The Handmaid's Tale, a best-selling book first published in 1985, could have been marketed as a kind of sci-fi horror story. After all, it's a scary vision of a dystopian future, kind of like Brave New World, 1984, or even The Hunger Games. In this future, nearly all the women have become infertile, so the few who can still have babies have been rounded up, brainwashed, and assigned to powerful men in a twisted attempt to restore the human race.
The Handmaid's Tale won author Margaret Atwood some seriously major awards, including the 1986 Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction, and a nomination for the Booker Prize. It's probably her most successful book. While The Handmaid's Tale has gotten tons of praise as a work of science fiction, Atwood has claimed that this book is actually something else. She calls it "speculative" fiction instead, which has caused some problems with sci-fi fans. (For more on this, see "Genre.")
Many years later, the book's warnings about the future still resonate. Because the book was published smack dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan's presidency, some believed it was a commentary on the United States in the 1980s. Reagan, a Republican and former actor, was president from 1981 to 1989. During that time he made many economic reforms. Some of the economic reforms Reagan fought for, though, did not take full effect until a few years after the publication of The Handmaid's Tale.
In any case, Atwood tried to play down that specific political connection in an 1986 interview with the New York Times: "Despite the novel's projections from current events, Margaret Atwood resists calling her book a warning. 'I do not have a political agenda of that kind. The book won't tell you who to vote for,' she said" (source). It's up to readers to determine how the vision in the book connects to our everyday lives – how we can protect both ourselves and our freedom.
The Handmaid's Tale is now considered standard, even required reading, appreciated both by the public and critics. It received glowing sound bites from most major newspapers ("Brilliantly illuminating!" and all that jazz) and sat on the New York Times best-seller list for a good stretch. Paul Gray, writing for Time magazine in 1986, criticizes the book for not seeming as real as something like 1984. But he also praises it for what it accomplishes on its own, saying that the book is so interesting because Offred is such a powerful narrator: "Offred's narrative is fascinating in a way that transcends tense and time: the record of an observant soul struggling against a harsh, mysterious world" (source). It seems that whether you like science fiction or not, or whether you call this speculative fiction or not, The Handmaid's Tale has something to offer readers of all stripes.
Most people like getting scared from time to time. In the 21st century, we've taken Halloween to the next level. We like monsters, zombies, and vampires, not to mention all sorts of horror movies and suspenseful thrillers. At the same time, though, we like our scary stuff to be fictional and temporary. Two and a half hours with zombies at the multiplex? Awesome. Watching riots in a neighboring country on TV? Not awesome, but just as scary.
Well, The Handmaid's Tale is a scary book, both in the make-believe way and for other reasons too. Its characters have no voice in their government and no control over their lives. In an interview with the New York Times, Margaret Atwood summed up her book like this: "it's a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime" (source).
When you put it like that, it seems like the book's implications are pretty universal. Although our world isn't as totalitarian and frightening as Atwood's futuristic vision of the United States as Gilead, it's still not as good a place as it could be. We still live in scary times. We've got oil spills and wars to worry about and a global economy that suffers when just one country's currency falls. Today there are places in the world where women don't have the right to choose what clothes they wear or whom they marry, and where they can be stoned to death for committing adultery. Some of this stuff sounds eerily like the future Atwood made up, right? Even lighter restrictions, such as censorship, can lead to serious consequences. Some countries just ban movies from coming in at all. Sex and the City 2 got terrible reviews, but people in the United Arab Emirates won't even get the chance to make up their minds about it themselves, unless they leave the country (source).
This is a scary book. But hey, at least we're not in Gilead – at least we're allowed to read it.