Knowing her to be an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful person – an opinion I base almost entirely upon her brilliant novel, Fluency, since of course I’ve never met her or communicated with her – I was somewhat dismayed to read Jennifer Foehner Wells’ review of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I will here insert a shameless plug, namely my review of Fluency, which appears HERE.
Jennifer’s review is short and to the point, and I don’t want to excessively multiply words over it, so in order to help me keep this review likewise short, please go visit her review and read it before continuing here. I’ll wait.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it came out, possibly before Jennifer was born, and I have to say that I was as dismayed as she is about the story in the book. Calling it “dystopian” is like calling a hurricane “bad weather”. But in its very extremity lies a deadly flaw, for which Jennifer has clearly fallen. This is in evident in her assertion and prediction that “[t]he fundamentalist religious right already has so much power, if our country were to splinter, civil war could erupt allowing pockets of this kind of evil to proliferate.” With this, it is clear that author Atwood, an especially feminist writer, has achieved her purpose one more time, successfully warning of the dangers of patriarchy.
I should like to parenthetically note here the ironic juxtaposition of Jennifer Foehner Wells with Margaret Atwood, since the latter once stated that science fiction is “talking squids in outer space.” This is smile-inducing in view of Fluency, which features an important character that is, in fact, a talking squid in outer space. Or, at least, a telepathic squid. But I digress.
The deadly flaw of The Handmaid’s Tale is that something which would be, at worst, an unlikely and certainly short-lived aberration or deviation from the norm, is presented as a distinct possibility. Atwood herself does not characterize Handmaid as science fiction, but as speculative fiction, since, as she believes “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” In this she ignores, of course, that much of today’s modern technology, including spaceships, nearly sentient computers, and the like, used to be solely the realm of science-fiction.
And this is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale a case of extreme irony. Science fiction is what could really happen. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Fluency’s scenario of a derelict alien spaceship orbiting the sun could prove to be true. There is literally no chance that the power of the “fundamentalist religious right” could lead to The Handmaid’s Tale in reality. That which she seems to have forgotten entirely is that far from descending into it, the “fundies” would apoplexically choke at the practice of polygamy or concubinage – which is the primary pot that Atwood is attempting to stir.
What Jennifer seems to have inexplicably swallowed, hook, line and sinker, is the message the political Left has been putting out for years, and that is that the political Right’s dearest desire is to take women’s contraception away, to relegate them to the kitchen, sans shoes, and turn them into baby-making machines. Not to mention that they want “to put ya’ll back in chains” – speaking of another group whose loyalty the Left tries to ensure through wild and baseless fearmongering.
I’ll just say it clearly, that the political Right’s dearest desire with respect to contraception is that those whose religious sensitivities forbid their own use of it not be forced to pay for others’ use of it. There is a slight difference between this and a fanciful “war on women”.
I don’t understand how an intelligent and thoughtful person, which Jennifer Foehner Wells certainly is, could imagine that the “fundamentalist religious right” had power that is increasing. She is perhaps too young to realize that the attitudes of what she characterizes as the “religious right” used to be the attitudes of virtually everyone in the entire country. An old fart such as myself does remember, however, that there was a time when nearly everyone in this country attended church at least several times a year, and a majority attended church every week. And at least half of those people were not Right, but Left. Of course, now that the Left has largely left off attending church, they are quite comfortable now calling those who still do “fundamentalists”.
The thing is, so many fewer now attend church regularly, that those who still do so are more evident than they used to be, standing in greater contrast to the irreligious or areligious, who are perhaps now a majority. And these folks, having suddenly noticed that there are still those outliers who profess to follow a religion, disingenuously mischaracterize them as increasing in power. It is to laugh. Hollowly, perhaps.
I’ve gone overboard again, I see. My apologies to you, dear reader, for professing a desire not to “excessively multiply words”, when I should have known I could not forbear. My apologies as well to Jennifer Foehner Wells, who probably doesn’t deserve being subject to this barrage of words I have been pleased to pour out.
And I am really looking forward to Fluency II. Talking squids in space, indeed!