Tag Archives: fantasy

The Handmaid’s Tale: paranoid feminist nightmare?

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futuristic 1985 novel doesn’t seem to be her magnum opus as it is a relatively short obscure read that feels more like a fast write than a masterpiece. Dream-like, taking place primarily in the main character’s head, The Handmaid’s Tale is a surreal nightmare-become-reality for women in Gilead, the new martial law nation that is the United States’ predecessor after a violent coup.

But where the novel is obscure (yet powerful), the Hulu series is fully fleshed out, forceful, and eventually leaves June’s head to roam freely into other characters’ emotional territories, weaving in and out of their memories of what came before Gilead existed.

Central to the story is the fact that fertility has declined drastically all over the world due to pollution and other unknown factors, to the point where an extremist Christian sect sees it their duty to take over the U.S., subjugate its fertile women, and dictate every detail of its citizen’s lives through threat of death and torture. All in the name of Christianity and furthering humanity, and in the case of the series, reducing carbon emissions in a last gasp to save the planet.

In the political sense, the story is not necessarily anti-Christian – the extremist group could have been any religion – but it’s possible the creators of the series included the carbon emission issues in order to muddy the waters politically and make it harder to accuse them of a liberal bias. What is clear though, is that the series central emotional pull is female empowerment.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “A Woman’s Place” Episode 106 — (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

The men in The Handmaid’s Tale are clearly the winners of this violent overturning of the government. Women were involved, specifically the wives of the now-rulers, but were betrayed by the husbands who, by following the rigid standards of The Bible, have kicked them out of the decision making process. The wives now dress in dark green, are forcefully held in place by codes of conduct, and their only jobs are managing the households while the men come and go as they please.

And this is the crux of the story to me: that men don’t necessarily want the debauchery and depravity to end – they just want to control every aspect of it and dole out favors and privileges to those that prove their loyalty and accept (or at least seem to accept) their new lot in life.

The commander, June’s benefactor and hopefully the father of her baby if she manages to conceive, as that is the limit of her role in the world now, appears somewhat compassionate in his dealings with her, at least in private. But we soon see that he is reveling in his new powerful position. We also see that in his past life in regular old America, his wife was the powerhouse and intellectual in their relationship, writing books and even being taller and more imposing than he was/is.

Some may say The Handmaid’s Tale is a paranoid feminist nightmare. A feminist nightmare it definitely is, but perhaps “paranoid” is not the best word to describe it. Paranoia literally means “baseless or excessive suspicion” and in this case, women have been fighting for sovereignty over their own lives and reproductive decisions for as long as written history exists. Women may currently have more or less equal rights in the U.S. and other western countries but you can travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East and Africa and see women being subjugated right now. Vaginal circumcision is still common in many places. Saudi Arabia could be seen as a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale: women cannot exist in that society without a male guardian to give them permission for any public activities – they only recently were given they right to drive.

So paranoid fantasy The Handmaid’s Tale is not. Currently men are devising ways to limit reproductive freedom and curtail women’s decision making about their own bodies (and yes, women are devising right alongside them too, as in the series). Things are changing, yes, but all that is needed is a real or perceived threat to humanity, and extremism could be the law of the land. That’s what The Handmaid’s Tale warns against, and what a prescient admonition it is, as sensible a concern as it was in the 1980s.

Saga, an anti-violence message

Saga, Book One by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga, the graphic novelSaga’s main characters do not want to commit violence although there is a lot of it in this amazing graphic novel.  No surprise there, but the authors must have wanted to create a message in the midst of all that death and chaos.  Have your cake and eat it too sort of.

Saga, the graphic novelMarko is a sympathetic pacifist who tries so very hard to lay down his weapon.  He is a “moony,” born on Wreath, a moon circling the planet Landfall.  Wreath and Landfall have been warring so long the fighting has been “outsourced” to other planets, spreading war and suffering across the galaxy.

Marko and Alana on the cover of one of her romance novels
Marko and Alana on the cover of one of her romance novels

Marko falls in love with Alana, a beautiful ex-military grunt who likes romance novels.  He turns himself in to his enemies as a conscientious objector, and she is given the duty of watching him.  Instead, she falls in love with him, they escape, and this is their story, narrated by their daughter far in the future.

Wreath is a magical moon and Marko wields great power.  His parents are warriors and they taught him to hate the enemy, but his convictions go against that.  The thing is, every time he tries to stop fighting, someone comes and attacks him and his family and he must fight back and kill them all.

When Marko and his warrior mother go to a planet to find and save another character, they encounter a huge three-eyed man-giant.  His mother attacks while he says “We’re trespassing on his land!  Just let me hit him with a binding spell.”  His mother responds that “this squeamishness is most unbecoming”.

SagaThe three-eyed giant is a little gross.  His um, testicles, are what is really unbecoming.  The very first image of this creature in the book made me immediately think of the art of Ralph Steadman, who I am familiar with only because he illustrated The Curse of Lono by Hunter S. Thompson.  (I have Ralph Steadman’s Extinct Boids on order though and I can’t wait.)

But back to the message of nonviolence.  The book depicts the galaxy-wide war as driven by monetary or power-hungry forces.  The military industrial complex has been so ingrained into the two opposing sides that they may have no identity without it.  And this couple, who just want to be left alone with their newborn child, can’t seem to escape it. 

Alana is obsessed with a particular romance novel, A Night Time Smoke, and they both see the hidden anti-war message the author gave it.  As far as us readers can tell, when shown a section of the book, the only message of peace is that it simply has no war in it.  This must be revolutionary in this war-torn universe.

SagaWhen Alana is guarding him, and they are falling in love, she reads him an excerpt.  Even though the piece has nothing to do with war or their worlds, Marko responds with “It’s not a love story at all, is it?  It’s about us, about the war between Landfall and Wreath.”

Needless to say, they are soulmates.  She says “He’s saying that this war between our people has gone on too long, that it has to be stopped.”

And Marko replies “What if the writer is suggesting that war will never end, that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of pointless brutality that can only be “stopped” with more war?” 

Alana says, a little late, “Okay, now you’re just reading too much into things.”

It’s adorable.  And sad.  And violent.  And undeniably unique.  Read it!

GM humans are people too (The Wind-up Girl)

Book:  The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As I discussed in the last post, love and compassion in this book are hidden deep down in the psyches of those struggling to survive this ugly world, if they exist at all.

Large powerful corporations – one of the main characters works for “AgriGen” – rule the calorie market by whatever means necessary.  Negotiation, bioterrorism, hand-to-hand violence, whatever.   (AgriGen is this future’s natural extension of Monsanto, the comparison cannot not be made.)

Foods, animals, and humans have been genetically modified.  Barely a calorie exists that The Windup Girl cover artisn’t made with a genetically modified crop or animal.  All natural crops have been destroyed by some disease or another.

The people of the Thai Kingdom, where the story takes place, hold a deep disgust for genetically modified humans.  (I suppose this is a somewhat natural, since the very existence of humans as a species could be threatened by the very existence of genetically modified ones, in the long run.)  Eating GMO crops is a must but the Thai people are against GMO people.

The most fascinating thing about this book is that the author has played out how present and substantial the role of genetic alteration may become to our world.

Japan, as we learn, does not treat “wind-ups” (genetically modified humans) as soulless disgusting creatures, as the Thai do.  (A Japanese company based in Thailand creates – builds – wind-ups.)  Japan views them primarily as tools, though, and they are put to death when they’re no longer useful or if they commit an act that is not sanctioned by their education.  A Japanese wind-up, Emiko, is more or less the main character, and she is left in Thailand when her Japanese benefactor decides to upgrade to a newer model.

In our view as readers of this book, we know that genetically modified people are different than us, yes, but they are still humans with the equivalent of “souls”, no different than you or I in that department, but the Thais think they are practically demons.

Cloned creatures have all of the “personhood” attributes of any other member of their species.  Years ago when the first cloned animal was created (or at least the first to be publicized), Dolly, I asked myself, what is different about a cloned creature?  The answer is, there is no difference, except for whatever physiological differences such as being more prone to disease and whatever changes the designer put into them.  And that might be substantial, but their minds and bodies feel the same psychology and emotional pain that other members of their species do.  The same depth of being.

If scientists ever succeed in cloning a woolly mammoth, for example, would it not suffer terribly like any other animal, in a cage or enclosure, away from its natural habitat and any creatures like it?

Perhaps a cloned individual is different than a genetically modified one but to say that someone isn’t a real person because their DNA was tampered with, or because they were not born in the traditional way, is simply hogwash.  I wonder if someday this will be a The Wind-Up Girlbigger discussion because of cloning or GMO technology.  It’s exciting, but this book will remind you that it should also be quite disturbing to you too.

The people of Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl seem to lack the sentiment that GM humans are people too.  And they lack much of that love and compassion that I spoke of earlier.  Even the Japanese who treat their genetically altered people with decency consider them little more than a means to an end, and nearly everyone will snuff out a life like they’re taking out the trash.

But it’s a great ride, and I will keep reading Bacigalupi, even if his books are based in a monstrous future that is haunting and frightening for what it depicts, and possibly, predicts.


Free sci-fi audio dramas

Artwork by Philippa Jones, from The Drabblecast website
Artwork by Philippa Jones, from The Drabblecast website

Creature is a short story by Ramsey Shehadeh that has been made into an audio drama.  It has wonder, hope, despair, mystery… all that.  The description is rich, the story daring, but what so fascinates me about this story is the author’s ability to think outside the box, to go to a totally difference place…  to simply come up with this content.

Below is a link to The Drabblecast website where you can listen to Creature as well as tons of other short stories that have been made into beautifully produced audio dramas.  The host’s half-whisper half-growl voice is perfect for reciting these crazy stories.  Some have other actors joining in, and there’s the perfect amount of music and effects (not too much to be a distraction).  If you like this sort of thing, check it out.


Human fallibility, an important concept (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness, newer printingAfter all the writing I’ve done on this book, one more thing sticks with me.

The main character of this book, Genly Ai, a man from Earth, is on the cold planet Gethen where humans (yes, he calls them humans) are androgynous, far in the future.  Instead of being male or female, they turn so only for a couple of days of their 26 day month in a continuous cycle where they can be male or female depending on who is in their environment.

It’s a fascinating idea, a world lacking in the burden of childbearing being only on one-half of the population, no rape, and where there is no male-female duality.

But what I want to address here is that Genly Ai’s life is saved by a man whom he disliked throughout the book until the man saves his life.  We are fully 2/3rds through the book before this happens.  This man, Estraven, is stiff and unfriendly, in the eyes of Genly.  Genly distrusts him and greatly misjudges his character.

For a main character to make this kind of mistake is a great tenet of this book.  In reality (Le Guin might say “And whose reality are you referring to?”) we make these kinds of mistakes all the time.  We look at someone and make a judgment and the worst of us never veer from that judgment even when faced with opposing facts.

Estraven is a forward-thinker.  When all others are fighting among themselves over nation borders, he looks to the future as a member of a galactic organization and imagines:

“Our border now is no line between two hills, but the line our planet makes in circling the Sun.”

He also talks about “patriotism”:

“What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?”

And later, when he is asked a question that he cannot answer, says:

“Silence is not what I should choose, yet it suits me better than a lie.”

If only we could get away with that answer, when applicable.

Genly Ai, a good man to begin with, is greatly humbled by the end of the book, after experiencing the generosity and unbiased nature of Estraven.

The book itself is the report Genly Ai puts together for the organization that he represents, which is a terrific way of creating a book in my view.  It’s a step Le Guin must have taken on the way to Always Coming Home, the novel that I will reread and post about soon, one that is basically written in text book style, a study of a future culture, and a fascinating read, as is The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Ekumen”

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessThis book is about a human in the far future who goes to a planet called Gethen, where people are androgynous except for several days a month when they turn either male or female depending on the circumstances, and during this time can either father or mother a child.

An infinitely interesting idea, and Le Guin examines it well, but another “thought experiment” she begins is the “Ekumen”, a relationship of many planets who have chosen to join together.  Genly Ai, the narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness, is an Envoy for the Ekuman to the planet Gethen, hoping to obtain their agreement to join the grouping of planets.  He explains what this organization is:

The Ekumen is not a kingdom, but a coordinator, a clearing house for trade and knowledge; without it communication between the worlds of men would be haphazard, and trade very risky…

The main characters argues that “we are all men… all sons of the same Hearth.”

Only one person is sent to a planet that has already been deemed a potential member, and this person, the Envoy, is designed to be non-threatening, nonjudgmental:

“…I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy.”  He says that beginnings, to the Ekumen, are very important, that “Its doctrine is just the reverse of the end justifies the means.”

How unlike any planetary council or federation I have ever read about.  One that considers each action and step to be important and crucial to the end result.

Surely good sense.  Proven by this endearing quote:

As they say in Ekumenical School, when action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep. 

So wise.  And a great book.

An “enlightened” view from the 1960s (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

(con’t from last post)

The Left Hand of DarknessKeeping in mind it was the 1960s when this book was written, Le Guin writes, in the main character’s voice, when a Gethenian asks how women and men are different:

“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.  In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything.

The Gethenian asks whether females are mentally inferior.  The main character answers:

“I don’t know.  They don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers.  But it isn’t that they’re stupid.  Physically they’re less muscular…”

As I’ve asked before, should we attribute statements made by authors in books as their own opinion?  Should we attribute this view to Le Guin herself?  More likely her opinion of what a male would say if asked this question.

The comment is made by a male who is the main character, the protagonist.  He is a man of the future, an enlightened man by any measure.  So if it is Le Guin’s opinion that a man like this would spontaneously say “stupid” as what women aren’t, as if to remind himself, then she definitely underestimated how far equality would come by even our times, the 21st century.

Perhaps Le Guin would respond that she was simply opening a dialogue, or making a point that even in that far future, men still don’t understand women. 🙂

I don’t like to think that Le Guin was a victim of the prevailing notion of the past that women were mentally inferior than men, but of course it’s possible.  Just because she’s an amazing writer and storyteller doesn’t mean she is immune against “prevailing notions”.

Needless to say, I believe it would be written differently if written today instead of in the 60s.

Update:  A fellow blogger (comments below) helped me to see that it isn’t so much that Le Guin was a victim of “prevailing notions” of the time but more that she was showing the imperfections in her main character.