Tag Archives: politics

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.


Attributing opinions to an author

Can we ever attribute comments that a character in a story makes to be the opinions of the author who wrote them?

This question comes to me often when reading various authors like Robert Heinlein, and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinleinrecently, to a lesser extent, Ursula Le Guin.  When an author writes about something “political”, we seem to automatically ask that question.  Should we attribute certain remarks in a book as being of the author’s true political opinion?

I would venture to say that most science fiction authors (or rather, most authors) do not state strong opinions in their writing.  They neither state them nor dwell on them, because they run the risk of becoming “political” or siding with a certain political or religious group.

Statements by certain characters, such as the “good guy”, may indicate a leaning by the author. I say “good guy” because that is a major factor.  A good guy (forgive my simplicity here regarding good vs bad) who gives an opinion should be more likely to be representative of what the author thinks, than if a “bad guy” gives it.  Simple enough.

In general I regard this as a dangerous practice, attributing an opinion to the author, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

Oftentimes good guys are of mixed morals.  (Some would say the best good guys are of mixed morals!)  They follow the good “moral” path only after certain events and perhaps emotions goad them into doing so.  So it would be dangerous to assume anything that this type of character says to be what the author believes, for that and other reasons.  But perhaps a long-time good guy or elder in a story, may give more indication of the author’s true beliefs.

Ayn RandI’ve deemed certain authors political, like John Barnes, Heinlein, and Ayn Rand, but I came to that conclusion only after a pattern emerged that led me there.  And maybe that’s what it comes down to.  There must be an overt pattern in a story or an author’s books that all of them point in one direction, toward that opinion, before you should safely make that claim.

Regardless of all of this, I think nearly all authors are trying to get a point across about humanity and if they can let you figure it out, without being explicit, but lead you to the answers piece by piece, their job has been to some extent completed.

At least that’s my take on it.

Clarke vs Heinlein: polar opposites

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. ClarkeRendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

This book was a truly wonderful experience after reading so much Heinlein.  It was my first Clarke book, but even though, I could tell that he and Heinlein are absolute polar opposites in their writing styles and content.

Heinlein’s copious dialogue, over the top personality quirks, and political opinions are tiring over time.  He seems to put his two cents in wherever it will fit into a story.  Clarke, on the other hand, is light on drama and personality, and heavy on straight forward information and scientific realism.

This is a book without human drama, instead filled with human “history” (future history) and significant detail about a fascinating scientific phenomenon.

Rendezvous with Rama highlights the moment in human history when we have our first encounter with an alien civilization.  No aliens actually appear in the book but we get beautiful glimpses of a civilization with technology far surpassing ours that is traveling in a manner we do not understand, and whom we may never meet.

Don’t get me wrong, there are human characters and we hear about their lives to some extent, which are very different than ours, both in function and philosophy, but if you need a break from the endless drama of the average fiction book, look to Arthur C. Clarke.

Daybreak series by John Barnes

Books:  Directive 51 & Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

Directive 51Directive 51, the first novel in the Daybreak series, is set in a semi-post-apocalyptic future (the year 2024) when a conspiracy begins called Daybreak that results in the crippling of high technology all over the world, sending survivors back to the equivalent of the 1800s.

Daybreak Zero is the 2nd book in the seriesDaybreak Zero and it continues the saga of the people left after Daybreak.  The heroes, mostly people trying to create a new federal government, battle the “tribes” who are brainwashed by the Daybreak mind virus.

I have to be honest.  I considered quitting this series while on the first book.  It has so many details and dialogue about things that are not important to the story.  It moves slow… we are forever living out Daybreak day, October 28, 2024.  Kind of like a TV pilot, the first book sets the stage with important details of the story but is filled with characters we are not familiar with, and there are a lot of them.

Some of the characters were people who contributed to quite a bit of death and suffering; we are hearing their rationale.  This is effective, and I have to admit that probably my favorite characters of the whole story fall into this category.  I love a bad guy turned good.  He or she is just misled, misinformed, brainwashed, and it’s always heart-warming to see them get turned around.

The “bad guys” are Gaia worshipers, essentially environmentalists gone bad.  And there are thousands or millions of them.  Their actions result in billions of purposeful deaths.  Their goal is to essentially eradicate the human race in order to allow Gaia to rebound and continue on with nature in its original form, to erase man from the earth.

The idea of environmental terrorism seems somewhat popular lately.  I really enjoyed The East, a 2013 movie about a woman who infiltrates a terrorist group on behalf of a corporation.  In The East, the main characters were richly created, the writer gave them depth and we see that wonderful mixture of “good” and “bad” that audiences are fascinated with.  In the Daybreak series, the author has made the environmentalists mindless zombies.  That might work well for his story line about a mind virus but it’s kind of a cheap shot and frankly seems overtly political.

Environmentalists are generally very loving and caring people.  In fact, they care too much, including about human lives, human suffering, animal lives, animal suffering… and yes, trees sometimes too.

So to make environmentalists the bad guys in this book the author is essentially demonizing them.  This does not jive with any sense of reality as I understand it and with all the other rather realistic aspects of this story this doesn’t pass muster.  More on this series in the next post…

The Politics of Stephen King

In the last couple of posts I’ve been writing about an interview that Stephen King gave Rolling Stone recently.  It’s really informative for King fans and you can read it here.

Stephen King caricature by Garrett Morlan
Stephen King caricature by Garrett Morlan

In it he talks about whether he believes in God (covered in my last post), and how he views why he’s not taken seriously as a literary author (in the post before that).  He also points out that he is a pacifist, that he thinks Obama has does a pretty good job considering, and he goes a little deeper into his political beliefs and how they impact how people know him.  And about his politics:

“[Stephen King:]  I’m going to do a TV ad for the Democratic candidate Shenna Bellows this afternoon. She’s running against Susan Collins for Senate. And I don’t know how much goodwill I have in the state, but I think it’s a fair amount, so maybe the ad will make a difference.

[Rolling Stone:]  Do you worry that being too political will turn off some of your readers?

It happens all the time. I wrote an e-book after the thing in Newtown, Connecticut, when that guy shot all those kids. I got a lot of letters, somebody saying, “Asshole! I’ll never read another one of your goddamn books.” So what? If you’re to a point where you can’t separate the entertainment from the politics, who needs you? Jesus Christ.

I never really cared for Tom Clancy’s books, but it wasn’t because he was a Republican guy. It was because I didn’t think he could write. There’s another guy that I sense is probably a fairly right-wing writer. His name is Stephen Hunter. And I love his books. I don’t think he likes mine.”

The thing is, King’s politics aren’t overt in his books, like Robert Heinlein’s are.  With Heinlein (and John Barnes for that matter, of which I will post about in the future), I feel as if it’s been forced on me sometimes, like he took pains to detour the story so he could fit some political statement in, but I can’t think of a single instance when I thought King was trying to make a political statement.

A thing, be it a book or movie or whatever, is either political or it isn’t.  And if it isn’t, it shouldn’t be.  That’s sounds redundant but I guess I’m just saying that if given the choice I will choose the mainstream nonpolitical story over the political one most times.

I actually think a lot of people are like this.  They are understandably turned off by the ugly politics of our time.  Probably why they don’t vote, as evidenced by the record low turnout just a few days ago.

More from King and Rolling Stone on the political state of affairs in America:

“Why do you think the country is so divided?

It doesn’t have anything to do with Obama. There’s a fundamental discussion going on in America right now about whether or not we’re going to continue to protect individual freedoms or whether we’re going to give some of them up. And the discussion has become extremely acrimonious.

In the wake of 9/11, we’re searched invasively at airports. There are CCTV cameras everywhere. There’s a whole bunch of people who say that America is for the individual and that we’re all the gunslingers of our own house. Basically, there’s a whole side of the country that’s fearful. They’re fearful that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, then God knows what will happen – all at once, all of our kids will be gay and America’s way of life will die out. They’re afraid that immigrants are going to swamp the economy. And on the other side, there are all of those people who say, “Maybe there’s a way to embrace these things, and maybe we need to give up our right that anybody can buy a gun.” They’re basic arguments.”

And on to a new author and book in the next post…

Selling off the Moon

Robert Heinlein’s Future History Series

Book Two: The Man Who Sold the Moon

(con’t from the last post)

In the last post I explained how I think that Heinlein, while being a libertarian, believed that the public interest should be protected, and that large corporations, when being obligated to their shareholders to bring in profits above all else, will not necessarily protect the public interest.

The namesake story of the four in the book, The Man Who Sold the Moon, illustrates briefly how large corporations can manipulate non-profit organizations for their own benefit, i.e. funneling money.

The Man Who Sold the MoonOne man wants to “own the moon”, create a city, and sell parcels of moon land for development. It might sound ridiculous but, if a powerful nation can land on an island or continent that is already inhabited and say “I own this”, what’s stopping someone from doing the same thing on the moon where no one lives? (My statement, not his, but Columbus is mentioned at this point in the story and I think the author intended this line of thought.)

Here is a quote from the ones who are conniving to sell the moon, needing to build up capital to get there:

“’I want an angle to squeeze dimes out of the school kids too. Forty million school kids at a dime a head is four million dollars! We can use that.’

‘Why stop at a dime? …If you get a kid really interested he’ll scrape together a dollar.’

‘Yes, but what do we offer him for it, aside from the honor of taking part in a noble venture and so forth?’

‘Hmmm… suppose we go after both the dimes and dollars? For a dime he gets a card saying that he’s a member of the Moon Beam Club!’

‘No, the Junior Spacemen! …the Moon Beams will be the girls.’”

And it goes on… pretty funny actually, and not that unrealistic I fear!

More about The Man Who Sold the Moon in the next post…

Political Sci-Fi

Robert Heinlein’s Future History Series

Book Two: The Man Who Sold the Moon

(con’t from the last post)

This book is broken up into 3 major stories that do not have obvious relation to one another. Just finishing it now, I have to say that it was an excellent book, one that I will remember distinctly. Heinlein fits a lot of information into a relatively short book.

There were times when the politics were too much for me but I was never seriously tempted to quit. I can’t think of a science-fiction writer that is quite as politically oriented in his works of fiction as Heinlein (although there are many I haven’t read). Sometimes I felt his opinions “forced” on me, for lack of a better word.

But there were times when I agreed with the argument I thought he was trying to make.

The Man Who Sold the MoonThe final story in The Man Who Sold the Moon was about atomic energy, which is a crucial energy source to the people in this story. (The time frame was in his future, after 1950, but in our past, if I remember correctly. I was listening to it, not reading it, so I can’t just go back and look very easily.)

The “pile” of radioactive material that gives off energy is very dangerous and the employees who work with it at the atomic energy plant must be thoroughly screened and watched. Turns out, the bizarre behavior some of them start to display is from adrenal burn out, occurring because of the constant stress of concern about the safety of themselves, their families and those who live around the plant. (The “watching” by psychiatrists doesn’t help either.)

At the same time they discover the problem of adrenal burn out, a new mathematical discovery shows that the pile is even more dangerous than previously believed. The discoverers learn that the owner of the plant, on behalf of his shareholders, will not shut down the plant just because of this new information, while the scientists argue he should.

This is a storyline that has been played out probably hundreds of times in our day and age: large corporations putting the public at risk, and actually harming them, for the sake of profits. Heinlein uses the word “public interest” a lot and I am going to go so far as to say that being safe in the public interest must have been important to him. How that reconciles with his libertarian attitude, I do not know, but perhaps he believed that there are limits on the freedoms Americans should have, and that limit being that if you are hurting someone else with your actions for whatever reason, in this case profits, you must stop. But, as with atomic energy in the story, there was a chance of hurting others,  so sometimes (almost all the time you have good lawyers) that’s not very clear cut.

I wonder if in his later books he takes this issue further and explores how clear cut it needs to be. That is, how obvious the harm to others must be before an action should be against the law. He makes the point in the story that even the President of the United States on his own couldn’t make the owner shut down the plant since they are not operating against any laws, even if they convinced him it was necessary. Here is a quote by one of the experts:

“Nor can the president act in an arbitrary manner…if he is shuts down this plant without a sense of law the federal courts will tie him in knots. I admit that Congress isn’t helpless since the Atomic Energy Commission takes orders from it. But, would you like to try to give a congressional committee a course in the mechanics of infinitesimals?”

You’ll have to read the story yourself in order to find out how this problem is resolved…all I will say is it involves blackmail and human ingenuity, not Congress…! (A perfect libertarian answer…!?! just kidding)

More to come in the next post and this time it will have something in it that’s actually about the moon!