by Grant Cousineau
Remember in 2015 when we all took a moment to decide whether or not we’d reached Back to the Future II status? All things considered, we didn’t end up too far off. While we didn’t get flying cars or fax machines in every room, 2015 did bring us video calls, wearable technology, and news updated in real time. (And somehow, it was only a year off in predicting the Cubs would break their World Series curse. Not bad, Robert Zemeckis.)
Speculative fiction rarely becomes reality, but while predicting the future can be fun, the whole idea is less about getting it right and more about warning us about what might go wrong. It’s a way for the artist to say, “If we aren’t cautious, this is where we might end up.”
This was in the back of my mind as I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale, the classic dystopian novel by author and friend-of-UntitledTown Margaret Atwood. Next year marks thirty-five years since its publication, and while I doubt Atwood believed the complete subjugation of women was the most likely of scenarios, I also believe she didn’t think it was an impossible future, either.
I believed this because of something she said in the promo video for her online MasterClass creative writing course. “Nothing had went into it that had not happened in real life, somewhere at some time,” Atwood said about the events in The Handmaid’s Tale. “I didn’t make them up.”
The story is about an anti-feminist future where an archaic religious sect called the “Sons of Jacob,” fueled by full-throttle Old Testament beliefs, have turned America into the Republic of Gilead. Women are stripped of their free will and made into possessions of men, arranged for marriage, and forced to bear children and to serve as submissive wives, oppressed servants, or spies working on behalf of the military. Even the wives are relegated to lives of despair, devoid of purpose. Capital punishment keeps everyone in line where penalties range from the severing of limbs to public lynching.
The whole concept is a reversal of traditional speculative fiction: rather than inventing a future, Atwood imagines one built upon the worst parts of our past, extended out into nightmares. It was inspired both by the 1970s rise of the Christian right, as well as the seventeenth century woman accused of witchcraft, Mary “Half-Hanged Mary” Webster. Atwood describes it as “a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusion.”
Speculative fiction ages differently than other kinds of stories. Over time, they become a barometer of progress – did humanity manage to avert the author’s warnings? Take George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, the universal SOS against totalitarianism. It’s no coincidence that sales of Orwell’s novel climb every time another world leader exercises overreach, spreads propaganda, illegally detains citizens, or gaslights the public into ignoring the truth.
You could argue the #MeToo movement was a sign of feminist progress, as was the first female candidate for President of the United States, but true gender equality is still just a figment of our imagination. Women still earn far less despite being more educated. Men write most of the laws concerning a woman’s reproductive rights, which is hardly surprising considering that women only make up 23% of the U.S. House of Representatives, 25% of the U.S Senate, and 5% of the CEOs in S&P 500 companies. The Handmaid’s Tale represents a history of injustice we’ve convinced ourselves was eradicated long ago, despite the evidence.
Doc Brown’s time machine was meant to be nothing more than a scientific experiment, but inevitably, like all time machines, it warned us what might happen if we don’t learn from our past. Many aspects of the Republic of Gilead still haunt us today, lingering in the darkest corners of the world. Should war, climate change, or some other devastation unravel the current social constructs, we might find The Handmaid’s Tale right on our doorstep. As the novel’s final lines forewarn:
“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”