Tag Archives: future

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.

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Mary Shelley’s false messiah in The Last Man

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

I always wonder just what people believed and assumed in years past, most specifically in hundreds of years past.  And these quotes by Mary Shelley from The Last Man, one of the earliest science fiction novels, give me insight that there are always astute individuals in every age.

Centering around a plague that makes its deadly way to England, the few people left are torn between the calm, caring, patient leader who has brought them across the ocean in search of salvation, and the evil power-hungry charlatan who threatens eternal damnation and preaches that sickness is God’s punishment.

“It is a strange fact, but incontestible, that the philanthropist, who ardent in his desire to do good, who patient, reasonable, and gentle, yet disdains to use other argument than truth, has less influence over men’s minds, than he who, grasping and selfish, refuses not to adopt any means, nor awaken any passion, nor diffuse any falsehood, for the advancement of his cause.”

So relevant to our time!  (Donald Trump running for president)  I guess some things never change.

 

“Poor and rich were now equal…”

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

As so many people must, I enjoy reading about how cultured aristocrats, especially those of straight-laced 17th and 18th century England, may act when things go awry.  And although the topic of death and plague is nothing to be pleased about, I found Mary Shelley’s stab at decorum being upended quite pleasing.

While England has been hit with an apocalyptic plague, the main character describes the current state of events:

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826“Families late devoted to exalting and refined pursuits, rich, blooming, and young, with diminished numbers and care-fraught hearts, huddled over a fire, grown selfish and grovelling through suffering.  Without the aid of servants, it was necessary to discharge all household duties; hands unused to such labour must knead the bread, or in the absence of flour, the statesmen or perfumed courtier must undertake the butcher’s office.  Poor and rich were now equal, or rather the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience; while ignorance, inaptitude, and habits of repose, rendered them fatiguing to the luxurious, galling to the proud, disgustful to all whose minds, bent on intellectual improvement, held it their dearest privilege to be exempt from attending to mere animal wants.”

More from this book in the last couple of posts.

“The plague was not in London alone…”

Except from The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826“The plague was not in London alone, it was every where — it came on us, as Ryland had said, like a thousand packs of wolves, howling through the winter night, gaunt and fierce.  When once disease was introduced into the rural districts, its effects appeared more horrible, more exigent, and more difficult to cure, than in towns.  There was a companionship in suffering there, and, the neighbours keeping constant watch on each other, and inspired by the active benevolence of Adrian, succour was afforded, and the path of destruction smoothed.  But in the country, among the scattered farm-houses, in lone cottages, in fields, and barns, tragedies were acted harrowing to the soul, unseen, unheard, unnoticed.  Medical aid was less easily procured, food was more difficult to obtain, and human beings, unwithheld by shame, for they were unbeheld of their fellows, ventured on deeds of greater wickedness, or gave way more readily to their abject fears.”

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, published in 1826This book is one of the very first science fiction books written, and is included in the modern post-apocalyptic genre.  Written by Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, The Last Man is romantic, melancholy, and beautifully poetic.

The catch is, you have to get through the first half.  It tells the origins of the main character and goes into great depth to describe his relationships with his closest friends and family members, and follows them as they rule England in the late 2000s.

There are very few “predictions” made by the author about future inventions unique to the modern era of the 21st century.  People still travel by boat and carriage, although the government of England is no longer a monarchy.  She writes vague things like “I had an apparatus with me for procuring light” which is a great way of acknowledging that in the future there must be a something better than a lantern but I don’t know what it is.

There really aren’t very many aspects of this book that are “science fiction-ey”.  It is set in Shelley’s far future but she doesn’t much bother coming up with ideas about how people live in that time.  I see it as an experiment about the “end of the world” which has always been a topic of controversy and alarm throughout the ages.

The people in The Last Man travel not just by boat but also by “sailing balloon”.  About half way through the book one of the main character’s close family members die, jumping overboard from a ship (on the water) out of sorrow for her husband’s death.  The main character eschews sailing by boat at that point:

He says “Its hateful splash renewed again and again to my sense the death of my sister” and tells his niece to “sit beside me in this aerial bark” as they make their way back home in a sailing balloon.

“We were lifted above the Alpine peaks, and from their deep and brawling ravines entered the plain of fair France, and after an airy journey of six days, we landed at Dieppe, furled the feathered wings, and closed the silken globe of our little pinnace.”

The feathered wings are the only thing science fiction-ey about this idea since hot air balloons were invented in the late 1700s and this book was published in 1826, but it was one time she took a liberty about an interesting invention that is common place in this future.

As you can tell, the book is written in the old way with long dramatic sentences and lots of commas, and using an extensive vocabulary.  But unlike Jane Austen’s books, let’s say, death is a constant theme.  The above scene occurs about half way through and death is a constant companion for the rest of the book.  One by one his loved ones die, most often of the plague, and he is left as the “last man”.

Mary Shelley's portrait by Richard Rothwell via Wikipedia
Mary Shelley’s portrait by Richard Rothwell via Wikipedia

Shelley was not critically acclaimed for this book and it went out of print within a few years.  The apocalypse was simply not a popular topic I’m assuming, and it was certainly not a lady-like one.  And from a modern point of view, the action doesn’t really start until half way through, like I said, and even then it doesn’t move along at a brisk pace like most fiction written these days.

Either way, it’s an amazing work of art and a bold experiment for Shelley’s time.

Michael Hogan, narrating METAtropolis

METAtropolis by Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, & Karl Schroeder

In the Forests of the Night by Jay Lake

METAtropolisI truly love this book.  I’ve listened to it twice and read it once and every time I discover something new that I didn’t take notice of before.

And I love it when two concepts coincide between different METAtropolisbooks I read.  In the Forests of the Night takes an excerpt from the fictional “Bacigalupi Lectures” which describe the rise of many tiny “secret societies”  made up of just two people sometimes, where people trade among themselves and use knowledge to get what they need, truly trusting few but connecting to many.

I’ve also been reading Paolo Bacigalupi.  The Wind Up Girl and Pump Six are set in a future that is post-climate change and strikingly similar to the world described by METAtropolis.  On Wikipedia you can learn that Bacigalupi’s works are considered to be part of the biopunk genre and perhaps METAtropolis is too.

METAtropolis was designed as an audio book, not for print, and the narrators turn it into a completely different experience than if you are reading it.

Michael Hogan, taken from WikipediaWhat makes this such an amazing work of art, this short story, is the tone and depth given to it by narrator Michael Hogan.  I know and love him from Battlestar Galactica, and the beautiful job he does on this story is astounding.  It’s as if he’s reading a poem.  His voice sounds like he should be a legendary western character akin to Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.

This time it’s not the different voices for different characters that makes the narrator stand out, but instead his darkly melodious voice and the seriousness with which he goes about his task.

You can listen to this AMAZING short story by the late Jay Lake on his website, www.jlake.com.

Cascadiopolis’s anarchist principles

METAtropolis by Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, & Karl Schroeder

In the Forests of the Night by Jay Lake

METAtropolisThis story tells of the intertwining paths of a mysterious colossal of a man, Tygre, and the forest city of Cascadiopolis.  They both fall, and we are told this early on, but the story is about how that happens, and so much more.

The story is a report (but doesn’t read like one) written by the members of the Cascadiopolis movement as an explanation for what happened, and intermittently includes quotes from various other reports that describe the state of the world at this future point.

“Climate change and resource pinches have caused semi-societal collapse.  America had become “a zombie empire shambling onward through the sheer weight of its extents, but devoid of initiative or credibility… Hope was not dead, but it lived in strange, isolated colonies on the warm corpse of the United States.””

So Cascadiopolis is a success story.  It’s a city based on the principles of anarchy and sustainability.  Whatever works, low or high tech.  And it answers the question as to how an anarchist government would run.  A difficult task, seeing as anarchy is defined as being not in recognition of government.

“Even here in the heart of fog-bound anarchy, there are processes, rules, requirements to be followed.  Freedom must be protected by a wall of suspicion.”

And later under the heading “How it Works:  The Newcomers Guide to Cascadiopolis:

Cascadiopolis is a self-organizing anarchist collective which aspires to the self-actualization of all citizens in accordance with green principles.”

Though a leaderless movement, a Citizen’s Executive committee (and other subcommittees created when need arises) “sits in proxy for the will of the whole” and a vote can be called at any time with 10% agreement from the city.

“This practice is a compromise between our anarchist principles and the unfortunate realities of existing in a world of governments, corporations and capital-intensive infrastructure.  Every citizen’s core aspirations should include a dedication to the day when the Citizen’s Executive will wither away and we are all self-actualized without interference from each other or the city as a whole.”

So Cascadiopolis is a city of ideals.  Unfortunately, sometimes those very ideals create room for downfall.

An infiltrator thinks “They will not do face checks, these people – against what they stand for…”

Sometimes your ideals are all you have, and as long as you survive you can pick them up and go somewhere else, as is the case with this very cool and romantic sounding city among the trees that I will only visit in my dreams.