Friday, March 2, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

The short story ILU-486 by Amanda Ching is an upsetting look into the possible near-future, if the government legislates what women can do with their bodies. It made me feel angry and powerless and angry again. Many of the comments likened it to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, so I went and read that book.

I do not think the comparison is apt. While both stories consider dystopic futures where women are socially subjugated and deprived of agency, their tones are completely different. ILU-486 is angry and eager to fight, while the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale is quite passive and calm. She even seems dull and stupid -- and constantly entreats herself not to think, not to follow those very narratively interesting avenues -- until we see her play Scrabble, and thus evidence that she is actually quite bright. Sure, a military coup of biblically-minded, chauvinistic, hypocritical men has reorganized society, but she remains quite calm about it. She's even calm through her several considerations of how to commit suicide and how to escape. The story simply doesn't read as inflammatory, just faintly depressing and unrealistic. Its final note, an even further-future academic discussion of the historical setting of The Handmaid's Tale, is unnecessarily redeeming. Perhaps Margaret Atwood felt the need to explain that future society eventually tended away from this unpleasant arrangement?

The Handmaid's Tale falls into a category for which English has inadequate tenses. It is written in the past about the future, which is still our future. It has not aged well -- the premise seems entirely unlikely now. Modern writers must devise near-future scenarios which cope with the fact that the internet and cell phone networks and other digital, instant communication could easily undermine the initial stages of a developing dystopia. This is the point that ILU-486 gets correct: it feels possible. We see characters fighting against legislation, we see many different systems of subverting legal control of private wombs.

I'm not sure I'd recommend either piece. The Handmaid's Tale is a piece of science fiction canon, but dull and flat emotionally. ILU-486 is angering; it provides an argument for legal contraception, should you have any friends who need convincing, but is frustratingly negative for people already convinced.

This post's theme word is soubrette, "a maidservant or lady's maid in a play or an opera, especially one who displays coquetry and engages in intrigue," or "a young woman regarded as flirtatious," or "a soprano who sings supporting roles in comic opera." Does the opera adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale feature a soubrette, in any sense?


masha51 said...
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masha51 said...

I found ILU-486 to be well-written. I agree with your assessments on the tones of each story, but I suspect that, unlike yourself, most readers will find ILU-486 chilling and provocative.
It is short and swiftly read.
I recommend it.