I recently began watching the Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name. Dystopian fiction, which has its roots in works such as Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451, has seen a popular resurgence in the last ten years. I speculate part of this is due to the commercial success of The Hunger Games, though Games is relatively family friendly whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly not.
While the material is dark and uncomfortable, Handmaid has given me cause to stop and think about why dystopian fiction has value. This was a bit challenging for me at first, because I have often held a rather frustrated view toward the genre as a whole. I have, both inaccurately and unfairly, previously held that anyone who depicts the future totalitarian societies seen in dystopian fiction must not have a very high opinion of humanity. Yet I have to admit that this is like claiming that my own favorite novel, Stephen King’s IT, advocates violence toward children (it most certainly does not). Instead, dystopian fiction is a form of didacticism, and while I hold that the best kind of fiction entertains before it informs, it would be unfair of me to criticize one genre’s method of delivery.
The show’s first episode prompted a strong reaction from me, to put it mildly. The world of Orwell’s 1984 is fluffy and bright compared to Atwood’s alternative future. Because I watch a lot of Die Hard and read a lot of Jack Reacher, I spent most of the first episode envisioning cold-blooded ways to neutralize the people in power in Gilead. Lead rounds to the chest always seemed to be a good option. I crafted a fan fiction called John Wick Meets the Commanders. It did not go well for the Commanders. I thought about sending Eleven from Stranger Things to vaporize the Aunts (or, better yet, just let a pack of demogorgons loose among them). June’s voice-overs, though, provided some much-needed levity, and demonstrated the power of human resilience.
The first thing that impressed me was how Handmaid interspersed scenes from before the founding of Gilead to explain how this world—the infertility epidemic and subsequent enslavement of the Handmaids—came about. It portrays a gradual escalation of events, starting as a health crisis in an otherwise normal society and culminating in an overthrow of the government by a radical group that sees mandatory reproduction as a moral imperative. It demonstrates the threat of complacency and the dangers inherent in permitting reductions of liberties for “the greater good” (and if you want to see a great satire of the flaws inherent in serving “the greater good” no matter the cost, look no further than the British cop comedy Hot Fuzz, which depicts a town of senior citizens crazily murdering each other in order to preserve the exterior façade of their village as a perfect community). Handmaid’s portrayal of these changes brought to mind Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came…”, which depicts individuals turning a blind eye to the systematic reduction of their own liberties under the Nazi regime, until they had no freedoms left.
Now, I do think it is important to note dystopian futures such as the one portrayed in Handmaid run contrary to how societies have actually developed over time. As a general rule, in the aggregate individual liberties and other measures of human progress have improved, not regressed over time. I wrote a separate blog on this last spring—see my post “Things Are Getting Better”—but the short version is that measures of human progress such as life expectancy, poverty reduction, literacy, voting rights, protections for minorities, pollution reduction, etc. have all gotten better rather than worse during the last hundred years, both in the U.S. and globally. True, there are exceptions to these observations, including areas we have regressed, but at the end of the day I count myself blessed to face the issues today over those of the past. I will take rage-fueled invective on Twitter any day over the Black Death.
One of the reasons societies have improved, though, is that we are very good at making mistakes, and also very good at learning from them. We need look no further than the atrocities committed as a result of Stalinism and later Nazism, to name two prominent examples, to know that we have gone horribly wrong in the past. Humanity learned important lessons from these events, but at a terrible cost. Yet it should not have to take the bodies of millions to effect changes for the better, and this I realized, is where dystopian fiction has its value—because works like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale do the heavy lifting for us. They depict worlds where people became complacent, liberties were reduced, and horrible atrocities took place—and in doing so, they give us a chance to say “we can’t let this happen for real”.
It made me think of a phrase used to describe the effectiveness of adventure fiction. Action and adventure fiction is popular because it lets us experience a form of “safe stress”. If I was about to get crushed by a giant boulder, I would be pretty damn stressed, but watching Harrison Ford do it in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a heck of a lot of fun. We get a chance for our adrenal glands to give us a (totally legal) chemical high without the threat of any physical danger. Similarly, dystopian fiction lets us experience the threat of society gone wrong from a position of safety. It delivers a cautionary tale, and gives us the opportunity to learn actual lessons without the cost of a real-life tragedy like the Holocaust. It will never be my favorite form of fiction—I’m more of a Stranger Things kind of guy—but after close to a decade of me unfairly ragging on a genre, The Handmaid’s Tale showed me not only where I’ve been unfair in prior assessments of similar stories, but also how and why this is a valuable kind of tale.
At the end of the day, though, I just hope June manages to grab that nearest machine gun. I think she would kick some serious ass with it.