The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

In the light of yesterday’s news — that the US Supreme Court has eliminated the 50-year-old constitutional right of American women to access abortion services — I’m re-posting my 2018 piece about landmark TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale.  

*****

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s TaleYes, I know it’s a dystopian series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series, pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain — security, status, power — and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead has now been sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

About time: Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility (Canada / the future / space)

Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, Picador 2022

First line: Edwin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship, eyes narrowed against the wind on the upper deck: he holds the railing with gloved hands, impatient for a glimpse of the unknown, trying to discern something — anything! — beyond sea and sky, but all he sees are shades of endless grey.

I was going to wait for Sea of Tranquility to come out in paperback, but cracked just ahead of the ‘Platy Jubes’ weekend. By the time the Queen had given her final wave from the Buckingham Palace balcony, I’d read it twice: the first time romping through, the second time savouring the writing, story and sheer inventiveness of it all.

In 1912, disgraced minor aristocrat Edwin St. Andrew experiences what he thinks is a hallucination. For a split second, in a remote forest on Vancouver Island, he’s plunged into darkness, then senses a cavernous space and the sound of a violin. In 2203, a novel by Moon Colony Two dweller Olive Llewellyn includes a passage in which a man plays the violin in an airship terminal while trees rise around him. And in 2401, an era when time travel is a crime, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate a space-time anomaly caught on film in 1994 — which features notes from a violin. It’s the start of his sleuthing at various moments in time…

This genre-bending fusion of crime and science fiction — cri-sci-fi? — is pulled off with tremendous style. The first scene-setting chapters build steadily, and around a third of the way through the novel really catches fire. The resolution to the mystery is like a finely crafted Chinese puzzle and well worth the wait.

And because this is Emily St. John Mandel, author of the highly acclaimed Station Eleven, there’s much more besides: very human, likeable characters; visions of a future world and what it means to survive a pandemic; questions about the nature of reality and what truly matters in life; and an exploration of institutional power and the price of taking it on. But there’s also plenty of wry humour, including a laugh-out-loud bit  featuring Marvin the cat.

If you too have a weakness for cri-sci-fi, then put Sea of Tranquility on your reading list right away. And if you’re looking for other science fiction novels with strong elements of crime, check out my past reviews below:

Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders

Smörgåsbord: Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon

Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in sci-fi crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders (UK)

Nothing beats a leisurely weekend browse in my local bookshop. While I love discovering new reads online, there’s a special pleasure in picking up a physical book you had no intention of buying, and realising that you have to have it, because it’s exactly what you fancy reading right now.

This is how I came by Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders, which first caught my eye due to its quirky title and beautifully designed cover. And once I realised it was a science fiction / crime mash-up, I was completely hooked (next to crime, SF is probably the genre I have the greatest weakness for…)

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz, 2017)

First paragraph: ‘Where we are and where we aren’t. Where we can and cannot go. So, for example: human beings were not allowed onto the factory floor. The construction space was absolutely and no exceptions a robot-only zone. Human entry was forbidden. Nevertheless, and against all the rules, a human being had been there.’

The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. As the opening paragraph indicates, it shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory floor where the car has just been manufactured is completely off-limits to humans. So how on earth did the corpse get into the boot?

This nifty locked-room mystery is immediately given an added twist: the crime is committed in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures many citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. Even those who stay in the Real, like Alma, are almost permanently plugged into their feed, and navigate a world in which AI robots are ubiquitous. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it unleashes, are explored via the high-octane drama Alma finds herself caught up in. And there’s one important additional constraint that ratchets up the narrative tension: Alma must return to her partner every four hours on the dot to administer life-saving drugs (and it absolutely has to be her and no one else for a fascinating reason I won’t reveal here).

Watch out for: a famous director in a cameo role…

Alma is a great character – clever, resourceful and tough. And if I’m not mistaken, almost every other major character in the book – goody and baddie alike – is a woman. How refreshing is that?! The writing is sparky, noirish and packed to the brim with wry humour – such as when Alma gets into a chatty AI-taxi and unceremoniously says ‘small talk deselected’, after which it falls into a sulky silence.

The entire novel is a rollicking, highly inventive and hugely enjoyable ride that raises some genuinely thought-provoking questions about our future relationship with technology. If you fancy something completely different, look no further. The sequel, By the Pricking of her Thumbs, is also on its way.

Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

Hugh Howey, Wool (Books 1-5), Century 2013

Opening line: The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.

Hugh Howey’s Wool is a self-publishing success story that began in 2011 with a standalone on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform. When it took off, ‘quite by accident and all on its own’, Howey added another four interlocking stories, which were gathered in a Wool omnibus and published in hardback earlier this year. The film rights have also been sold. It’s basically every indie author’s dream come true.

Wool transports us to the world of ‘the silo’ – the home of humankind in an apparently ravaged, post-apocalyptic future. The silo is a self-contained community divided into different sectors (such as IT, mechanical, nursery, food farms) that are spread over more than a hundred floors connected by a single, DNA-like spiral staircase. This enclosed world is described in minute detail, down to the sherpa-like silo porters who carry communications and supplies up and down the well-trodden stairs. The only glimpse of the desolate outside world is ‘up top’, on screens that become increasingly grimy until ‘a cleaning’ takes place…

So far, so sci-fi. But what makes Wool really take off for me are the elements of crime fiction woven into the narrative. Firstly, in line with standard crime conventions, there are a number of murders – some obvious and some more subtle – which are investigated with varying degrees of success by characters in the five ‘books’. Secondly, and in common with many other crime novels, there is an exploration of the rules and regulations governing society, and the ways in which crimes are dealt with by the law enforcement system. Except here, of course, we are dealing with the extremely unusual closed community of the silo, which shapes conceptions of criminality and punishment in entirely unprecedented ways.

Royalty Free Spacescape Images | Depositphotos

The biggest crime in the silo – ‘the great offence’ – is ‘expressing any desire to leave’. As soon an individual utters the words ‘I want to go outside’, the law is broken, resulting in a literal expulsion from the community. Once outside, wearing only a protective suit against the toxic elements, he or she is ‘put to cleaning’ – wiping the sensors that give the silo’s inhabitants their view of outside. And all diligently obey this command, although it is initially not clear to us why.

The first book starts with Sheriff Holston – the key figure entrusted with maintaining law and order within the silo – requesting to go outside. And this opening is typical of Wool, which is filled with wonderful plot ideas and scenarios. For why would anyone wish to leave the safety of the silo for the hostile environment outside, let alone the sheriff, who has himself overseen past cleanings, and should know exactly what fate awaits him?

While occasionally a little rough around the edges in terms of its writing and credibility, Wool is a compelling read – a fabulous page-turner that brings a possible future vividly to life, and grapples with big issues such as the rights of the individual, freedom of information, and the power exerted by the state over its citizens. The five interlinked stories detail the lives of several individuals – men and women, young and old – with the standout character of Jules or Juliette quickly becoming my personal favourite.

If you like the idea of a fusion of sci-fi and crime – and a rollicking good story – this is one for you. The energy and freshness of the narrative would undoubtedly also serve it well in the young-adult fiction market, which is where Howey first made his mark.