Tony’s Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

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4/5

In a harsh dystopian America, women are stripped of all rights…

It’s scary how prophetic this story is. A coup overtakes America – most members of Congress are killed in a terrorist attack and the constitution is suspended. Fundamentalism takes over, a fundamentalism that regards women as nothing. The reduction of women to non-citizens is done by the simple process of checking their bank accounts. If it has an F in your gender field, your account is frozen. And who, these days, carries cash?

So women aren’t allowed to read; they aren’t allowed to drive; they aren’t allowed money; they must go with their bodies and hair completely covered. They are split into castes that denote their position by the colours of clothing they wear. Women don’t exist without a man to act as a proxy.

Does any of this sound like a Middle Eastern society? Interesting if it does, because the fundamentalists running America are Christian. The subject here isn’t religion; the subject is fundamentalism, the corruption of religion.

This dystopia has a deeper problem as well – a catastrophically falling birth rate. The most fertile women are shoved into the role of Handmaids – inseminators, for want of a better word (artificial insemination is deemed immoral). In a cold and clinical scene, we see the process through the eyes of the protagonist, physically stuck between a wife and her husband in a symbolic and utterly passionless union.

The story is told from first person, and we only have the un-named protagonist to guide us. And we know she’s an unreliable narrator, frequently recounting events and then back-tracking to tell us what really happened.

We never discover her name. She is merely “Offred”, literally “Of-Fred”, nothing more than the property of her male owner and an inseminator for his wife. (Since this is a complete patriarchy, men cannot be sterile; only women can be so imperfect.)

There are complications when the wife, hungry for a child, sets Offred up with the chauffeur, and the husband, breaking taboos, tries to get to know her (intimately) better. For his purposes or just to make Offred’s life easier, we never discover.

There are times when we feel Offred’s sanity start to slip, and we slide along with her, travelling through disjointed flashbacks – sometimes in the middle of a thought. It’s disquieting to feel like you know her so well and then feel her reason falling away.

Attwood has a beautiful descriptive style of writing, throwing in marvellous images that work brilliantly (“I walk along the gravel path that divides the lawn neatly, like a hair parting”). It’s a world, despite its grim nature, that the narrator sees in vivid colours – the reds of the Handmaids, the black of a car, the green of a dress. However, Attwood skips on the punctuation of dialogue except when it suits her, and it can take a few reads to figure it out sometimes.

It’s an engrossing story, and one well worth reading. It took me along for the ride and never dragged or lost my interest. It’s a story not just for feminists or women, but for anyone who thinks and reasons.

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Tony’s Review: The Giver

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3/5 – Spoilers throughout

When Jonas reaches the age of twelve, his career will be chosen for him, as it is for every twelve year old in the community where he lives. Some will become labourers, some mothers, some doctors.

Jonas is the reciever of memory – every memory in the history of the old world, passed on by his tutor, The Giver. The question is, what will he do with that knowledge?

This is a short book, only about two hundred pages, so it only took me a few hours to read. The premise, though an old one – Utopia with a dark heart – is unique in its width. The community (it’s never named) has pushed blandness to an art form. Even colour (somehow) and music are banned, for fear of the population going wild and rioting if they see a patch of green grass or hear some Mozart, or something. Sex is forbidden and love controlled with drugs. Procreation is moved to a rotating group of birthmothers (who are presumably inseminated artificially).

However, they have taken the smart move of delegating everything ever learned onto one person. Most Utopias seem determined to forget the past ever existed.

Early in the book, Jonas talks about elderly patients and miscreants being sent ‘Elsewhere’ and ‘being released’, and it was very obvious from the first references that this is a community that not so much enjoys euthanasia as revels in it; ‘sub-standard’ infants and the elderly all go through the procedure. So it’s no shock to witness it when it happens late in the book to a baby.

The technical aspects of this book – it’s all telling and no showing (“Jonas was angry”, not “Jonas clenched his fists”) – and the oddly stilted dialogue make this book feel like it was written in 1955, not 1993. The writing is at the level of a children’s book; this is not YA, people! Eleven year olds have moved on – you don’t need to spoon-feed them by telling and not showing.

On the other hand, that stilted approach works well in the community as presented – everyone is bland and two-dimensional as the colourless world where they live. But here’s the thing: For effect, that tell-not-show should have changed when Jonas began his lessons with The Giver. And it didn’t.

Because of that, I felt nothing for Jonas or anyone else. I didn’t connect to him because he remained so two-dimensional. He could have been given so much more depth, but he’s never given the chance before he’s running away from home.

Jonas is also very passive. His relationship with The Giver is there only for exposition. Instead of Jonas finding things out for himself, instead of him pushing the boundaries of his life, instead of him maturing into an adult, he asks and The Giver explains the world to him on a plate. Spoon-feeding again. So the hero in this book does nothing until the last twenty pages.

Let’s talk about those last twenty pages, which is when the book really starts to fall over. Jonas crests a hill, finds a sledge and slips through the snow. It’s the first memory The Giver passed on to him. I had the feeling that Lowry wanted some deep metaphorical ending, but it didn’t work for me; Jonas is obviously hallucinating, or already dead. So the passive hero who does nothing but flee dies at the end. Lovely.

I rated this three stars, but I hesitated between that and two. Lowry creates a solid world, and one that works, but the hero in it is bland, even when he has the chance to become much more. The only colour in the book comes from The Giver, and all he does is exposit.

For a better time with a Utopia with a dark heart, read Mel Cusick-Jones, “Hope’s Daughter” – teenagers who actually discover things for themselves.

Disappointing.

Guest Post…What, Exactly, is a Dystopian Book?

It has come to my attention, during my various adventures in writer and reader forums around the Internet, that lots people — even some authors — don’t actually know what a dystopian society is. It’s not really a big deal…until you start incorrectly marketing your work as something it’s not. It’s true that a lot of readers might not know the difference, but plenty of them will. The readers aren’t the ones who are going to look bad for not understanding the genre…you are. It’s time to find out just exactly what makes a dystopian book dystopian. Don’t assume you already know; you might be one of the people who made me sigh recently with a forum post.

Dystopian Society

 If you want to get technical about it, calling something “dystopian” isn’t altogether accurate anyway. More properly it ought to be referred to as a dystopian society, and that’s the first piece of really important information you need to know. Dystopian books and stories of all kinds are deeply rooted in the society itself; often, authors will present the readers with a world view of this society through the eyes of a main protagonist.
 What’s characteristic of a dystopian society? For starters, the people who live within it are being oppressed and usually wholly controlled by some sort of all-powerful government or collective. Control is the most important word here, and one of the defining characteristics of a dystopian society. In many cases, there are at least two distinct classes present in such stories: the people who are being controlled, and those who are doing the controlling. This type of society is also called anti-utopian, and the word itself is derived from the Greek word for “bad.”



Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic Societies

It seems to me, after wading through all the confused readers and writers on the forums (which shall not be named), that the big stumbling block in all this is post-apocalyptic societies. People who don’t fully understand the idea of a dystopian society seem to think that dystopian societies are identical to post-apocalyptic societies, that in fact the two go hand-in-hand. This is patently incorrect.
A post-apocalyptic society isn’t necessarily dystopian. In this type of society, some horrible event has occurred which has fundamentally changed the world on a global scale. Nuclear war, catastrophic weather events, alien invasion — take your pick. Often, a new society rises in this new world in place of the old society…but there’s no reason to presuppose that this new society is dystopian simply because the Apocalypse has occurred.

The Necessary Separation

I’m going to go ahead and blame lots of the current confusion on The Hunger Games, though let me add that I have nothing against Suzanne Collins or her work or her fans or anything else that has to do with her books. In The Hunger Games, a society which is both dystopian and post-apocalyptic is the setting for the events which take place. However, readers and writers should not take this to mean that all post-apocalyptic societies are dystopian, or vice versa.
I recently saw a list of “favorite dystopian movies” which included such films as Waterworld. This is not a correct classification of this film, based on my somewhat hazy memory and cursory research. As I understand it, the “bad guys” in this film are pirates…and not government officials. People are not being controlled. They’re just trying to figure out life on the water. Also on the list: The PostmanThe Book of Eli and Repo! The Genetic Opera. Two of these films are post-apocalyptic, and there is little to no mention of the government in them. One of these films is dystopian, but not post-apocalyptic.
Your Role as an Author
What do you look for if you want to know the difference? Control.Catastrophe marks post-apocalyptic stories; control marks dystopian stories. Knowing the difference is important if you’re going to write a story that’s one, the other, or both. If I go shopping for some all-hell-has-broken-loose post-apocalyptic fare and find a bunch of dystopian stories instead, I’m not just going to hate you as the writer who got it wrong.
I might hate all indies, because I might think that none of them have any idea what they’re talking about. So don’t be that guy. Know your business, know your genre, know your categories. Know what the heck you’re writing, and how to identify it. If you don’t identify it properly, you’re not going to like the way you get identified as an author hack. Never forget that the title author is absolutely necessary for the word authoritative. That is not a mistake.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 4th June 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are both available now! Read our review of Justice here.