The first Arthur C. Clarke award goes to a mainstream literary hit, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia. It’s always interesting to see what happens when a respected literary figure writes a piece of speculative fiction – usually book reviewers twist themselves into pretzels explaining why “it’s not really science fiction” and the science fiction establishment more or less looks the other way. Atwood did garner Locus and Nebula nominations (next to her Man Booker Prize nomination), but Hugo stuck with Orson Scott Card and L. Ron Hubbard. Her next sf work, Oryx and Crake, which I liked even more, got no recognition from sf awards.
In the near future, religious fundamentalists have seized control of the US government and turned it into a sexist and racist totalitarian state. Pollution has caused high levels of infertility, so women that can have children are highly valued and kept as slaves called handmaids. The narrator is known as Offred (we never learn her real name), and she tells a series of parallel stories – her life with her husband before the takeover, the difficulties and hardships of the takeover itself and her subsequent training as a handmaid, and her present position as a handmaid in the household of a powerful “Commander.” Her freedoms are constrained, she’s surrounded by violence, her intellectual life is completely closed off (she’s not allowed to read), and she must perform a ritualistic sex ceremony with the Commander every month in the hopes of reproduction.
The one problem I have with the novel is that it feels a bit over-the-top. Even the craziest of Christian Fundamentalists have never called for any society like this that I know of. You could argue that it’s a metaphor for the loss of basic choices for women that some political leaders advocate, but I think it’d be more interesting to see a more realistic portrayal of an anti-feminist society; show what’s really at stake. This story seems too easy to dismiss as paranoid fantasy. 1984 is a ridiculously intrusive and controlling society, but it’s still not too hard to imagine most of it coming true. It's not hard to imagine a repressive, reactionary society that destroys women's rights either; it's just wouldn't look much like this.
The real attraction, as is always the case with Atwood, is the writing. Atwood’s prose is smart, incisive and flows with ease and power. The non-linear narrative creates intriguing mysteries without ever losing the reader. All of the characters, even the Commander and his jealous and menacing wife, feel real and compelling, as does Offred’s sense of loss. Atwood is one of the greatest living authors, and it’s always wonderful when she works in science fiction, even if I did have a few suspension-of-disbelief problems with the world she created.