Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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‘Company of the Dead’ enough to make one’s head spin

Here’s Company of the Dead in a nutshell: Germany and Japan rule most of the world and are at an uneasy detente. The United States really is no more, as Japan has taken New York and the West Coast, and the South broke off after a second Civil War and is quietly allied with Germany. Amid all of this, Joseph Kennedy – of the Kennedys – is a Confederate war hero now running a secret operation as an intelligence officer for the South to prepare to unite the states once again.

Or maybe that’s what Kennedy is doing. His boss, his ex-girlfriend, the media, all but his closest allies are trying to figure out what is really behind Kennedy’s moves. His motives go deeper and broader, as it turns out. He has discovered a time machine, as well as evidence that someone has been messing with history. During a brief trip to the near future, Kennedy sees a decimated planet, nuclear war ravaging the world and killing everything. He must go back in time to set history on the right path and, hopefully, save Earth. The incident that changes history, which Kennedy and company must confront? The sinking of the Titanic.

Author David Kowalski’s effort is brilliant, because the description above doesn’t quite cover the breadth of the author’s historical knowledge nor his ability to lay out a bizarre, mind-twisting path that our heroes blaze down. In part, the journey is a monumental effort to avert the end of history. In part, it is a journey these brave men (and woman) have taken many times, so many, in fact, that this is the last attempt before reality is torn apart by their time skipping, leading to an end that only the fates know.

Kowalski has crafted a fast-moving, action-heavy thriller that doesn’t slow to take many breaths over its 700+ pages. But he goes much deeper than that, sinking into the nature of reality, the question of fate vs. free will, people who are so key to the direction of history that they exist almost as other-worldly presences, recognized by those who live on the same frequency as the larger universe. If you could go back and change history, should you? What are the repercussions. If history is what it is, why should it be changed?

I’m not a fan of the alternative history genre, in general. But Company of the Dead is both unique in its aim and finely crafted, so much so that down the road, I may have to revisit Kowalski’s vision.

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What if an alien told you God’s existence could be scientifically proven?

Not a bad premise for a novel, right?

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God starts here, with an insect-like alien named Hollus landing outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, walking in through the front door and asking to see a paleontologist. The first paleontologist to answer the call is Thomas Jericho. There starts a relationship built on the bones of animals dead millions of years that ends four hundred years in the future on a space craft near the remains of Betelgeuse after it has gone supernova.

Where does God fit in to this story? When Hollus meets Jericho, she explains that her people, the Forhilnor, humans and another race, the Wreeds, are the only three forms of intelligent life currently in the universe (that they know of), and that all three have something very important in common. Each of their planets has has had five extinction level events, all that the same time in their individual histories. Meanwhile, all three races are at similar points in their development. Jericho is stunned. He asks Hollus if they have an idea as to why this would be possible. Hollus’s answer: God.

Jericho can hardly believe what he’s hearing. And thus begins the real thrust of Calculating God, the give and take between Jericho, an athiest dying of cancer who is bitter and resistant to the idea of a God that would allow that to happen, and Hollus, a serious scientist with more than a little humanity of her own.

What makes the give and take in Calculating God so fascinating is the science. Sawyer is willing to admit the holes in evolutionary theory, of which there are a few. For example, the idea that everything evolves slowly over time to come to where we are today isn’t necessarily entirely accurate. In many cases, there seem to be evolutionary jumps, possibly mutations, that advance the process significantly. Is that the hand of God, guiding development at key points in the evolution? Or is it chance, the chaos inherent in nature?

There are other examples. Hollus notes that water is the most unique liquid in the universe and, without it, there would be no life. All life comes from water, and for water to exist, specific conditions must be present that are also necessary for the development of life.

Or what about Jupiter? Part of the reason life has had the opportunity to develop on Earth is that the gravitational pull of Jupiter sucks in most of the space debris that would do our planet harm. Doesn’t that indicate the presence of an intelligent designer protecting its creation?

As an agnostic, I found Calculating God compelling. Much of Hollus’s pro-God argument is based on the delicate, statistically near-impossible things found in nature that, if something were altered by just a percentage point or a degree, would mean that life as we know it would not be possible. It’s the threading of biological, chemical and physical needles that really gives support to the idea that, to make these things happen, there needs to be a steady hand on the wheel. And that hand may be God’s.

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