So I finally read "The Handmaid’s Tale." I put it off as long as possible.
I knew my obsessive tendencies would lead me down a tunnel, starving for binge-watching the Hulu series and reading interviews of Margaret Atwood, the author. Her tale of society as we know it, completely stripped of humanity, is described so clearly that it lingers in the mind for days. The same mind-muffling struck me when I binge-watched "The Tudors" a decade ago. I had to harden my stomach and my heart in order to swallow how humans were once so dark, ignorant, and too scared to give basic mercy. Would I have played along and survived or been beheaded on Tower Hill with the enlightened? As each episode ended, I felt relief with the past in the past.
But Atwood’s story is 20th century, and Hulu’s version is now. The most radical thinking overturned the United States into the most grotesque example of a fundamentalist biblical slaughter-scape. The most haunting quality, though, is not the bloodshed, mutilations, and rapes, but the underbelly of the story. Its guts: Life as we experience it today is vulnerable. Its fragility could crack tomorrow.
As a species, humans have issues we recognize. We abuse the earth. We abuse each other. There is tremendous growth yet to be made by us for us before we can say with complete confidence that we’ve got this thing in the bag. But we’ve also come a long way from where we once were. We hug our lovers freely, educate our daughters, and pray to whomever we want. Still there is opposition, always festering with the same root frustration that leads to any rebellion. Tales like the handmaid’s are a reminder that the unthinkable is conceivable.
Dystopian plots work because they force awareness as we take a second look at the cracks in our utopia. The fictitious country of Gilead in Atwood’s book is at once a warning to readers. The inconceivable intertwines with conceivable. Where does fiction end and reality take over?
At this very moment we’re answering the question. Take robotics, for example.
Flying cars are a thing of the present. Ask Uber. Robots aren’t just joining surgery units, they are part of restaurants, production teams, and poised to be a cheaper and error-free worker at your job one day. Industry is diligently developing robotic consciousness so that robots can reason with us. Scary? Perhaps. But the same industry is developing 3D printers that could, maybe in your lifetime, print a fresh organ for transplant that will save your life each time, making the average human lifespan jump well beyond 100 years. Our next chapter could have very well, it seems, been predicted by The Jetsons. But not everyone will call it progress. Some careers will end while others soar. Who gets mercy?
Suffering of the few for the greater good is another Handmaid theme that seems obvious to navigate. But could we recognize good from bad when history has shown us that we haven’t before? Humans were handed the enormous responsibility of lasting. Only this didn’t come with a set of instructions. We’re drawn to direction—like the Bible, the Quran, science, and philosophies. But our methods have led to bloody messes and victories, depending on which side of history you stand. In Gilead it’s ruled that women’s freedoms led to the problems that sparked the uprising. Reverse history—strip women of education, jobs, even the pleasure to read and write—and mask it as some sick feminism while exalting to such an extreme the ability to give birth that followers actually believe Gilead is a matriarchal society celebrating womanhood. We’re not stupid enough to be swayed by such fanatics.
Yet, we’ve blindly played along before. Protestants were burned at the stake in the name of God. Africans were chained because power deemed them savages. Children have been separated from their parents because it was law. Even here, New Orleans succumbed to unthinkable chaos after Hurricane Katrina. Reasons are always given to justify what shocks, and time and again our emotions prove to be as fragile as our convictions actually were. Ignite fear, and people will follow. Always.
But robots are man-made, not an army, and the past is in the past. We’ve evolved enough by now to safeguard the progress we’ve gained as practical humans. Or have we? One person’s progress is another’s regression. Someone will always resist. That’s why all of these dystopian stories from then to now suck us in. The pattern is just familiar enough. Somehow we know it’s possible that we haven’t evolved enough from our ignorance to save us from ourselves.
I know enough to know that while I sleep beneath a safe roof, my husband beside me, send my children off to an open-minded education, and see my opinions freely published week after week, it’s foolish to take it for granted. We are as vulnerable to our demise as were those before us and those we write under fiction. We will either “step up into the darkness within; or else the light.”
May our directions open.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.