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Review of Feminist SF: Mainstream Invaders (Part 2 of 2)

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, Fawcett Crest, 1989, 395 pp. (originally published in 1985)

Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale, has become quite famous, and justly so. The book is a strong, moving work, with nothing in the way of phony sentimentality. Atwood's assumptions and extrapolations can be somewhat dated, speaking as they do from an early 1980s perspective (not to say that life here on the edge of the next millennium is qualitatively different or better). But I think that Atwood's writing is particularly vital, overcoming many flaws in structure and assumption. Atwood makes the main character of the book live in our minds, in a way that is the best argument against the kind of society that can be found in The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood also uses language, and the main character's preoccupation with language, to nice effect, making the case that this book itself is a blow struck against the Republic of Gilead (that is, its possible appearance in our future). The question of genre isn't one often applied to Atwood -- she's a "mainstream writer," and few have cared to categorize her as a science fiction writer for this one book. And perhaps The Handmaid's Tale has more in common with books like Brave New World and 1984, two works that have been equally claimed by science fiction and the mainstream, famous in both, and widely recognized in the mainstream the way many comparable novels, filed away as science fiction, are not. I will return to the matter of genre divisions in various contexts in this column.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Does that sound ominous? It should. Fertility has declined in our future, and the official response of Gilead has been to blame women. Offred lives a life of enforced idleness because her ovaries are fertile. Too bad that no one has checked the fertility of the man with whom she is forced to have sex, the Commander. It's also unfortunate that the Commander's wife is unimpressed with this whole deal (perhaps understandably so), and more unfortunate that she blames Offred. Offred gets involved with a resistance movement (or is it resistance?) and also becomes more involved with the Commander, who takes her to the secret luxury spots of the high officials of the Republic. The ending seems abrupt, for all that Offred has no perceptible betterment in her life.

However, a skeleton plot description hardly does the book justice. Offred is a fully realized character in a way that very few novels actually achieve. Despite, or perhaps because of her repressed position in life, Offred has a rich thought life, and the novel reads like a beautifully composed internal monologue. For example, at one point she calls to mind an old TV program in which she had seen an interview with the mistress of a death camp commander in "one of those wars" (187). Offred ponders: "What could she have been thinking about? Not much, I guess; not back then, not at the time. She was thinking about how not to think" (188). This lack of perception is perhaps the cardinal sin in Offred's view. Later in the book, she is recalling the change in her relationship with her husband Luke when the first repressive rules were enforced: "...something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll... He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his" (236). These reactions on the part of Offred are intensely felt and intensely described. By the nature of the first person narration, we only get Offred's point of view, and the other characters are often sketchy, such as Luke himself. The Commander has only one human moment (fittingly, at the ending, when he realizes what the events might mean for his career), and the Commander's wife is strictly a shrill bitch, blaming Offred and continuing a meaningless existence. Offred's acquaintances -- it's hard to call them friends when they have no control over their circumstances -- come and go under the paranoid pressures of a totalitarian society.

Offred lives in a society obsessed with control, and with the fecundity of the female body. The fact that no one checks the fertility of the men is Atwood's way of pointing out the absurdity of most constructed sexual roles, as well as a comment about double standards -- several orders of magnitude worse in Gilead than in our society, but still the same idea. Just like 1984, The Handmaid's Tale is about the now, Atwood's now at the time of writing in the early 1980s, with the defeat of the ERA and the general sense of regression that feminists at the time felt. Have we progressed in our society? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think that any righteousness on the part of our society would be false and alarming. Atwood's warning should be taken quite seriously.

Which leads to the question -- would society really develop this way if fertility rates drop drastically? I would certainly hope not, and as a male myself, I feel a little left out by the categories of male-ness offered by the book (to put it kindly). Interestingly, when Atwood finally gets around to explaining the events that led to the establishment of the Republic of Gilead (page 225 in my edition), the chilling bit of future history demonstrates the way in which a certain political authoritarianism uses the suppression of women in terms of its own pursuit of power. This begs the question: is equality between men and women a similarly constructed idea? This is perhaps the case, but my answer is simple. Who cares if equality is a fabricated idea; any notion is constructed. In the end, The Handmaid's Tale stands as warning to pick the foundations of how we imagine our society very carefully.

The Handmaid's Tale, written by Harold Pinter from the novel by Margaret Atwood, directed by Volker Schlondorff, 1990, 110 min.

The names associated with this film are quite imposing. Harold Pinter is a famous playwright, and Volker Schlondorff directed The Tin Drum, which is based on the novel by Gunter Grass (who recently won the Nobel Prize for his writing). Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, and Faye Dunaway play the roles of the main characters. With all these credentials, and the accumulated experience of these people, you might think that a powerful novel like The Handmaid's Tale would be a fabulous success as a movie. So what happened? Why did I watch the movie version with no sense of being engrossed, entertained, enlightened, or even shocked by the subject matter? On the whole, the film is a faithful adaptation of the book (with one particularly fatal flaw, which I will discuss later), and the acting was competent, if not entirely enthralling. I must say that I noticed many similarities in my response to this film to the 1984 version of 1984 -- the film-makers put in a great deal of effort in both cases, but what was gripping and effortless on the page simply does not translate well to the big screen.

The plot of The Handmaid's Tale proceeds much as in the novel. Offred is a young woman living in the Republic of Gilead. She is a Handmaid, forced to have sex with the Commander because she is fertile in a society suffering from rampant infertility. After various adventures with the Commander, she gets increasingly fed up with her existence and takes some drastic steps to remedy the problems in her life. Unfortunately, the plot was by no means the main charm of the book; instead, the book captures interest and sympathy with its central character of Offred and her internal ruminations. In order to convey similar depth of contemplation, a movie would have to employ a voice-over (which succeeds in very few instances) or utilize top-notch acting in service of a skilful script. No such successful devices are used here.

Worse, the final ambiguity of the book is destroyed in a bloodthirsty movie climax, stereotypically bloody. Would killing the Commander and setting off bombs change anything? No, not in the least. The movie recognizes this, with a TV clip about how much more brutal the "police" are going to be after a bombing of this kind. How to argue with a totalitarian society? There doesn't seem to be much of an answer to that question. The book ends with an academic look back at the Republic of Gilead hundreds of years later, a device, with its vast perspective and the way it shrinks any violent act into triviality, that is obviously not going to wrap up loose ends in the way that this movie version wants to have them wrapped. The compromise deployed here in the stead of this vast perspective is rather dreadful. If only women would rise up, kitchen knives in hand, against their tyrannical masters, then the Republic of Gilead would crumble. Atwood rightly portrays the same depths of anger against tyranny, but in an artful, more subtle way. This distinction could probably best describe the difference between the book and the movie.

Shikasta, Doris Lessing, Granada, 1985, 448 pp. (originally published in 1979)

Note: The full title of this book is: Canopus in Argos: Archives; Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta; Personal Psychological Historical Documents Relating to Visit by Johor (George Sherban): Emissary (Grade 9), 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days.

Lessing is doing her best here to remedy the worst ills of our civilization, in her own high-minded literary way. That might explain the high level of didacticism, and the resulting boredom on my part, during the first half of Shikasta. The opening sections of the book pioneer a fragmented style that continues throughout the book (and which I will discuss in relation to the main character), which is interesting and impressive in a technical sense. Unfortunately, the content of these early sections is unsatisfactory, and at the very best, tough slogging. The later sections of the book pick up quite a bit of vigour and interest, as Johor of the title becomes George Sherban and gets involved in events on Shikasta. Previous to that, he and his galactic civilization of Canopus often pontificated about the bad state of affairs on Shikasta. It's not much of a surprise when we find out that Shikasta is indeed our own planet. Shikasta has a grand sense of perspective, and I enjoyed the particular aspect of the book where we humans are set in context against a vaster scale of civilization and right-thinking.

However, as it turns out, Canopean civilization is so perfect that the 20th century on Earth is one of the worst things they know. How horrible is our century? The most appalling thing we know, by far. There have been a myriad of explanations, none of them quite convincing, advanced for the genocide and mass slaughter that have characterized the last 100 years of human history. Lessing's explanation in Shikasta is absurd and reductionist at the same time as it is profoundly idealistic (and I will discuss this in a moment).

Insofar as the book has a plot, it deals with the reasons for Shikasta's history and it goes something like this. The ancient civilization of Canopus is trying encourage -- both genetically and intellectually -- a new culture on the planet of Shikasta. Johor is sent as an emissary to this planet when things start to go wrong. Shikasta loses the mystical, beneficial contact with Canopus (which has been causing the uplift) due to the actions of Shammat, Canopus' ancient adversary. Things go rapidly downhill, to the point where, thousands of years later, humans are slaughtering each other in massive numbers. Johor is sent once again, this time in the form of a human named George Sherban, in order to relieve some of the tensions on the planet. This does not succeed; but thank goodness for World War III, as that clears up all the problems.

What does this mean? The mystical contact between Canopus and Shikasta is called SOWF, which means substance-of-we-feeling. When the SOWF flows from Canopus to Shikasta, humans are more humane; in the over-crowded 20th century, there's not enough SOWF to go around, so the survivors of WWIII have plenty of it. SOWF is an interesting concretization of the metaphor of community connectedness -- Lessing's idealist angle -- but it's an odd basis on which to construct a utopia. This is especially the case since Shammat, Canopus' enemy, is harvesting all of the malevolent emanations, and creating discord for that purpose. Much of the didacticism of Shikasta is the end result of this absolute division between Canopus and Shammat. Shammat becomes an amorphous category set aside for scorn and demonization, and what's more, responsible for any bad behaviour on the part of humans, just as the Canopean SOWF makes humans act sensibly and ethically. When the lines are this clearly drawn, and the entire grey scale of human behaviour eliminated, it's easy to fall into pedantic patterns of arguing and writing.

Johor is the main character of the novel, and Lessing creates a generally fascinating portrait of him out of the fractured bits and pieces that distinguishes Shikasta like much of modern fiction. Shikasta reminded me a great deal of Skvorecky's Dvorak in Love (which had a superior title in its original Czech, Scherzo Capriccioso, as the book was less about Dvorak than about a group of people and circumstances). Shikasta's structure also reminded me of something as ambitious (and ungenre-like) as Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, perhaps the extreme example of a fractured storytelling style. Unfortunately for Lessing, both of these examples that sprang to my mind were composed of much more interesting fragments.

However, I do like the way Johor jumps into his situation, with little in the way of explanation. Things like the exact nature of Zone Six are sometimes difficult to puzzle out, which I enjoyed. Instead of explanations of the main character's situation, Lessing embarks on massive retellings of history, of mild interest only because of Johor's slant on them, which is usually apparent within a few sentences. Johor's infinite lifespan (insofar as I understood it, although he is distinguished from humans because of his awareness of previous incarnations and control over future ones) gives an appropriate perspective that might justify all of the fragments and their information overload. Lessing is breaking the famous dictum of writing -- show, don't tell -- and I must add that I generally resist such truisms with all my being. Lessing obviously understands the rules that she is breaking, but I will say that the approach did not work very well in this case. I only wanted to continue reading the series by the very last few pages of the book, and this might be partially attributed to a morbid desire to see if the series improves.

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy, Fawcett Crest, 1983, 381 pp. (originally published in 1976)

Piercy is perhaps most famous for one thing: rage. And based on my experience of Piercy's poetry, I was expecting her novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, to be pure distilled rage despite the vaster scope. While many aspects of the book fulfilled my expectations, the novel as a whole is disappointing and a little frustrating. Woman on the Edge of Time is divided into two halves, structurally speaking, one half set in the present day and the remaining half, intertwined throughout, tells of events in the future. The storyline in the present is memorably told, sharp and observant, and quite horrifying. Unfortunately, the other half, set in the future, could have used more dramatic interest. Or any kind of dramatic interest at all. As with some of Piercy's later novels, like He, She, and It, this book manages the dual storylines with aplomb, but a book needs more than technical expertise to be successful. The constant comparison between the emotionally disturbing material in the present and the lacklustre material of the future only highlighted this flaw while I was reading.

Connie is a woman down on her luck. Feeling old and tired, she has been recently released from an insane asylum and does not have much in the way of employment prospects. After trying to protect her niece from a savage beating, Connie gets committed once again to the asylum (the criminal discredits Connieís testimony by depicting her as insane). Much of the power of Piercy's novel comes from the searing portrayal of the asylum. And it's no picnic, and Robin Williams does not come waltzing through, singing Broadway show tunes: this is hell, pure and simple. The regime for the "insane" is shown in grinding detail, with all of the inmatesí futile rage against the system.

As she is coping with this dreadful turn of affairs, Connie is experiencing visions of the future. Specifically, visitations by a person by the name of Luciente, visitations which Connie eventually comes to accept as real. Luciente lives in a utopia, where gender is not a source of inequality, along with a number of other welcome innovations. Piercy's utopia is interesting, if not particularly compelling: the humans of Luciente's society don't ring true because they are in no way perverse. They always know what's good for them. They work things out. And why? Because of the way that their society is constructed. Believable? Maybe. Piercy seems to put society first, implying that notions of inherent evil and so forth are distinctly wrong. Whether Piercy is right is certainly debatable; dramatically speaking, this makes the people in a perfect society utterly boring and righteous. This type of utopia is highly reminiscent of Gilman's Herland. Herland might have been even less nuanced than Piercy's vision here, but at least it was much shorter and didn't bore the reader. Woman on the Edge of Time is also reminiscent of Robinson's Pacific Edge, another book which is superior to Piercy's because of its use of human drama to demonstrate the utopia.

As we find out about the future, we also see that Piercy has a peculiar manner of arguing. She sets up a dichotomy between two ideas, a dichotomy which seems persuasive but is in fact loaded with questionable assumptions. For example, here is part of her argument against electroshock therapy: "A little brain damage to jolt you into behaving right. Sometimes a woman forgot what had scared her, what she had been worrying about. Sometimes a woman was finally more scared of being burned in the head again, and she went home to her family and did the dishes and cleaned the house" (81). What does this mean? I agree with Piercy that electroshock therapy is a bad thing, but as a metaphor for the coercive, domesticating pressures of society on women, itís a deceptive way of making a point. Full of rage, yes, but perhaps not fully convincing.

However, Piercy does make some interesting observations in the feminist vein. For example, when Connie first meets Luciente, she mistakes Luciente for a man. Why? Piercy implies that most of the markers of femininity, as understood by Connie, the stand-in for the twentieth century, indicate subservience and lack of self-will. Luciente, self-confident and unafraid, naturally seems like a man to Connie. But there's more. At one point, Luciente explains the families of the future to Connie:

"'It was all part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers.'" (105).

Not the same rallying cry that all feminists would use. And in one sense, Piercy is subscribing to the old biology as destiny argument. Gender as essentialism; remove the differences to create equality. In terms of the old debate, it's a new twist that is indeed thought provoking.

Is Woman on the Edge of Time science fiction? Yes, it falls into the classic subgenre of the field, the dissertation on a possible utopia. In this case, Piercy provides a mix of today's dystopia with tomorrow's utopia. Piercy makes many astute sociological observations, both in Connie's present and Luciente's future, much in the same way that writers like Le Guin convey insightful things to us. However, the book has the faintest hint of the most dreaded type of ending (it was all a dream!), which horrifies me quite frankly. This might not necessarily invalidate the book as science fiction, but it certainly lowers it in my estimation. This style of ending does possess some irony in this case -- Connie is in the insane asylum because she has visions of a civilization far saner than ours -- but I would have preferred that the book stayed faithful to what rage it does have.

Empire of the Senseless, Kathy Acker, Grove, 1988, 227 pp.

Acker deliberately sets out to offend 95% of her potential audience. Disgust, lust, graphic details, profanity, along with a fragmented storyline that puts Lessing's Shikasta to shame. Strangely, Acker ends the book with a vision that would leave her nothing to write about. To wit: "And then I thought that, one day, maybe, there'ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn't just disgust" (227). In general, I had the feeling that the last third of the novel petered out in terms of vigour and relevance. It begs the question: how do you wind down a non-standard narrative? When writing a typical storyline, the options for an ending are clear: a marriage will do fine, or the main character dying a horrible death if it's a tragedy. But any book like this one by Acker is a different matter altogether. The complete lack of conventional plot and character indicators also makes it much more difficult to decide exactly what Empire of the Senseless might mean. Is it only an assault on the senses, shock value for its own sake? Partly so, yes.

Empire of the Senseless has little in the way of plot. The two main characters, Abhor and Thivai, recall various events in their past. Paris is taken over by Algerian terrorists. The last third of the book is taken up by a long sequence where Abhor and Thivai roam about on the river, followed by a segment with Abhor in prison. These last sections were easily the worst in the novel, and didnít measure up to the impact or the vivid style of the earlier sections. The characters are still opaque to my mind, but this is not necessarily a criticism, as this opacity seems to be Acker's intent. The chapters of the book alternate between the viewpoints of either Abhor or Thivai, ostensibly, but the perspective switches constantly and recklessly. Identity is wrecked altogether, re-creating a kind of postmodern condition fictionally.

Is Empire of the Senseless science fiction? There are some of the trappings of science fiction. For example, Abhor is half human and half robot, but the account of her genesis is entirely dissimilar to any parallel story in more typical science fiction. The book is apparently set in the future, but that feeling is continually undercut by references to Ronald Reagan. For example, near the beginning of Chapter 3, Acker makes this comparison: "Dr Schreber was paranoid, schizophrenic, hallucinated, deluded, disassociated, autistic, and ambivalent. In these qualities he resembled the current United States President, Ronald Reagan" (45). However, it's just as difficult to fit this particular work by Acker into any mainstream slot. If anything, Empire of the Senseless takes place in a weird parallel world.

As I've mentioned, Acker's writing style might not be everyone's favourite fireside or bedside companion. However, in its own twisted way, this is quite a powerful book. Amid all of the graphic and disgusting scenes, the reader can piece together various bits of intellectual and literary meaning. For example, here is Acker's explanation of the title, offered apropos of not much: "Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning" (134). Difficult prose, difficult flow, but she uses all of the buzzwords that make modern day literary theorists jump for joy. And sometimes Acker creates phrases that are as beautiful as anything more conventional writers could come up with: "Physical and mental lust were eating out my body at the same time I knew there was only loneliness. The CIA had created loneliness in that city and made the sun into a piece of ice" (167). You donít need to know about Empire of the Senselessí subplot about CIA infiltrating Paris with some weird drug in order to get a sense of the heavy burden of societal systems on this personís body. Interestingly, that might be a satisfactory way of summing up the book: Acker makes it abundantly clear that the body, in all its rebellion, subservience, and chaos, is never trivial and never commonplace. As a call to awareness, the book is memorable in the extreme; Acker, perhaps wisely, does not suggest any further steps in the process.

James Schellenberg lives in southern Ontario, which is in Canada. He is currently feeling wistful that Canada is never mentioned in dystopic visions of horror like The Handmaidís Tale, nor in utopian panoramas of peace and love like the future in Woman on the Edge of Time.

Last modified: November 18, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Issue #8 | Feminist SF

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