The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood
308 pages
published in 1985

About a decade ago, when promoting her book Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said some dumb things while distancing it and herself from science fiction, insising it was “speculative fiction” (ironically a term invented by that most hardcore of sf writers, Robert Heinlein when he tried to make sf respectable half a century before Atwood) and being dismissive about “talking squid in space”. Science fiction fandom has a long history for (imagined) sleights and while Atwood has long since walked back her remarks, sf fans tend to still be a bit grumpy about it. Yet Atwood does have a point that she isn’t writing for science fiction readers and therefore her books shouldn’t be judged by science fiction standards.

Which is fair enough. If you read the Handmaid’s Tale it soon becomes clear that though it is science fiction, it’s science fiction in the dystopian tradition of Orwell and Huxley rather than in the tradition of e.g. Heinlein’s If This Goes On…, another story of religious oppression in a future America. That has flying cars and blaster guns and other sfnal paraphernalia though no space squid, while Atwood’s story is set in what are still recognisable eighties suburbs.

You get the impression that Atwood wanted to keep her setting as mundane as possible to enable her readers to take it seriously in a way they wouldn’t have been able with the Heinlein, because all that sf furniture would be in the way. Not that Atwood doesn’t sneak in some, actually quite a lot, of sfnal prediction, in her backstory of how the America of The Handmaid’s Tale came to be, but most of that is political and sociological rather than technological.

Dystopian fiction, even more so than science fiction in general, always shows the age it was written in, the specific dangers it warns against quickly becoming obsolete. This is true of the Handmaid’s Tale as well, rooted as it is in second wave feminism, the Iranian revolution against the Shah and the rise of the fundamentalist right in America in the early eighties. Atwood basically predicts a new moral crusade in America in which anti-porn feminists and christian fundamentalists join forces, after which a fundamentalist coup turns the US into a explicitly Christian dictatorship similar to real life Iran. Some of that backstory might seem quaint now, but the America Atwood created is still chilling, if only because there are still people out there whom would consider it an utopia.

Dystopias are supposed to be universal and timeless; “a boot stamping on a human face — forever” as Orwell put it. Every dystopia shares that same flaw, like their utopian counterparts of being outside history, in stasis. But The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t. It’s epilogue made clear that the Dominion of the US came to an end, that was part of a broader late 20th century trend towards gender repressive theocracies, along with countries e.g. Iran, quite possibly also an inspiration for Atwood in real life. That makes The Handmaid’s Tale so much more chilling than the perfect dystopia of 1984, because all the suffering shown in it is reduced to a presentation during an academic conference, of no great concern to the historians talking about it.

That callousness is much more frightening to me than imagining a future in which everybody is either victim or oppressor. It’s also shown in the main story, when the protagonist, Offred, encounters some Japanese tourists on a visit to Gilead, men and women both, to whom she’s no more than a curiosity, her clothing and status something exotic to tell the folks back home about. Their indifference, as that of the historians in the epilogue, more interested in who Offred may have been an handmaid to, is jarring when you spent the rest of the novel in Offred’s head. The epilogue shows she at least did get her story out in the end, even if few people cared.

I grew up in a fairly leftwing family, of a rather middleclass sort and that meant that my parents had a lot of magazines and books about various oppressive regimes around the house which I, as a verocious reader, read quite a lot of. Not to mention the books about domestic abuse and child abuse my father also brough home for his work, as a council civil servant working on these issues. The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of Offred, brought down so low we never learn her real name, only that she’s Of Fred, reminds me a lot of some of those stories told about e.g. women in Chile or South Africa.

And that’s the other and more important difference with If This Goes On…. Offred’s story is that of survival, of Illegitimi non carborundum, don’t let the bastards grind you down, of one woman’s attempt to stay true to herself even in the bleakest of oppression. Heinlein’s story on the other hand is the stirring tale of a second American revolution bringing an end to tyranny, largely through the efforts of one man.

That’s why The Handmaid’s Tale has stayed with me, whereas I’ve barely thought about If This Goes On… since I read it a few decades ago. Atwood’s story is so chilling because despite some of the zeerust in its future, it’s firmly rooted in the real world, even more so than classic dystopias like 1984. An unsettling book, but one any science fiction reader should read.

Half Life — SL Huang

Cover of THalf Life

Half Life
SL Huang
150 pages
published in 2014

SL Huang’s first novel, Zero Sum Game was a tightly plotted, fast paced technothriller, which I only got to know about because I’d been following her blog. The sequel to it I got to read because SL Huang offered a review copy, which is always appreciated. It’s actually the first time that any author has done this, so it’s a bit of new terrain for me as a reviewer. What about ethics in science fiction reviewing? No matter; I would’ve bought this anyway and getting a free book is nice, but had I not liked Half Life I would’ve said so too.

Now when we met Zero Sum Game Cas Russell was an amoral math savant making her living doing …retrieval… work for anybody who could pay. Thanks to the events of that novel she went from being bad at ordinary relationships and not worrying about it to being still bad at them but working on them. In Half Life she goes further; it can be best summed up as “Cas learns the value of friendship through the medium of extreme violence”. It all starts when she gets a somewhat particular retrieval mission, to rescue the daughter of Noah Warren, an ex-engineer laid off from Arkacite Technologies, who claims that they hold her for experiments. Cas is weirdly possessive about kids and even though she immediately notices during the rescue mission that Liliana isn’t a real girl, but an extremely advanced robot, that doesn’t stop Cas from wanting to protect her.

Meanwhile she has other problems as well. Checker, one of the people Cas sort of still has to realise who might just be a friend, is in trouble, having fooled around with the niece of the most powerful mafia matron in Los Angeles, who wants him dead. Cas interferes by putting herself in the way as a target, drawing the mob’s fire while looking for a way to get her and Checker out of it alive. As she’s used to, she doesn’t even tell Checker she’s doing so, prefering to work through her problems on her own.

And this is not the only thing she’s worried about. Cas still needs to make money and one quick and dirty way is suggested when somebody is rumoured to be in the market for plutonium, or rather plutonium powered batteries as used in deep space probes when they can’t rely on solar power. She sees an opportunity to get them from Arkacite Technologies while she’s rescuing Liliana, then sells them on to her contacts. That’s one easy problem solved.

The situation with Liliana gets from bad to worse though, as just as she’s negotiating with Arkacite to find some way to get both the company and Noah what they want, she gets an urgent message that a mob is tearing Liliana apart on television. This fortunately turns out to be a dobbelganger, but it does spell the rise of an anti robot hysteria as more advanced robots are “discovered” living as humans and as Cas discovers, some of those doing these discoveries are robots themselves. Somebody is playing a dangerous game, but why? And how can Cas keep Liliana, her father and her friends save when she herself is the target of the most ruthless mob in L.A.?

Zero Sum Game had been a fun technothriller romp with some hints towards greater things for Cas. In Half Life the plot is still as fast paced, but takes a bit of a backseat nonetheless to Cas’ own personal development. She’s so very earnest at living up to what her friends want her to be like, without necessarily understanding why for example Arthur, the detective ally turned friend from the previous novel, wants her to not kill people. But she tries and live up to it nevertheless. It’s endearing, occasionally bothering on the pathetic. You can’t help liking her as she tries to become more human.

I had a slight niggle in the middle of the story, when it seemed as if Cas was getting a bit too hemmed in by the expectations her, mostly male, friends put on her. There have been far too many stories with female protagonists being hamstrung that way, made less effective or dangerous than their male counterparts would’ve been. Huang however didn’t fall into that trap: Cas remains scarily competent, just not quite superhuman enough to solve all her problems on her own.

All in all Half Life is a worthy sequel to Zero Sum Game, with some of the worst of the latter’s movie script excesses considerably reigned in. Huang has clearly grown as a writer, is more confident in her voice. I’m looking forward to more of Cas’ adventures.

Monument — Lloyd Biggle

Cover of Monument

Lloyd Biggle
173 pages
published in 1974

It’s been a while since I’d read any of Lloyd Biggle’s novels; the last one had been The World Menders back in 2007. I’ve always liked his writing, quietly liberal and anti-colonialist in a way that few other science fiction authors of his generation were. His belief in the idea that “democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny” seemed especially apt during the darkest days of War Against Terror triumphalism. He is however, not a writer much read these days, having done the bulk of his writing in the sixties and seventies. He died relatively recently, in 2002, after a long illnes, having written only some six novels since the seventies.

Science fiction is often an imperialist, colonialist genre, in which it’s taken as natural or even desirable for there to be a galactic imperium to which newly discovered worlds should be gently or firmly — depending on the author’s preference — be persuaded to join. Sometimes this is dressed up as the need to avoid interstellar wars and even in stories with a Galactic Federation rather than an empire the need for newly discovered worlds to be assimilated is rarely questioned. Not so with Lloyd Biggle; several of his books question this mentality and Monument is one of them. Taken its lead from what was happening in e.g. Polynesia at the time, it’s an sfnal attack on ill considered economic development imposed from the outside.

It all starts with tramp scout Cern Obrien, who finally struck lucky when he found a deposit of retron crystals, essential for interstellar space travel. But before he could get it back to civilisation however he had to crashland on an uncharted planet, a planet that turned out to already be inhabited by the descendents of a long lost expedition. Though inhabitable by humans, the ecosystem is largely incompatible with human life, making agriculture and the like impossible. The only way they can subsist is on a diet of koluf, a large predatory marine animal, whose meat is edible only after a long purification process. That and a few roots and berries is all that can be eaten on the planet.

Nevertheless, though its inhabitants do live on the edge of starvation when a hunt is unsuccessfull, they live a largely happy and peaceful life. Especially after Obrien manages to introduce some improvements to their hunting techniques, bringing them into the bronze ages. As the Langri, their beloved hero, he lived a long and happy life but now coming to the end of it he worries about the inevitable contact with galactic civilisation. But luckily he has a plan and he spents the last years of his life teaching the natives it, especially his great grandson, Fornri and his helper, Dalla.

Sure enough, some time after his death, the planet, now christened Langri, is contacted and sure enough once it’s realised how desirable Langri is, plans are made to turn it into a tourist planet, something which would destroy the natives’ lifestyle. Any tourism would destroy the koluf population through pollution and hunting and doom the natives to starvation. But they’re not worried, they got the Plan their Langri left them and Fornri is determined to follow it to the letter, to the consternation of their allies among the galactics. It all ends well of course.

What’s so likeable about Monument is that it is a story with a villain, Wembling, but not an evil person, just somebody who lets his greed overwhelm him, who still thinks what he does will not only benefit himself but the natives too, ignoring any evidence to the contrary. Wembling’s not out to harm them, he just doesn’t understand why they oppose him. And while the Galactic Federation is corrupt in some ways and he’s able to use that corrupt, it’s not so corrupt that it doesn’t pay attention to the letter of the law. So the battle for the future of Langri is not only fought there, but also in the courtrooms.

Meanwhile the natives, including Fornri and Dalla, the leaders in charge of the Plan, aren’t just mindlessly executing it, but have their worries about it. At first everything goes all right, following Obrien’s scheme for how to deal with the scout ships that discovered them, but as the plans to introduce tourism firm up and they’re defeated again and again trying to stop it using the courts, doubt creeps in. And their allies especially, which include Wembling’s niece, who does have the best interests of the natives in mind, but who let’s herself be bought off by Wembling buying a medical clinic for her.

In a novel of less than two hundred pages much of the action is of course only sketched out and the way in which the Plan manoeuvres the natives to victory is a little bit simplistic, perhaps, in what we see of it. There’s also a bit of naivety in the essential good will of the federation; there are plenty of real world examples to show that if natives get in the way of progress and profit, violence, official or otherwise, is not uncommon. But those are quibbles. Because what Biggle is trying to show is that even with the best of intentions, good people can make mistakes that decimate a world.

A larger criticism you can have of Monument is that at no time does the planet feel bigger than a Polynesian island. The natives measure at most a few thousand, all villages seem to be in walking distance and climate wise the whole planet is described as having the same mild, semi-tropical climate. Again though, while not realistic, it fits in with the kind of story Biggle is trying to tell in the room he has for it. Making the planet more realistic would’ve only needlessly complicated the story.

In the end, Monument is a feel good novel tackling an important, contemporary issue. It’s relevant in the best sense of the word as well as a nice romp to read. A good example of why Lloyd Biggle is one of my personal Golden Age authors.

My favourite books of 2014

As always I will do a post looking at the statistics of my reading habits this year in early January, over at Wis[s]e Words, but for now I’d like to lift out the books that stood out the most for me in 2014, in no particular order.

Cover of The Martian

The Martian was one of the books with a lot of buzz behind it this year. Originally self published in 2011, it was picked up by a mainstream publisher (Random House) and rereleased with some alterations. It’s, with one exeception, the most heartland science fiction novel I’ve read this year, set smack in the heart of the genre. There have been other novels about astronauts losts on Mars before, other Robisonades. but the ones I’ve read tended to be dull and badly written. The Martian is the first one that had the same excitement as Robinson Crusoe offered in finding clever solutions to how to survive a hostile climate, but without devolving into wish fullfilment like the latter part of Crusoe did. Weir also doesn’t fall into the trap of making his stranded astronaut a Heinleinesque superman able to save himself entirely true his own efforts; instead it does take the full resources of NASA to save him.

Cover of Ter Ziele

In August I went to my first Worldcon, in London, which left me buzzing with excitement and a renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy fandom. It also spurred me on to get back into reading Dutch language fantastika, so I started off following various Dutch SFF people on Twitter, as you do. It was thanks to this that I got to know about Esther Scherpenisse’s Ter Ziele, a chapbook collection of two short novellas. The first story in particular hit me, dealing as it does with death, grief and letting go. It’s no surprise it won the main Dutch prize for science fiction/fantasy, the Paul Harlandprijs. I hope Esther Scherpenisse will write and publish more before long.

Cover of Ancillary Sword

Ann leckie’s Ancillary Justice was one of the best if not the best science fiction novels I’d read last year, so my expectations for the sequel, Ancillary Sword were high. Leckie didn’t disappoint me. Paradoxically it both took place on a smaller stage than the previous novel and concerned itself with bigger matters. Most of Ancillary Justice revolved around Breq’s struggle to come to grips with her own identity and her quest for vengeance, her inner turmoil, but Ancillary Sword has those struggles if not entirely resolved, so much so that she’s in full control here. And whereas the focus of the original novel, thanks to its novel use of pronouns, was mainly on gender, here it is on the impact of colonialism, something science fiction as a genre direly needs to come to grips with. Too often after all it views things from the perspective of empire, rather than its victims; Leckie firmly reverses this.

Cover of Otherbound

Corinne Duyvis is another Dutch SFF writer, but one who writes in English. Otherbound is her début novel, a young adult fantasy. What sets it apart from the hundreds of other young adult fantasies are several things. First, there’s the ingenious concept of the protagonist, Nolan, being forced to live somebody else’s life, see through a stranger’s eyes, every time he closes his. Second, Duyvis makes this into a disability more than a superpower. If every time you blink you see through somebody else’s eyes, it’s bound to distract you from the real world. And that has consequences. It’s not the only way Otherbound deals with disability; all three main characters are bound together by their disabilities, their lives interwoven because of it. Third, she has also seriously thought about the consent issues of being able to share someone’s life so intimately. And she manages to do all this and write a gripping adventure story too.

Cover of The Mirror Empire

I read Hurley’s first novel, Gods War, last year and that had been a good if flawed novel. The Mirror Empire is a cut above it. Hurley’s first venture into fantasy, it’s one of the novels, with Otherbound and Ancillary Sword that immediately made it on my Hugo shortlist for next year. In some ways it is a traditional epic fantasy, complete with a Big Bad that needs to be defeated, but what makes it special is its worldbuilding. The world of The Mirror Empire is one of the more fully realised, interesting and novel I’ve read in a long time and she manages it without “the great clomping foot of nerdism” stomping down on the story. Hurley supported The Mirror Empire with a promotional blog tour which is also worth reading to learn more about the background to which it was written and which explains some of her choices.

Cover of The Steerswoman
The Steerswoman series I knew about from other fans raving about it since the mid-nineties at the very least, but I never encountered the books in the wild, until James Nicoll linked to Rosemary Kirstein’s post offering the ebooks for sale. So inbetween walking from one panel to another at Loncon3, I bought the entire series. I was glad I did. What at a first glance looks like fantasy and starts out feeling like a standard if well written fantasy quest story, morphs gradually into the hardest science fiction series I’ve ever written. Because what you have here is a woman finding out the truth about the world she lives in through deduction and induction, through doing thought experiments and practical confirmation of them, without ever cheating, without being fed clues by better informed characters, without using magical technology or jumping to conclusions she shouldn’t be able to make. It’s a brilliant series too little known because for various reasons it took Kirstein over three decades to write the first four books of it and it’s still not finished. But don’t let that stop you: each book stands on its own and each is better than the last.

Cover of Dhalgren

Question: what are the two places man will never reach? Answer: the heart of the sun and page 100 of Dhalgren. An old joke, but one that indicates Dhalgren‘s reputation as a difficult book. Which didn’t stop it from being one of science fiction’s first runaway bestsellers. Personally I didn’t find it that difficult to read, just long, because I just let myself flow along Delany’s narrative. If you go looking for a proper, standard sf, story, you won’t find it here. But it is about cities and independence and queerness and the gloriousness of our bodies, ourselves and all sorts of weird seventies shit. This is one of those books that are hard to review or recap, require some investment of time and effort to get the most out of it, but do reward you if you do so. Delany is such a good writer that I wouldn’t mind reading his interpretation of the Manhattan phonebook, as long as he keeps off the booger sex.

Cover of Lagoon

I also read Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death this year, but Lagoon was the better book, another Hugo candidate for me. Written out of frustration with the South African sf movie District 9, this is her version of an alien invasion, set in Lagos, Nigeria. That setting already sets it apart from the ordinary run of invasion stories, usually set in the States or sometimes Europe. But there’s also Okorafor’s unapologetic use of Nigerian English rather than “standard” English. For somebody like me not used to it, this made it slightly more difficult to read at times, but no more so than when some fantasy writer has put made up Elfish words in his fantasy. Then there’s the genre breaking Okorafor cheerfully commits here as well, as one chapter frex is told from the perspective of a spider trying to cross a tarmac road, a self aware and evil tarmac road looking for new victims to devour…

Cover of Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game is S L Huang’s début novel, a fast paced technothriller, which I only discovered because of her post about last year’s SFWA controversies. That got me reading her blog, curious for her novel, so I bought it when it came out. What I most liked about the book was its heroine, Cas Russell, a math savant who can e.g. calculate the paths of a stream of bullets shot out by a semi-automatic in realtime quickly enough to dodge them all. If you think too much about this power it gets ridiculous, but Huang moves the action quickly enough to not give you the chance to do so. Cas is also, as becomes clear quickly, somewhat of a damaged individual, somebody with no sense of morality but not a sociopath, who has to rely on other people’s sense of what’s right and wrong, which doesn’t always end up well. Currently I’m reading the sequel, Half Life, coming out soon. Expect a review in early January.

Cover of Ascension

Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension was a book I completely discovered by accident, on the sales rack of my favourite Amsterdam bookstore. What pulled me to it was the woman on the cover, as black women don’t often feature on sf covers, not even when they are the protagonist. And it turned out this was the protagonist, a lesbian, disabled woman of colour working as a starship engineer in a dead end job in the middle of a depression caused by a new technology that makes starships almost obsolete. This is a book about sibling rivalry, love, both romantically and otherwise and the difficulties of living true to your own life when you’re poor and almost powerless. It’s also about making choices and having the courage to stand behind them. It’s a brilliant novel, one that should’ve been a contender for the Hugo and Nebula Awards together with Ancillary Justice, but which sadly didn’t get the buzz that book got.

Cover of The Blue Place

Finally, I need to mention two of the books I found the hardest to read this year, Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place and Stay, the first two novels in a crime thriller trilogy. What made it hard for me was that these books revolved around a death, a death I saw coming throughout The Blue Place and hoping Griffith would find a way to avoid it, while Stay deals with the fallout with that murder. The grief and sorrow in the latter were so real that I had to set it aside the first time I read it, in August, because it reminded me too much of my own loss, the death of my wife three years ago. But if it was hgard for me to read, it was harder for Nicola Griffith to write, twelve years after her little sister died, with her older sister dying through it. It’s no wonder it caught grief and sorrow so well.

Other books I could mention here as well: Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen, for me another Hugo candidate. Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Great, an enthusiastic anthology of book reviews. Fly by Wire, William Langewiesche’s great explenation of just why captain Sullenberger could put down his Airbus 320 down safely on the Hudson after being hit by a goose. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar and Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, both read for the John Campbell Award, both very good in their own way fantasy stories. Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever a great near future technothriller romp. Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots/The Multiverse: maniac superhero fanfic that hits all the feels. Aliette de Bodard’s On a Red Station Drifting: family orientated flawed but interesting space opera. N. K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology: Egyptian inspired, but not derivative fantasy. Richard Penn’s The Dark Colony: a near future, non cheating hard science fiction police procedural set in the Solar System. Oh, and of course there’s all the Norton I read this year, none of which disappointed.

Het Laatste Verhaal — Guido Eekhaut

Cover of Het Laatste Verhaal

Het Laatste Verhaal
Guido Eekhaut
332 pages
published in 2011

The problem with doing review projects, like getting myself back to speed with Dutch language science fiction and fantasy, is that it can lead you to read and finish books you’d normally put aside long before. Such is the case with Het Laatste Verhaal (The Last Story) which I thought was going to be some sort of cyberpunk story but turned out quite different. It also didn’t elp that this turned out to be part of a loose series, something I only noticed once I started reading the novel.

Basically Het Laatste Verhaal is set in a world which had what’s assumed to be an alien visitation in the 1800s and those Bezoekers (Visitors) have been shaping human history ever since. Tall, pale and white haired the Visitors resemble nothing so much as vampires, but nobody calls them that to their face. In the near future Flemish Republic of 2019, they hold most of the power behind the screens, with democracy just a sham to placate those few still bothered by politics among the citizens, while the once strong unions also lead a kabuki existence, there because the all powerful companies sometimes need a trustworthy advisary. For those unable or unwilling to keep citizen status, there are the streets. Matthias is one of those, fled the safety and comfort of his father’s house to live a precarious existence outside the system.

Meanwhile, sometime in the future the entire world is ruled by what seems to be a new Japanese Empire, one that for all the splendour and decadence at court is destroying itself from the inside. Lady Kiyo, Imperial Storyteller was once part of a failed rebellion and now has infiltrated the court in an assassination attempt. At least that’s what her co-conspirators think, but she just wants to tell the emperor the real truth about his empire.

There’s another secret Kiyo’s hiding. During one of the last battles of the failed revolt against the empire, a Visitor was killed and Kiyo stole the sword he was carrying. This is a sword that can cut anything, doesn’t just slide through steel if it wasn’t there, but is so sharp it can cut holes between worlds.

Which is how Kiyo finds herself in Matthias’ Flanders, just in time to save him and his friend from a beatdown by a skinhead gang. It turns out quickly that her version of history and his don’t match up, but they don’t have much time to wonder about it, as the skinhead gang is still after them and worse, so are the Visitors, wanting their sword back…

Meanwhile there are a couple of other storythreads, one about one of the up and coming managers of one of the vistor owned companies plotting his way to the top, the other about probably the last union leader in Flanders still driven by ideology and concern for the workers, rather than his own career. These sort of weave in and out of the main plot, without contributing much to the story.

In general this is a very male book, with only two significant female characters, one of whom dies quickly to show the seriousness of the skinhead threat. Lady Kiyo is interesting, a peasant girl turned revolution leader turned storyteller, but Matthias is a bit dull, as is the neoliberal Republic of Flanders, which makes little sense especially since it’s set in 2019, too soon for all those changes, though there are hints that this too is an alternate history.

Guido Eekhaut certainly isn’t a bad writer, on a nuts and bolts level, but this novel was a disappointment nonetheless: confusing, meandering and without a real ending. It felt like the middle volume of an unfinished trilogy. A pity.