I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I was studying for my A-levels. It wasn’t actually my A-level book (though that’s how many of us first read it), but my A-level set text was a novel about incest in the Fens and I had serious book envy from the groups studying what I had heard was a (gasp) feminist science-fiction novel.
When I read The Handmaid’s Tale first it seemed like an imaginative, outlandish nightmare of a future in which the means of (baby) production had been very much seized from women. It seemed like a fever-dream of all the worst things that could possibly have happened to or for women. For me, it was a kind of apocalypse novel, a worst-case scenario, post-nuclear-winter, end-of-the-world.
Now, it feels like a prophesy.
It’s rare that science fiction novels feel more relevant as time goes on. Perhaps it’s me, and the things that have changed in my life since then. Certainly, at first reading, to my mind I existed in that blissful just-post-90s haze when it felt like all the big battles had been won and everything else would fall into place for women. Feminism was a dubious term, and one that I would not admit to in public – not because I thought it was bad, but it just felt too political.
Now, either the world has changed or (more likely) I have, and The Handmaid’s Tale feels like it could be five years away from now. Hulu’s (excellent – oh my god watch it right now) adaptation moves everything seamlessly to a very immediate context. Like The Heart Goes Last , this is a book written before President Trump that seems somehow nonetheless to anticipate a worst-case yet nonetheless believable scenario.
But more than that, it feels so important in the current political climate. A climate in which the stars and producers of the new Hulu series are hesitant to call it a feminist piece. To “admit” to feminism. Oddly enough, what the show does so well is to represent a climate of terrified complicity. The women all lose their jobs. The men commiserate quietly but do nothing. A woman is blamed for her own rape, and the other women point and chant “your fault”.
If you haven’t watched it, watch now. If you’ve read the book, read it again. I’m not saying we’re going to wake up to something like this tomorrow, but things slide out of control when inertia sets in. The Handmaid’s Tale warned of this in 1985, and yet somehow its lessons seem more relevant and prescient thirty years later. Surely, that can’t be good.