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You didn’t need to be a ‘clairvoyant’ literary star to have seen Trump coming

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Upon its release in 1985, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s unremarkable work of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale was marketed for its prescience. The publisher promised that this book, which depicted an America now cruelly governed by an ultra-Puritan minority, was a “forecast” of things to come. Guess they did a bang-up job. Thirty years later, the US is now cruelly governed by corporate rather than religious overlords, yet folks just keep on saying that Atwood is an actual clairvoyant. Because Trump.

When the trailer was released last week for the forthcoming MGM-Hulu TV version of this sack of old balls, many again found its dystopian prophecies both thrilling and “deeply, deeply unsettling”. I do not understand how a work that predicts the future nature of the hegemon with about as much forethought and accuracy as a magic 8 ball is deeply, deeply unsettling. I guess it’s a little unsettling that Elisabeth Moss, a Scientologist, plays the role of a woman whose life is governed by a tiny cult with terrible views on the gendered division of labour. But, as for all the “this could really happen here!” claptrap. We can only suppose that the wide availability of medical-grade doobies to US critics has narrowed the faculty for hard analysis even as it has deepened soft-headed paranoia.


This is not, Miss Feminist Pants, to say that the future looks rosy for all the world’s women. Of course it doesn’t. The future of the world looks shit for everyone save for about eight guys. Our waterways are in peril. The people of the Global South toil and die to serve the interests of a shrinking Western middle class. Nativism and other forms of bigoted nostalgia, including sexism, arise as the deluded political response to a time of income crisis. The future’s so dim, we need night vision goggles. Atwood does not provide these.

What Atwood does very explicitly provide in her book, to which the TV interpretation looks set to be faithful, is a murky faith in liberalism, which is to say, the way we currently organise our societies. The great calamity in the book, which I reread last night, is that the US Constitution has been overturned and the dollar has disappeared. Oh, no. This is the central problem in her work: America stopped being great.

It is strangely pleasurable to believe that a tiny group of radical elites can seize upon some antique values and impose them quickly on the world’s wealthiest and most complex nation.

The Handmaid’s Tale describes a total break with the past. And it is this thrilling, actually impossible, shift that has propelled the book back to the top of best-seller lists far more than any of its “predictions”, none of which have come to pass and all of which are historically improbable. Brutal theocratic rule doesn’t just happen on its own in the modern period—even the case of Middle Eastern nations, which Atwood mentions in the book’s epilogue, it only happened with the coercion of the US.

The author is of the view that a radical change to social organisation can occur with a moment’s notice, and so, currently, are many readers. Ergo, this middling fantasy can now be compared, in public, to a more plausible vision like 1984.

It is tempting to believe—although Orwell didn’t—that bad things suddenly occur. It is strangely pleasurable to believe that a tiny group of radical elites can seize upon some antique values and impose them quickly on the world’s wealthiest and most complex nation—maybe, you know, with some help from “Russian hackers” and not through any legitimate process. This is a reassuring way to explain the rise of a leader like Trump, a figure those who believe in the goodness of American liberal democracy reject as an outsider.

The more difficult way to think about Trump, or his more extreme European versions including Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Vona etc., is as having arisen as inside, not outside, a liberal nation-state. It’s unpleasant, of course, to concede that you have, for all your life, inhabited a society that can produce brutal isolationist views that, somehow, a lot of people seem to support. You can say, “this is not my country”. But, the fact is, it is your country and when one of its contradictions reveals itself, maybe the best response is not to say, “this happened very quickly and without my knowledge”. We do not get off as lightly as Atwood would like.

Inequality is not something we can merely overcome with a few warm-hearted policy adjustments, but intrinsic to the way we have agreed to organise our societies.

We privileged inmates tend to think of cultural and social inequality in our liberal democracies as an oversight, Atwood-style. What we dare not entertain is the idea that inequality is not something we can merely overcome with a few warm-hearted policy adjustments, but intrinsic to the way we have agreed to organise our societies.

When we confront, for example, the indignity borne by Dylan Voller, we do so with shock. We white people see such brutality committed against Aboriginal people as aberrant and not as an ongoing tradition. We do not participate in it ourselves and, if we are liberal, we say “not in my name”. Which is a lot simpler than conceding that it has occurred and will occur until we agree to truly see such brutality as part of the “name” of Australia. You don’t just come and steal the land and the material resources of an ancient society and expect things to be hunky dory once your Christian Prime Minister says sorry and pays the rent in tears. The theft will continue “in your name” until it is recognised as a foundational and a systematic theft.

History has the irritating habit of unfolding, and not simply occurring. Violence has the irritating habit of existing within systems, and not simply being attributable to a couple of bad guys and girls. Mineral conflicts do not flare up in Congo just because people are shitty. They happen because those minerals are privately held, and Apple and other companies will pay for their extraction. You didn’t ask for your iPhone’s capacitor to come with bonus blood, of course. But, you may ask for the gods of liberalism to allow you to believe that cheap marvels, like your smartphone, can be made available to you without it.

There is no Australia without a brutalised Dylan Voller. There is no iPhone without blood. These are not aberrations caused by the neglect or the cruelty of a few, but the inevitable results of the freedom of which Atwood is so uncritically fond.

Atwood recounts in a recent, delicately self-congratulatory New York Times essay that she began to write the book within the walls of West Berlin. She speaks, still, in this age, of the “Iron Curtain”, and so betrays her willingness to see good guys and bad guys rather than systems of social organisation that will eventually fall beneath the weight of their internal contradictions.

The Berlin Wall fell due, of course, to the failure of the eastern bloc’s state-capitalism. But to say, as Atwood clearly does, that this was a victory for “freedom” is to valorise the West as a place that actually provides such a thing. She talks in her essay about being surrounded by Soviet surveillance and other evidence of state apparatuses. But somehow managed not to recall the very visible US military presence in that city. Ich bin ein handmaid. For a Canadian, this chick sure loves the USA.

Uber, your Facebook and all the other things you freely enjoy accessing on your iPhone form part of a vast, opaque system.

For those paying little attention to the political economies of the West, Trump was a great surprise. These are the people who find Atwood’s book a comfort. They can easily imagine a claque of crude sexists conspiring to overthrow all existing history, somehow overcoming all the machinery of the deep state and its partner economy. This is much more agreeable than admitting that your Uber, your Facebook and all the other things you freely enjoy accessing on your iPhone form part of a vast, opaque system that was not ever a conspiracy, but coerces you into particular patterns of existence nonetheless.

Still, everyone and her pit bull, including Atwood herself, is going on and on about how this particular fiction, freed from the bonds of history, is prescient. It is far easier for the New Yorker to see the “enemy” as the filthy, sexist impulses of a few dicks than as immanent in the nation itself.


I am certain that Elisabeth Moss’s Offred will be a great success. The actor will breathe ostensible life into this white, middle-class tertiary educated female rebel who suffers abuse because a few guys overturned the glorious US constitution, which is really the only thing standing between us and the penis of the master. Offred’s pain will be enjoyed by a wide audience of masochistic fantasists who would prefer to imagine their own impossible future agony rather than think about where their iPhone, or where Trump, arose from.

I recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t believe in history.


65 responses to “You didn’t need to be a ‘clairvoyant’ literary star to have seen Trump coming

  1. Razor speaks the truth! Why are all other social commentators so wrong so much of the time? Joe Blow on the street has a far more perceptive understanding of these systemic internal contradictions Razor speaks of than the bulk of the social commentators out there. Pundits, your nonsense only sounds plausible to you and the
    other nattering pundits next to you.

    1. With you there. So many of them are firmly liberal left, and that category’s hubris levels are so high they are still unable to acknowledge how tiny their turning circle is and how easy it was to put them there. It’s depressing, isn’t it. Especially when so many of them are going on and on about fake news, but just a small portion of fake news, so that I want to say, “You’re fake news too!” and then I get floored by irony, and then my head blows up and I have to go and find some social commentary that extends beyind people’s ineividual arses and it’s all excruciatingly depressing.

    2. Trump arose from the issue of unfairness, those from the rust belt (watch 4 Corners on America) don’t give a toss what he does as long as he makes their lives bearable, in the most affluent country in the world. They don’t care if he blows the system or the world up as long as he blows it up for everybody.
      The issue is unaddressed, rising inequality and while the chicken littles on the left keep calling the Russian are coming the Russian are coming Trump will win or we will die while he tries.
      I should stop here cause after reading Helens’ book I hear her cringing/laughing/sobbing at my syntax errors and when are you coming to WA to sign my IPad.

      1. Mark. I’msorry. We are in a failed cycle of capitalism right now so ther eis no money for me to travel to WA!

    3. Um. Joe Blow has a better handle on things? Gimme a break. As Nelson Goodman observed the virgin mind is empty and the innocent eye blind. It’s not the case that knowing nothing helps you see more. The reverse in fact.

      Helen writes good stuff but this review isn’t one of them. Sounds envious. And paranoid. And just plain grumpy.

      It’s one of those all Cretans are liars sistuations. All pundits are unaware dick heads, except the one writing the review.

      Kind of depressing that left wingers now ape the rightwing loons and use ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse.

      1. ” As Nelson Goodman observed the virgin mind is empty and the innocent eye blind.”

        Exacly, Catherine. And that’s why things like bloody revolutions and President Trump are always such a shock to the comfortable middle class. The status-quo serves them very, very well.
        They can’t see the material conditions that lead to Trumps because they’re not personally affected by them. They have no lived experience of them, so no concept of the decades it took to get us there.

  2. I wish the people of the great eagle, the rescuing bird of the world, would pay heed to its stupidly-inserted religion. Which, as far as I could see, at least in the red-lettered parts, were about owning your own shit. That they, and we, refuse to do so continues to perpetuate a Global South that we must outsource said unowned shit to.

    The shit has to go somewhere.

    Or maybe as Jung likely didn’t at all say, it all congealed into the collective unconsciousness and spewed itself out as Trump.

    Surprise, surprise, it all fits together!

    Thanks, Helen. As so often, what you write helps to somewhat cobble together my sanity.

    1. I wish I lived in a world where a communist critique of a feminist text could legitimately be considered clickbait.
      It’s fun that you think of this article as clickable.

  3. I read the Handmaid’s Tale and found it an extremely well-written story told from a female point-of-view in a world where female agency is limited. It is an excellent work of fiction – regardless of whether you think it is prescient of current politics or not.

    You may think it a ‘sack of balls’, as is your right of course, but it is regardless a good bit of writing even if it doesn’t float your political boat.

    Helen – once again, I read you both nodding and shaking my head at once.

    Works of fiction are not meant to be full-throated responses to anything. They are not meant to be entire treatises. They are stories and their primary purpose is to stay true to themselves.

    If people find something in the work which reflects their current experiences of the world than more power them. Who are you to tell them they are stupid and wrong to believe differently to you (as you so often do). And once again I find your actual, interesting point – which I read to be that the work doesn’t in any way interrogate the structural inequalities inherent in our system – unnecessarily burdened by hypercriticism.

    I also don’t share your pessimism, which in itself has bought into a narrative that serves exactly 8 people in the world. And that is, that everything is going to hell in a handbasket and we need people like Trump, and Le Pen and their like to save us.
    We have challenges – created in no small part by our problematic capitalist system. But we also have made great strides forward. The truth is never simple. Would that you could give everyone a bit of a break every now and then.

    1. Helen is simply pricking the precious balloon of a lot of self-righteous, shallow people who consider themselves above criticism. If these people were reflective and self-critical, they would never have been surprised by the rise of Trump and the hard right.

      The same people who consider The Handmaid’s Tale to be prescient also participated in the #BringBackOurGirls protest in the belief that being indignant about something would change anything.
      Imagine the hope raised among the girls abducted by Boko Haram; had they known of this social media movement.
      Imagine the joy as these people appeared at their prison gates.
      Imagine their dismay when this mob then turned away and congratulated themselves on having made a difference.

      The following excerpt from ‘The Life of Brian’ is illuminating:

      ‘Reg: [arriving at Brian’s crucifixion] Hello, Sibling Brian.
      Brian: Thank God you’ve come, Reg.
      Reg: Well, I think I should point out first, Brian, in all fairness, we are not, in fact, the rescue committee. However, I have been asked to read the following prepared statement on behalf of the movement. “We the People’s Front of Judea, brackets, officials, end brackets, do hereby convey our sincere fraternal and sisterly greetings to you, Brian, on this, the occasion of your martyrdom. ”
      Brian: What?
      Reg: “Your death will stand as a landmark in the continuing struggle to liberate the parent land from the hands of the Roman imperialist aggressors, excluding those concerned with drainage, medicine, roads, housing, education, viniculture and any other Romans contributing to the welfare of Jews of both sexes and hermaphrodites. Signed, on behalf of the P. F. J. , etc. ” And I’d just like to add, on a personal note, my own admiration, for what you’re doing for us, Brian, on what must be, after all, for you a very difficult time.’ – Monty Python.

      1. Brett: Alomg with Helen’s essay – the back and forth of those writing responses – this quote from The Life if Brian has made my day. I read Atwood’s book decades ago – and thought it – “interesting”?!! What would I know! But then around 17 years while visiting cousins in south-west Alberta I was taken to visit the neighbours – a Hutterite community. Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale so sprang immediately to mind – I kid you not. Too much to go into here – but look up/Google this Amish-like 18th century German religious farmer community/co-operative – clearly something like it must have been part of the research Atwood did for the writing.

        1. Jim- I get that. (I find the Life of Brian genuinely prescient and also historically accurate in the allegorical and humourous senses).

          The idea though that the government of the US will be overthrown by a bunch of Hutterites and anyone else they can cadge along is hilarious. The publicists are trying to gull the potential market.
          Clearly they are succeeding at least to some extent.

          You may well be right about Atwood’s inspiration. Just not so sure about her current motivations.

          1. I didn’t think I was arguing that a bunch of Hutterites were going to take over the government of the US – in fact the community I visited was in Atwood’s Canada. More the fact that Atwood may well have been basing aspects of her book on realities already present within society. In fact I grew up in a fundamentalist protestant sect with ideas on the place of women not too far removed…

    2. It is naive to think that authors don’t have political agendas or that they are not responsible for the meaning the reader gains from the work. It is after all an author’s trade and as you say, Atwood is a very skilled tradeswoman.

      It seems dystopian topics attract a certain type of woman writer with strong political agendas. Underwritten by Ayn Rand’s objectivist dictums, Suzanne Collins is another one with her Hunger Games series.

    3. Leaving aside my own view that the book is only competently written in the Atwood self-conscious “literary” style and doesn’t even bother to give the narrator a distinct voice (or one that contains any form of expression we may believe to be redolent of its time, which is kind of what makes things like A Clockwork Orange and 1984 so good) mt complaint is not that the book is bad.
      It’s that there are so many people, as mentioned and linked to in my piece, that say that it’s a spot-on snapshot of what might really happen. That is the object of my criticism.

  4. Exactly, Helen! Your thorough approach to your critical analyses of liberal chatterers are far too rare.

    Margaret Attwood shares a lot of the attributes of the doomsday preppers living in remote areas of forest storing up guns and food for the ‘inevitable’.

  5. I read The Handmaid’s Tale a couple of years ago, and I thought it was excellent. It’s obviously describing a dystopia different to Trumpian late capitalism, so the marketing is drawing a bit of a long bow there. But it’s also unfair to criticise the work itself – a liberal response to religious totalitarianism – for not being a Marxist response to liberalism. We have plenty of Razer articles for that.

    1. Because there are a lot of white middle-class tertiary educated liberal feminists who love hearing stories about the possibility of their own pain and basement. It’s porn for the Sheryl Sandberg set.

      1. Im not a lib fem but really object to this nasty characterisation and belittlement of women’s concerns. I really don’t understand your contempt for white middle class educated lib fems (although I’m glad you’ve actually made that distinction for a change, rather than just blaming feminism in general, if obliquely). Let’s face it, you and your readers, including myself, are mostly white middle class educated and I would guess identify as progressive – leaning. I often wonder who it is you are railing at, tho rarely specified, it seems to be other white middle class women, which you should really know is not a monolithic entity, being one yourself. It’s quite mystifying.

  6. I think you underestimate the influence of the Christian Dominionists. They are not an obscure clique of covert conspirators, but a major and overt faction in conservative politics in the USA, influencing vast swathes of voters and commanding very high office, including not least the Vice Presidency.

    Their project is not a sudden one of overthrowing the US Constitution, but it certainly is a gradual one of turning it to their specific purposes, eroding its protections for minorities and political opponents in the process.

  7. Critics of the ostensibly soft liberalism of The Handmaid’s Tale frequently fail to consider the political significance of its form. One, its self-conscious reflections on narrative as a form of knowledge remind us that the role of the novel is not to provide “solutions” to complex social and political problems but to raise crucial questions, to encourage readers to think for themselves instead of being bound to any kind of ideology, including feminism. Atwood suggests that the capacity for independent thinking is part of what defines our humanity and forms the basis of a just and humane society. Two, the claim that the events in the novel are implausible fails to understand that dystopian fiction works by extrapolating current events, pushing them to extremes. Those events are either deliberately exaggerated or de-naturalised through the use of cognitive estrangement. It might also be worth considering Atwood’s claim that there is nothing in the novel that hadn’t already happened when it was first published in 1985. Check out her essay on her use of historical actualities; it’s often included in an edition of the novel. Three, the novel’s self-conscious representation of the romance plot offers an astute criticism of the philosophy of individualism; it shows that the pursuit of happiness through sexual and emotional gratification can and often does make people indifferent to the need for social justice. It contrasts the selfishness of the main character, in love and indifferent to the suffering of others in her society, with the courageous and ultimately successful activities of the political activists – the Female Underground Railroad (the allusion to the Underground Railroad in 19th-century America is of course deliberate). Four,the novel’s coda – frequently overlooked by critics, as though it simply doesn’t exist – is used to warn us against political complacency. The coda is written in the form of a conference paper delivered by a male academic historian; the conference takes place about 150 years after the demise of the totalitarian regime. What’s important here is that while there are signs of progress in this new social order – the restoration of freedom of speech, the reinstatement of women in positions of authority, the regeneration of the natural environment – the male historian’s sexual objectification of women and his trivialisation of their political activism suggests that sexism and misogyny are deeply entrenched even in so-called liberal cultures. As such, the novel endorses the claim of the sociologist Bryan Taylor that “the control of women’s bodies is the basis of all social control.” Perhaps that’s the overarching idea of the novel. Maybe not. The novel ends, after all, with the words of the chairperson of the conference paper: “Are there any questions?”
    The Handmaid’s Tale is not a complacent liberal manifesto but an intelligent, shrewd and self-reflexive novel that constantly interrogates its ideological premises, including that of liberalism.

    1. If you think The Handmaid’s Tale’ is intelligent and shrewd, you really need to get out more.
      Cherry picking convenient historical incidents, crudely stitching them together and ignoring any of the real complexity of the world then using them to provide some kind of creedence to a go-girl fantasy story is a neat way to make money I guess.

    2. Thanks Susan Midalia, great analysis. I think Helen is confusing art and propaganda. If art has to conform to ideological imperatives it’s just propaganda. As you say, the role of art is not to provide solutions or neat little ideological packages. I disagree with you Helen, you have reduced a complex work into a simple narrative.

  8. Just one point though.

    iPhones, anti-lock brakes and other tech marvels would still be available to us without any attached blood if we insisted on it. It would just cost slightly more. It has been decades since raw materials have been a significant cost component of most products.

    For example: At best the current price of wheat in Australia which farmers here recieve is around $270/tonne.
    The price of a packet of Weetbix comes out at $3,200/tonne.
    The raw material of this nutritious breakfast cereal is 8% of the price a shopper pays.

    Copper is in almost every manufactured item we have (including iPhones)
    If an iPhone contains 50 grams of copper this forms a cost to the seller of 25c.
    Therefore if the price of copper quadrupled from $5/kg to $20/kg, the iPhone 7 would go from a price of $729 ot $730.
    (Disclaimer: I’m an Android)

    Assuming an average car contains 1.2 tonnes of iron (in steel). The cost of the iron in a $30,000 car is about $150.

    The biggest costs by far in manufactured products are research and development, taxes and marketing.

    People in third world countries do not subsidise first world wealth. It’s a myth.

    1. Right. I guess the whole idea of surplus on which our political economy is founded is a myth, too. And those “third world” persons just elected to be poor.
      Get off the prawns, sunshine, and read a little about the history of capitalism. Or even think about what it eventually means to profit from another human’s labour.
      (It’s tantalum from Congo.)

      1. Wealth is generated from the resources brought from the earth and converted through labour and technology into goods and the means to deliver services. This means everything from food and natural resources through to schools and hospitals.
        Surplus can go anywhere.

        Most of the poor live in countries that missed the initial waves of the industrial, tech and communications revolutions and the trade that went with them.
        Some countries in this category had colonial and then home grown governments which used part of their wealth to build education, infrastructure and the systems required for trade and good government.
        Other countries had exploitative colonial govements then their own domestic corrupt governments which failed to build what was necessary to lift their peoples out of poverty. The people were left behind in poverty because of the conduct of successive rotten ‘leaders’.

        China as it moves further away from communism and enbraces capitalism as it’s financial model is lifting its people out of poverty. So far 300 million people have benefited.

        Australia is the world’s largest producer of tantalum (about 50% of the global total) and has done this without exploiting anyone’s labour. If people are being exploited in Congo ( I have no reason to doubt this) the rule of law has failed.
        Interestingly, in Western Australia alone there are around 500 mines commercially producing almost every mineral used in industry globally.

        The history of capitalism that you have read is only an adjuct to the ideology of communism and just as fundamentally flawed.

        We all profit from each others’ labour, moonshine.

  9. Well I’m confused by what is meant by speed of change in society, surely the lessons of both the Russian and Chinese revolutions, not to mention various overthrows of colonial oppression, economic and social change can and did occur “with a moment’s notice”. More salient is the complete lack of any economic base for Atwood’s elites to take power, Trump, Turnbull and May all have the support of big capital and as recent events have shown they can screw even further anyone earning next to nothing. 1984 is as much shaped by Orwell’s colonial experiences as by his limited knowledge of totalitarianism. Colonial Burma is a much better model of 1984 than Stalin’s Russia while Atwood’s tale is a fantasy rather than a prescient look at the future.

    1. Russia and Chinese revolutions did indeed happen quickly, but only after a couple of hundred years of stagnation and serfdom beforehand.

      It’s got to get a lot uglier and for longer before that happens in the US.

      1. 60 years between the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party and the storming of the winter palace.

  10. Long before Atwood, Robert Heinlein’s 1940 novella “If This Goes On—” (incorporated into the novel “Revolt in 2100”) gave us a closer vision of Trump and is even pretty accurate with the time period. As the wikipedia article says, “it shows what might happen to Christianity in the United States given mass communications, applied psychology, and a hysterical populace. ”

    If you google “nehemiah scudder trump”, you’ll see this comparison has not gone unnoticed.

  11. Helen, again you made my day. At last someone who blew the lid off Atwood’s so-called feminist text. How people can see the Handmaid’s Tale as a prescient novel, must mean that they cannot read between the lines and discover the underlaying baddies and goodies in this book. I remember reading the book and having finished it with a feeling as if I had read an Ayan Rand piece of work, but this time not about the ‘natural world’ of big money, but of sexual difference. In the film that was even more poignant. This Handmaid’s Tale, was an old tale, of the poor oppressed young woman enlisted/saved by the hero in her /his fight against the monster/old woman.
    To think it was something like a feminist Orwell science fiction, come off it! As for its usefulness to explain Trump……….no self-analysis it the cause of Trump!

  12. Great review, Helen, thank you. I hated “The Handmaid’s Tale” almost as much as I hated Ayn Rand’s repulsive tomes—which someone at university suggested I read many years ago. Interesting connection there: Atwood with Rand.

    1. Yes, it is. You’re not the first person to suggest it to me today, either.
      I’d never made the connection before. I guess Offred is a bit of a John Galt!

  13. Well put:
    “You don’t just come and steal the land and the material resources of an ancient society and expect things to be hunky dory once your Christian Prime Minister says sorry and pays the rent in tears. The theft will continue “in your name” until it is recognised as a foundational and a systematic theft.”

  14. I really enjoyed the book when I read it, years ago. I find it bizarre that anyone would think it prescient in any way though, whatever gets you thru the night I guess.

  15. The other problem with the ‘clairvoyant’ aspect of the Attwood book and more specifically this TV series “because Trump” is chronology. This series was committed by Hulu in April 2016. At that time most “reasonable” commentary and most of the the “informed” analysis were predicting a loss for Trump. In retrospect, we now know they were wrong.
    In a general sense, sense The Handmaid’s Tale as a book is strong argument about the dangers of religious puritanism, but to then continue this argument to say that this TV series is about Trump et al. defies logic.

  16. I’m a Margaret Atwood co-generationist and kids, it’s great to see you can all string a sentence or two together! But kids, you could argue it this way. The US of A HAS BECOME a Puritan Dystopia – first, the Pilgrim Fathers, then, give or take a war of independence and a civil war, and bingo! Trump! You could argue that (allowing for a few Catholics to seep quietly up the left hand side of the map) Margaret Atwood was very prescient. And if you were a person at MGM, why wouldn’t you kind of, more-or-less, argue along these lines? Because you gotta sell it. They probably have an actress there with enough silicon in her lips to look interesting in a puritanical cap. They want to use her. They haven’t the imagination of Monty Python, so they can’t do a segue straight from the landing of the Mayflower to Donald, so they cast about a bit for a book with a puritan girl in it – Ah! The Handmaid! But soft, had they had a brain among them, they might have gone for Sinclair Lewis’s ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ written in 1935 with Musso and Adolf all the rage in Europe. In this book, the silly Yanks who waited too long can’t get over the border into Canada because the Minute Men are guarding all the exit points. But would the movie sell? Who would have played the benighted journalist with the cobbled together press in his basement, the wife warming to the dictator, and the administration closing in? Far too complex for modern audiences. Better to haul out something Attwood co-generationists might remember and say to the kids – oh, that was a good book, let’s go and see the movie – or watch it on the box – there are enough oldies left to make a profit from ‘The Handmaid’ – but pre-WWII, WTF?

    1. Actually I’ve now had a look at episodes 1 and 2 of the TV production and I’m quite enthralled. This isn’t prescience – it’s allegory. Very well thought out, too. Think how far biblical stereotypes categorised women before they had control of their fertility. Everything, including employment and professional prospects was down to age and fecundity. Being a woman could deny you opportunities that were open to men – a friend with an HI in Science from Melbourne U was excluded from a live-in trainging session at a major lab in Canberra because of her gender. I suffered slurs on my own qualifications first hand because of my gender – these are specific instances of something that was universal – we just expected it to happen, and it did.

  17. It’s always great when someone tries to explain why a novel I happen to like is crap by a) expounding on the limitations of the “analysis” or whatever contained therein, i.e. things I figured out myself when I was actually reading it; and b) going into a really basic Marxism 101 lecture, as if those facts hadn’t been branded into my memory long ago. Congrats on explaining stuff I already knew, in the most smug way possible, without actually convincing me Atwood’s novel is actually bad.

    Protip: If your reason for reading science fiction is so obsessively literal–whether it’s predicting the future or extracting some kind of readymade analysis that can be immediately applied to real life–don’t even bother with it. This applies to those anti-Trump libs too btw.

    1. There are currently dozens of pieces, linked to within the article, proclaiming the novel’s prescience. Including one in the New Yorker. That I don’t happen to like the novel is by-the-by. This was about those claims that “it could happen here”.
      These claims are currently very prevalent. By many people who have never, unlike yourself, had an introduction to Marx, a thinker who has not been taught in universities for over thirty years. Consider yourself lucky to have had that education. Many haven’t.

  18. Is it just me or is anyone else perplexed by this tirade? Helen, The Handmaid’s Tale is just a book, it’s not meant as any profound treatise on feminism or patriarchal oppression, nor to my knowledge, has Atwood claimed otherwise. Comparisons with Ayn Rand are specious. Rand saw herself as a staunch defender of capitalism, and wrote many essays on the subject. Nor could she write – I gave up Atlas Shrugged after two chapters. Atwood’s political agenda seems limited to saving endangered Canadian wildlife, and by the way, she did win the Man/Booker prize, so some literary talent must exist unless there’s a conspiracy among the judges.

    I haven’t seen the TV series, so I can’t comment on that. I did read the book three decades ago, and found it both entertaining and occasionally thought provoking, spoiled only by a lame ending. I can’t help feeling that judging a book nearly thirty five years old by by today’s standards of politics and recent history is setting it up to fail.

    1. Again. From the outset, this article strives to review the many others currently in press, including a prominent piece in the New Yorker, that say the book is prescient.
      The book was sold from the time of its publication as a “forecast”.
      This article challenges those assumptions.
      I made that clear.

      1. Well, Helen, isn’t this the fault of the New Yorker rather than Atwood? Challenge the assumptions by all means; I have no argument with that, or with taking a swipe at the opportunistic Hulu execs. But if I had a dollar for every stoner and hippy who saw revelations and deeper meanings in The Lord Of The Rings, I’d… uh… well… be able to afford a slightly bigger TV. Maybe upon which to watch The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t blame Tolkien for his books, or for his legions of somewhat delusional fans, and perhaps Atwood’s novel, removed from current politics, should be cut some slack.

        1. The entire article challenges the assumption of critics. It’s not a diss to Atwood, who still, it should be said, defends her own work as prescient.
          Not sure what your problem is.

  19. Helen, I appreciate your thoughts expressed in your writings and responses to comments. Can you please provide a summary of Marxism to save me from a Wikipedia search. Stevie

    1. Lol, Stevie. I get asked this often.
      As such, I have written a book for Allen & Unwin coming out in October 2017 which strives to do this. Working title is Total Propaganda.
      It takes me 50,000 words to do it. Which, believe me, is short! And, probably, in large part, cause for argument between other Marxists.
      Meantime, you could read Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right.
      I am not fobbing you off! It’s just a set of ideas that relies on an understanding of the shape of capitalism and the history of other modes of production (feudalism, slavery, subsistence) and how these produce certain social conditions.
      In short, capitalism is a necessary phase in human development. It’s reached the end of its rope!

      1. Thanks Helen.
        No fobbing experienced.
        I believe communism and Marxism have not been properly tried, despite seeming rejection.
        Will read Terry’s book (I appreciate the pointing of the direction) and await the publication of yours, meanwhile learning from your various blog comments.

  20. I’m sorry to say that this is an absolute train-wreck of an article, full of petty jibes, snide comments and feeble excuses. I don’t have the will to comb through all the misrepresentations, lack of references and non-sequiturs, but hope a small sample will point the way to any who wish to venture further.

    To begin at the start – this is a blatant and undisguised attack on the author and the book, which accounts for many comments below the line: not a cogent critique with examples and criticisms but an incessant rant of Trumpian proportions: “an unremarkable work of speculative fiction”, “marketed for its prescience”, “was a ‘forecast’ of things to come”, “has the intellectual depth of an ABC lifestyle program” and “this sack of old balls”.

    Then, becoming apparently increasingly irritated, “The article I wrote engages with the praise that the book is prescient” and “This article challenges those assumptions. I made that clear.” It’s patently far from clear which is why many comments complained: can you perhaps point to the relevant passage where you feel you did make it clear?

    Finally “There are currently dozens of pieces, linked to within the article, proclaiming the novel’s prescience” (there are actually four) – two quoting the same article, from over 30 years ago). Finally, the wheels come off – “I was criticising the five hundred articles that call it a work of keen perception”.

    If you had read the NY Times article you quote, you will note Attwood dealt with the “forecast” and “prescience” question: she replied “No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an anti-prediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen.”

    More sensible, matter of fact, and dare one say, sober? If you want to offer a serious critique of the book, I’ sure it will be interesting and perhaps challenging: and likewise if you wanted to discuss the original marketing and publisher’s tactics. However, I’m afraid this article simply won’t do.

    1. Hi JO,

      Nowhere in the article does Helen say that Atwood made claims she was prescient. She states repeatedly it was MARKETED that way.
      This is a fact.

      ‘…speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale was marketed for its prescience. The publisher promised that this book, which depicted an America now cruelly governed by an ultra-Puritan minority, was a “forecast” of things to come……. Thirty years later, the US is now cruelly governed by corporate rather than religious overlords, yet folks just keep on saying that Atwood is an actual clairvoyant.

      In any case, are you so naive or shallow as to believe that Atwood was ignorant of the marketing detail of her own work?

      Helen has attacked the cynical and condescending ‘too-clever-by-half attitude obviouusly flaunted by Atwood and her publicists/publishers.


      1. Um, quote from the article: “Still, everyone and her pit bull, including Atwood herself, is going on and on about how this particular fiction, freed from the bonds of history, is prescient.” The phrase “including Atwood herself” seems pretty clear: Razer is absolutely claiming Atwood makes this claim of prescience, no?

  21. Oh, yes, Margaret Atwood, the prophetess. Except that she was a contemporary of Romania’s Ceausescu, and, consequently, of his natalist policies. There was a time when this used to be cited as direct inspiration for her opus. Are over 20 years of tales of real ‘handmaidens’, from all social classes, only worthy of a sentence in a guardian article nowadays? That, while the novel gets canonized and expensively adapted? One doesn’t need an dystopian novel to see the effects of reproduction-based oppression when real, living people are there to tell the story. We have documents and a respectable body of research (kudos to the amazing Gail kligman) that document the reality of these kinds of policies.
    Is it so very hard to mentally replace national-flavoured totalitarian socialism with religious and capitalist oppression of women? Were the generations of my mother and my grandmother too eastern and too ‘communist’ for the right or too white and assuming of their plight in the eyes of the left? Or is it because, after the fall of the regime, babies have been similarly produced for or brought by progressive, open-minded westerners. Noble hearts who had no remorse in overstepping the laws of a fledgling democracy in order to aquire their little white charity cases. And how our shocking orphanages have only been fashionable for a couple of years. Are they not proof of what value for only the philosophical, religious idea of life amounts to? Are republicans not as concerned about the wellbeing of the children (once they re out) as the powers that locked them in those horrid places, some decades ago?

    Here, Atwood’s novel is only causing a mild stir among the ‘free-born’ of Romanian women. It’s hardly effective on a generation whose victims are, best case scenario, unheard handmaidens going about their lives in a world enamored with prophecies.

  22. “History has the irritating habit of unfolding, and not simply occurring.” Very good. Thanks for thoughtful article.

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