986: 89)

The vocabulary Offred uses here is a sarcastic parroting of the official discourses
of her society. She does not herself believe that love and desire are merely notions we
used to titillate ourselves with, as her devotion to the memory of her husband, and
later her passionate response to her lover Nick, clearly demonstrate.
The Republic of Gilead also relates to one further past society: the interwar and
postwar years. Aspects of the ideology of the return to the home, and the associated
policies and discourses discouraging married women from remaining in paid employ-
ment during peacetime, are clearly present. Immediately after the Gilead takeover, all
women are fired from their jobs, and the novels narrator is transformed into a frus-
trated housewife, whose attempts to submit to the new patriarchal code result in
nervous and depressive behavior:

There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. . . . I didnt go on any of
the marches. Luke said it would be futile and I had to think about them, my family,
him and her. I did think about my family. I started doing more housework, more baking.
I tried not to cry at mealtimes. By this time Id started to cry, without warning, and to
sit beside the bedroom window, staring out. (Atwood 1986: 1689)

Already, the narrator is beginning to conform to the new patterns of thinking: her
actions are guided by her husbands opinion, she herself asserts that she had to think
about them, and she therefore commits herself more fully to a domestic role. The
dismissal of all women employees in The Handmaids Tale is clearly an extreme version
of the marriage bar which operated in the first half of the twentieth century. In Britain
and the Commonwealth (as well as in numerous other countries) female employees in
the public sector were legally required to retire on marriage, and many private com-
panies operated a similar policy, particularly during the period of high unemployment
528 Faye Hammill

caused by the Depression. The legislation was repealed in Britain in 1946 and in
Canada in 1955, but the associated ideology remained influential. The marriage bar
was still effectively operational in the 1960s Canada of Atwoods first novel, The Edible
Woman (1969). The protagonist, Marian, finds that her employer and her fianc expect
her to leave her job when she marries and concentrate on home and family.
The futuristic society of The Handmaids Tale is, then, based on the conventions of
various pasts, ranging from the ancient to the recent. But Gilead also represents the
logical extrapolation of some of the tendencies of Atwoods present: the 1980s. The
influential critic Robert Scholes, in his book Structural Fabulation, includes science
fiction in a category of fabulation which he defines as any fiction that offers us a
world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to con-
front that known world in some cognitive way (Scholes 1975: 2). The Handmaids
Tale confronts its own present in many ways, engaging in particular with concerns
about environmental pollution, the increasing surveillance and policing exercised
through new technology, the rise of the religious right in the USA, and the failure of
the American Equal Rights Amendment legislation which was vigorously cam-
paigned for in the 1970s and early 1980s but has still not been constitutionally rat-
ified. The ideology of separate spheres re-emerged in 1980s America, promoted by
the New Right and by fundamentalist Christians. These groups are represented in the
novel by the Commanders wife, formerly a gospel television show personality but
now trapped and silenced by the very beliefs she used to promote. Offred says of
her: She stays in her home, but it doesnt seem to agree with her. How furious she
must be, now that shes been taken at her word (Atwood 1986: 44). As Coral Ann
Howells points out, in the voices of Offred, her rebellious friend Moira, and her
subversive shopping partner Ofglen, Atwood reinvent[s] those discordant womens
voices which ran counter to patriarchal Puritan voices in a fiction which is presented
as a historical reconstruction of a future already inscribed in the policies of the New
Right (Howells 1996: 130).
The transcribed lecture at the end of the novel reveals that the handmaids story
has been reassembled, edited, and renamed by male academic historians, and their
inaccurate and sexist critique of it might remind us of the partial and distorting nature
of our own efforts to reread past societies such as the Puritans or the Victorians. This
section of the book also constitutes, as Ann Cranny-Francis has argued:

A reflexive mechanism designed to obviate the escapist response often associated with
the dystopia. Even if readers do finish the tale feeling relieved that they do not live in
such a state, the academic rhetoric of the final section of the text demands a response
from readers which necessitates . . . a rereading and recognition of the political signifi-
cance of [Atwoods] text. (Cranny-Francis 1990: 141)

The lecture explains the plummeting birth rates and increasing incidence of genetic
deformity in the immediate pre-Gilead period (i.e., the 1980s) through reference
to AIDS, nuclear accidents, leakages from chemical and biological warfare stockpiles
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale 529

and toxic-waste disposal sites, and the uncontrolled use of insecticides and herbicides
(Atwood 1986: 286), demonstrating that the policies adopted in Gilead result directly
from global problems existing at the time Atwood was writing the novel. She adopts
the technique of defamiliarization: the academics explain our own era to us from the
perspective of historical distance, referring to the serial polygamy common in the
pre-Gilead period and arguing that racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel
that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did (Atwood 1986: 287).
This is a more subtle version of the staple SF technique of the alien perspective
on humans, used and manipulated by Atwood in some of her short fiction (such as
Cold-Blooded and Homelanding in her 1992 Good Bones collection). The appar-
ently extreme and regressive policies of Gilead frequently prove, on closer examina-
tion, to be rooted in the social reality of Atwoods present. For example, the method
of naming handmaids is equivalent to the Russian and Greek tradition of deriving a
womans names by combining of with her fathers name, and subsequently her
husbands, or even her sons. This practice is still current in some Greek and Russian
families, and is in any case merely a more marked version of the prevalent Western
convention of assigning children the surname of their father, and wives that of their
In the lecture that frames the tale of Offred, the historian of Gilead refers to a
sterility-causing virus that was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experi-
ments with mumps, and which was intended for insertion into the supply of caviar
used by top officials in Moscow. (The experiment was abandoned . . . because the virus
was considered too uncontrollable and therefore too dangerous by many, although
some wished to sprinkle it over India) (Atwood 1986: 2901). This anticipates the
plot of Oryx and Crake, in which top geneticist Crake, convinced that overpopulation
is the cause of all global problems, manufactures a pill that promises unlimited libido
and protection against disease, but actually renders users sterile. He eventually takes
more drastic measures, inserting into the pill a virus that eliminates virtually the
entire human species.
References to gene-splicing have different effects in the two novels. The 1980s saw
a series of significant developments in genetic engineering, including the earliest
patents of genetically altered life forms for use as consumer products, and the first
field tests of genetically engineered plants. The novelty of this technology at the time
when The Handmaids Tale appeared meant that casual references to it created a futur-
istic feel. Almost twenty years later, the vocabulary of genomics has become familiar
through the intensifying public debate about the benefits and dangers of newly avail-
able technologies. With the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, the completion of
the human genome sequencing project in 2003, and the development of stem cell
research, collective media-fuelled fears and fantasies have expanded from the creation
of monstrous plants or deadly viruses to the manufacture of genetically modified
animals and humans. Oryx and Crake both exploits and analyzes these fears, and new
technology is a much more significant feature than it was in The Handmaids Tale.
Crakes colleagues are working on futuristic-sounding inventions, such as wallpaper
530 Faye Hammill

that changes color to match your mood; headless chicken growth units which
produce twenty breasts every two weeks (Atwood 2003a: 202); and a range of sophis-
ticated medical and cosmetic treatments. Yet all these inventions are actually based
on ongoing research projects, and the basic premise of the novel is the potentially cat-
astrophic results of existing scientific capabilities. The apparently futuristic society
turns out to be terrifyingly similar to the present.
In the novel, scientists have produced various transgenic creatures, including
wolvogs, intended for security work, which look like particularly friendly domesti-
cated dogs but are, as Crake explains, bred to deceive . . . Reach out to pat them,
theyll take your hand off. Theres a large pit-bull component (Atwood 2003a: 205).
There are also pigoons, designed to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue
organs in a transgenic knockout pig host (Atwood 2003a: 22). Just after the novel
reached completion, these creatures became a reality: in October 2002, Italian scien-
tists reported that they had bred a strain of pig containing human genes in their
hearts, livers, and kidneys, with the goal of producing organs for transplants. Atwoods
protagonist, Jimmy, is afraid that the human DNA in the pigoons means that if
theyd had fingers theyd have ruled the world (Atwood 2003a: 267). He is also con-
cerned about the wolvogs: What if they get out? Go on the rampage? Start breed-
ing, then the population spirals out of control like those big green rabbits? (Atwood
2003a: 205). The reference to the green rabbits again grounds the novel in current
science, acting as a subtle reminder of the fluorescent green rabbit developed in 2000
by French researchers, who used genes borrowed from a jellyfish to make the rabbit
glow under special lighting. At the same time, Jimmys imagined scenarios about the
wolvogs or pigoons taking over the world correspond exactly to classic SF plots. This
demonstrates what Adam Roberts has described as the symbolic purchase of SF on
contemporary living (Roberts 2000: 35). Roberts cites several examples, including
the popular tendency to describe GM products as Frankenstein foods, and the way
in which discussion about NASA or the International Space Station automatically
inhabits the idiom of SF (Roberts 2000: 35, 31).
Media debate about genetic engineering is marked by rhetoric relating to the
usurpation of the functions of God, and this, too, finds a clear expression in the novel.
Crake creates a breed of genetically modified humans, extremely beautiful, immune
to disease, and perfectly adjusted to their environment. They grow to maturity in a
very few years and are preprogrammed to drop dead painlessly at thirty. The Crakers,
or Children of Crake, can be related to non-technological human societies. In an essay
on the writing of Oryx and Crake, Atwood refers to the inspiration provided by visit-
ing open-sided cave complexes where Aboriginal people had lived continuously, in
harmony with their environment, for tens of thousands of years (Atwood 2003b).
The Crakers are also the literary descendents of a whole tradition of deliberately
created new species in science fiction and fantasy writing, from Frankensteins
monster to the Uruk Hai strain of Orc bred by Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
Atwoods beautiful, peace-loving Crakers seem to be the opposite of the loathsome,
murderous Uruk Hai, yet they are in some ways just as frightening, not only because
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale 531

of their difference (Jimmy suspects that other people would view them as savage and
inhuman) but because, like Tolkeins cross-bred species, they are completely controlled
by the will of their creator. They believe implicitly in everything that Crake says
because he has adapted their neural complexes so that all the destructive features
of the human brain are removed, and thus they have no concept of deceit (Atwood
2003a: 305). Even Jimmy, lonely survivor of Crakes biological warfare, used to life
in a luxurious hi-tech compound and now living in a semi-animal state, unwashed,
dressed in a sheet, and scavenging for food, feels that he has become his friends crea-
ture: Crake! he whimpers. Why am I on this earth? How come Im alone? Wheres
my Bride of Frankenstein? (Atwood 2003a: 169).
The creation of new species also takes place, both literally and metaphorically, in
The Handmaids Tale, but the emphasis is different. The transformation of Americans
citizens into Gileadeans takes place not through the altering of neural networks but
through brainwashing. The narrator remembers the day when she is dismissed from
her job:

I could see out into the corridor, and there were two men standing there, in uniforms,
with machine guns. This was too theatrical to be true, yet there they were: sudden
apparitions, like Martians. There was a dreamlike quality to them; they were too vivid,
too at odds with their surroundings. . . .
Its outrageous, one woman said, but without belief. What was it about this that
made us feel we deserved it? (Atwood 1986: 166)

Like Jimmy, Offred perceives what is happening to her world in the terms of
science fiction. She sees the States being taken over by what appears to her an alien
species, and dimly understands that they will try to turn her into one of them. New
species also emerge through mutation, but whereas this is achieved through delib-
erate experiment in Oryx and Crake, it is accidental in The Handmaids Tale:

What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an
Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dogs, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or
no arms, or webbed hands and feet? Theres no telling. They could tell once, with
machines, but that is now outlawed. . . .
The chances are one in four . . . The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radia-
tion, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up. (Atwood
1986: 106)

In Gilead, not only is assisted conception replaced by surrogacy, but the regime
has also outlawed the fetus-screening methods that permit a degree of selectivity in
reproduction and control over the physical characteristics of the next generation. In
Oryx and Crake, by contrast, reproductive technology has become alarmingly sophis-
ticated, and Crake confidently predicts that totally chosen babies that would incor-
porate any feature, physical or mental or spiritual, that the buyer might wish to select
will shortly be available (Atwood 2003a: 304). The reproductive scenarios in both
532 Faye Hammill

novels are based on very real dangers present in Atwoods society, yet there is just
enough extremity in her representations (babies with two bodies; babies whose spir-
ituality has been chosen) to render them horrific and introduce an element of satire
into her texts.
The satiric dimension is explicitly signaled in one of the epigraphs to The Hand-
maids Tale, taken from Jonathan Swifts A Modest Proposal (1729): But as to
myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary
thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this pro-
posal . . .. Swifts suggestion that the Irish should avoid starvation by eating their
own children was, of course, intended to draw attention to the cruelty of English
absentee landlords who were allowing the Irish peasants to starve. Atwoods choice of
epigraph suggests that the society depicted in The Handmaids Tale is not an attempted
portrayal of a probable future, but rather a theoretical extrapolation of the dangerous
tendencies of her age. Oryx and Crake is also prefaced with an epigraph from Swift,
this time from Gullivers Travels: I could perhaps like others have astonished you with
strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the sim-
plest manner and style; because my principal design was to inform you, and not to
amuse you.
In Gullivers Travels, what initially seem to be strange improbable tales turn out
to be simply exaggerations or extrapolations of current trends. The strange lands that
Gulliver visits are none other than Britain seen through a number of intensifying or
distorting lenses. Similarly, the apparently futuristic, fantastic worlds depicted in
Atwoods SF-inspired texts, The Handmaids Tale, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and
Crake, gradually reveal themselves as distorted versions of past and present human
cultures. As Atwood said of The Handmaids Tale: I wanted people to believe that it
was possible and, indeed, it is possible because in different ways weve already done
it before (Tidmarsh 1992: 24).

References and Further Reading

Atwood, Margaret (1969) The Edible Woman. (2003c) Orwell and Me. The Guardian, 16
Toronto: Seal Books. June.
(1986) The Handmaids Tale. Toronto and generalfiction/story/0,6000,978474,00.html
New York: McClelland and Stewart-Bantam. Baccolini, Raffaella (2000) Gender and Genre in
(1992) Conversations. (ed.) Earl G. Ingersoll. the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine
London: Virago. Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia
(2000) The Blind Assassin. London: Butler. In Future Females, The Next Generation:
Bloomsbury. New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction
(2003a) Oryx and Crake. London: Criticism, (ed.) Marleen S. Barr. Lanham, MD
Bloomsbury. and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.
(2003b) Writing Oryx and Crake. Bloom, Harold (ed.) (2000) Margaret Atwood: Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia: Chelsea
essay.html House.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale 533

Cranny-Francis, Ann (1990) Feminist Fiction: Nischik, Reingard (ed.) (2000) Margaret Atwood:
Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. Cambridge: Works and Impact. Columbia, SC: Camden
Polity Press. House.
Evans, Mark (1994) Versions of History: The Rao, Eleonora (1993) Strategies for Identity: The Fiction
Handmaids Tale and its Dedicatees. In Margaret of Margaret Atwood. New York: Peter Lang.
Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, (ed.) Colin Rigney, Barbara Hill (1987) Macmillan Women
Nicholson. London: Macmillan; New York: St Writers: Margaret Atwood. Basingstoke:
Martins Press, 17788. Macmillan.
Howells, Coral Ann (1996) Macmillan Modern Nov- Roberts, Adam (2000) Science Fiction. London:
elists: Margaret Atwood. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Routledge.
(2002) Margaret Atwoods Discourse of Scholes, Robert (1975) Structural Fabulation: An
Nation and National Identity in the 1990s. In Essay on Fiction of the Future. Bloomington:
The Rhetoric of Canadian Writing, (ed.) Conny Indiana University Press.
Steenman-Marcusse. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 199 Tidmarsh, Andrew (1992) Dinosaurs, Comics,
216. Conan and Metaphysical Romance. Andrew
Jeffreys, Sheila (1997) The Spinster and Her Enemies. Tidmarsh talks to Margaret Atwood. Interzone
London: Spinifex Press. 65, 235.