Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Is This A Dystopian Novel?


Is This A Dystopian Novel?

(Or Is It Reality?)

by C.A. Matthews


I’m writing this on the way home from an annual science fiction convention we’ve attended for many years. My husband and I primarily speak on writing craft and publishing topics, but sometimes we’re asked to be on panel discussions dealing with the intersection between fiction and reality. How does SF (speculative fiction) show us the current situation humanity finds itself in or even our possible future?

Wise words from a famous science fiction author

I happened to land on a panel called “The Handmaid’s Tale: Fear and Social Dystopia.” (Excellent topic idea!) We were to discuss how this best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, and the more recent streaming television series based upon it, reflects the horror of discrimination American women currently face and how it could be a prediction of even scarier things to come.

Of course, since I was on the panel, the discussion soon wandered into what I see as the novel’s true premise. The story of the abused and enslaved handmaids isn’t a dystopian tale of the near-future or an alternate future but an accurate reflection of both our current and past American society. Atwood, as a Canadian, is in an excellent position to see us as a sympathetic outsider and point out painful things that Americans have blocked from our cultural memories. There is much for us to learn from her discerning eye.  

Is the USA in reality the mythical “Gilead”? Why do we not see the red-caped young women marching in lines and “the wall,” the place where dissidents and non-believers are hung for their crimes against the state and their bodies left hanging as a warning to others? My contention is that these two things do in fact exist, albeit in slightly different forms.

When the US imprisons whistleblowers and journalists (such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange) because they revealed horrific torture operations done in our name by the US military, the CIA and others at the Abu Ghraib Prison and at our very own extrajudicial detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, are we not in reality hanging these brave souls from “the wall”? Are we not using their slow deaths in prison and exile to scare other potential whistleblowers not to do likewise? Isn’t dangling their reputations in front of the mainstream media (a.k.a. “the wall”) and making false charges against them a deterrent to others emboldened to expose the immorality and corruption of the US government?

When cops murder people of color in cold blood for minor traffic violations or for simply sleeping in their own beds, is this not a kind of state execution or “the wall” that tells others to stay quiet and obey their white masters and don’t fight for their rights? When the police use teargas and rubber bullets on protesters and striking workers, isn’t this putting them on “the wall” to kill their hopes and dreams for a better future for all?

The US now spends more money on militarizing our local police departments than most countries—including Russia—spend on their actual military. No other country has 800+ military bases scattered all over the globe. The closest is China with about eight bases. The US has the largest military budget in the world, one that is more than the other top ten nations combined, and yet it has no money available for health care, education, or housing for all its citizens.

Now, which country reminds you of the fascistic/militaristic realm of Gileadthe country who recently announced that poverty had been eradicated within their borders (China) or the one that has criminalized homelessness in many municipalities (USA)? “The wall” presents injustices along with rotting corpses of those the state doesn’t want.

What about the red capes and the rapes of the handmaids/ concubines? Atwood purposefully had her handmaids wrapped in “bloody cloths” or red capes, a symbol of birth and sacrifice. These young women are the heifers and hens forced to give birth like livestock in order to provide enough laborers to support the ruling classes. Gilead’s economic system relies on slavery—but it isn’t necessarily thought of as chattel slavery by its rulers. Wage slavery works just fine in present day America and our rulers (bosses) think nothing of it, either.

Which so-called “first world nation” has the highest maternal mortality rate? You know it—it’s the USA. The maternal mortality rate for mothers of color is even higher than it is for whites, but it’s also high for poor whites with no access to private health insurance. What other society tells its women of child bearing years that their health and safety during child birth isn’t all that important? Could it be the only so-called first world nation that doesn’t provide universal health care for its people?

And then there’s the overturn of the Roe V. Wade ruling. (Read my take on how abortion rights are used against women in A Matter of Control.) What other country allows basic human rights, such as the right to bodily autonomy, to be stolen away from its citizens at the whim of conservative judges? Yes, Trump did appoint conservative federal judges, but he didn’t appoint all of them or even the majority of them. Most federal judges currently serving have been serving for more than ten years. Arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was appointed during the Clinton Administration. Who was the senator that made sure Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court by discrediting Anita Hill’s testimony and raking her over the coals? Senator Joseph R. Biden of Delaware is the man who made sexist, disparaging remarks to Professor Hill. You may have heard of him.

Atwood’s Gilead has one advantage the US doesn’t. It doesn’t waste time playing the silly game of what “color” or establishment political party is currently in the majority. True rulers always will get what they want at the expense of the ordinary working people’s lives. The establishment parties are mere distractions, foils as it were, and will always do as they’re told. Therefore, all third parties or alternative viewpoints must be crushed at whatever cost. The upper-classes can’t have the ordinary people thinking for themselves, can they? 

I posit that Americans have been living in Gilead since 1776. The corrupt economic system established by our “Founding Fathers” will always favor wealthy, white, land-owning (and slave owning) males. Women will always be controlled by the state through their wombs or reproductive capacity. Activists who speak up against injustices and attempt to organize the poor and working classes will always be labelled as agitators, communists, or enemies of the state. 

Los Angeles has criminalized the homeless.

Isn’t this the society Atwood envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale? There’s no reason for Americans to lie to themselves any longer. The US is a dystopian novel. 

What can we do about it? Audience members asked the panelists if there was a way to overcome the Gilead characteristics baked into the DNA of the USA. I’m optimistic there is something we can do because folks did ask that question and assumed that they are capable of enacting changes for the better.

I think our best shot is to create genuine community and practice systems of mutual aid, such as the ones I described in my novel Where The Bodies Lie. We can grow our own food and share it with neighbors. We can create worker co-ops and organize worker-run unions to take on exploitative employers. We can work around the discriminatory distribution systems for food, health care, and shelter by fulfilling needs directly without including the predatory middle-man that capitalism seems to think is necessary for life (and that we all know isn’t).

There are many positive things we can and already do to dispel the gloom of dystopia, but we must do them together. No more of this “rugged individualism” that keeps us struggling and infighting amongst our fellow workers while the rich receive tax breaks and government subsidies for failing businesses. We need to build compassionate communities capable of feeding and taking care of each other, such as those described in the New Testament in the book of Acts. No more leaving anyone behind!

Until all women are free, all people of color are free, the homeless and the migrant and the hungry are all free, none of us will ever be free. None of us will escape Gilead. It’s an all or nothing proposition. But do we have the will to turn The Handmaid’s Tale dystopia into a Star Trek utopia? If any group can make the world into a better place, I believe it's sci-fi fans.

Let’s boldly go into that future.

Another great quote from Kurt Vonnegut.

Related Links:

Free Stores Offer an Alternative to the Exploitative Capitalist Economy https://truthout.org/articles/free-stores-offer-an-alternative-to-the-exploitative-capitalist-economy/

Catalyzing Worker Co-ops and the Solidarity Economy https://popularresistance.org/catalyzing-worker-co-ops-the-solidarity-economy/

US Quality of Life Now Ranks Down with Bulgaria (video) https://rumble.com/v1lor6v-us-now-ranks-with-bulgaria-as-developing-country.html

90% of the World Doesn't Back the US Now (video)  https://youtu.be/jsrOfEVcbzA


  1. Non illegitimii carborandum. If the so-called elected government isn't working for the people, let it be sidelined and made irrelevant by mutual aid and co-operatives.

    1. "Don't let the bastards grind you down..." That was a good quote from The Handmaid's Tale. We can't afford to let those who couldn't care less about us, the poor and struggling, get away with taking our initiative. We can and we will fight back. What better way than by building intentional communities and practicing mutual aid so we're no longer made captives of the capitalists?


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