Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Device as Device, or Trope-a-Dope

I've been hearing more and more about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for years now, with the rise of the Dominionist movement in the US, and the spreading of their Taliban-like agenda throughout "mainstream" US evangelical Christian culture. (Someone on one of the blogs I read likes to refer to them as "Talibornagains," which is amusing, although inapt, since "talib" comes from an Arabic word meaning "student," unless I'm very much mistaken, and the Christian version are, if anything, even more anti-intellectual than their Islamic counterparts.)

That said, I would like to bring up a minor lit'ry quibble here, speaking about The Handmaid's Tale. Since we've pretty well established the analogical basis of the book, can we please reshelve the thing off the SF shelves and into the polemic section now?

Disclosure: I have never liked the book, but I especially have never liked how, for years, people have been insisting that it belongs in the same broad genre as Neuromancer and The Demolished Man, or even The Left Hand of Darkness, instead of alongside other dystopian political fables like 1984 and We. Instead of being a story about ideas, the exploration of a "what if?" scenario, polemic uses the tropes of a genre to drive the point, rather like Munro's Lives of Girls and Women uses the tropes of the bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) to drive home the lesson that all gender exploitation doesn't have to be overt.

As a polemic, Handmaid's Tale is a great cautionary tale. As a science fiction novel, it's completely lame. Atwood is one of those Canadian writers who came of literary age before Canadian writers, the CanLit "scene," of which she's an integral part, really understood science fiction, and it shows. (I'm speaking as someone who is Canadian, has studied CanLit, and recently compared Firefly to Roughing It In The Bush.)

For one thing, the universe of a science fiction book needs to be plausible and internally consistent, which pretty much eliminates any of the dystopian fables from consideration. (He, She, and It might be an exception here, because Piercy does spend a fair amount of time in the novel setting up the conditions of her world.) Thus, we never hear why or how the televisor screens in 1984 continue to work, or work at all, when the entire rest of the 1984 world is brutally low-tech, dilapidated, and falling to pieces. Would it not, then, make sense (in a consistent world) for the televisors to occasionally fail, and perhaps not be repaired immediately? He could have done it with a throwaway line, and still maintained plausible paranoia: Winston had even experienced one of these moments of respite, when his televisor broke, and it was three months before The Party could get a repairman in -- even for his televisor! However, the absence of Big Brother from his home did not mean he was not being watched, oh no, for the neighbours had been instructed to be extra vigilant (and the walls were thin), and old Mrs. Avery down the hall would invite him in every day for televisor -- and he could be sure someone would find out if he didn't go.

We also never figure out why, in an anti-education society like D-503's in We, they nevertheless have just enough high technology to build The Mighty Integral. (Bonus points to the first astronaut, public or private, to name his or her craft the Integral.)

Granted, it's been a few years since last I read the book. However, as best I can recall, we never quite learn how Atwood accomplishes her adversarius ex machina wherein every female in would-be Gilead is stripped of her money and credit cards. A sudden, massive transfer of wealth and shutdown of that much of the economy? With barely any consequenses or explanation? She's done an inadequate job of explaining how that could be, contrasted against a system that likes everyone to be able to spend more than what they can earn (teenagers can get credit cards in the US), and ready access to money if you have it to spend is considered one of the fundamental marketplace freedoms in North American culture. How does she get around having to explain this mysterious shutdown, given that there are hundreds and possibly thousands of banks in the US, and they can't so much as agree on a single standard for debit transactions, let alone for anything else? How does she get around the fact that the majority of low-level workers who actually run the machinery of credit processing are women? She doesn't describe resistance of that sort, nor agents of the state holding entire offices full of low-level functionaries at gunpoint to enforce such a thing. (If you knew that the government wanted to take away not just your bank account and credit card, but all women's, would you come to work to pull the switch, or would you and everyone else be striking?)

I understand the paradigm she's working from -- the witch trials, and later, the Holocaust, where the Nazis were able to just yank the citizenship rug out from under the feet of large numbers of people quite quickly, although she's obviously misinterpreting or misunderstanding the mechanism and the speed at which it happened. Even the high-tech Holocaust took months and years to accomplish, and wasn't 100% effective. (If it had been, there would be no Jewish culture left in Europe, and no Medinat Israel.) The scenario from Handmaid's Tale isn't a case of using census information and superior technology and buying the requisite bureaucrats, all of whom stand to profit from the deal. The modern, and five-minutes-from-now world diffusion of high technology into the commercial environment makes it, in some senses, harder for a central governmental authority to divest someone of all vestiges of selfhood. If it were that easy, identity theft wouldn't be a problem, because it'd be spotted almost instantly by law enforcement. On the other hand, the system as it stands right now is almost stochastic.

How do we get from here to there, plausibly and consistently? Atwood can't tell us, but the devices are sure useful.

Given that, The Handmaid's Tale fails the consistency test and the plausibility test required of science fiction, so can we please stop referring to the book as anything but a polemic now? Especially now, when everyone's using it as a political trope?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're obviously NOT familiar with reading from the feminist perspective ... which is Atwood's specialty.

8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2:14 AM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Actually, I did an entire graduate-level course in gender theory which was almost entirely feminist-driven, and have done feminist analyses of various works of literature; but as science fiction (which is not in itself either inherently feminist or antifeminist), Atwood sucks.

And I'm personally of the opinion that if you're going to call something science fiction, as people do all the time with Atwood's crap, it has to be science fiction, not merely feminist polemic (or dystopian fable with a feminist slant) using the tropes of science fiction as a literary device to power the polemic.

You're obviously not familiar with reading comprehension.

4:11 PM  

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