By Rosie Sourbut
Author’s Note: Trigger warning for mentions of sexual violence.
Following Donald Trump’s election, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Talehas become alarmingly prescient. The novel depicts a United States that has been replaced by a dystopian society, Gilead. A fundamentalist ‘Christian’ government rules over Gilead, and has removed all freedoms from women and forced fertile women into sexual slavery. Atwood has spoken of her fear that the novel could be used as an ‘instruction manual’ if the current vice president, Mike Pence, were to take control in the event of Trump’s impeachment. The fact that Trump’s impeachment would pose a greater threat to women’s rights than his continued presidency is as shocking as it is horrific. After all, this is the man who has bragged about sexually assaulting women; this is the president who has pulled US funding from women’s reproductive healthcare services in developing countries.
Atwood’s fear over the plausible occurrence of her novels’ predictions is reflective of her characterisation of her own works — she rejects the label of science fiction, preferring the more realist one of ‘speculative fiction’. For Atwood, everything in her novels either has happened, is happening, or could happen; she is simply ‘writing reality as it is unfolding.’ Given that many of her novels show dystopian futures plagued by hyper-capitalist dictatorships, mainstream sexual violence and exploitation, and environmental degradation, it is frightening to know that Atwood considers these futures to be entirely probable and in many ways already present in society. Yet simultaneously, Atwood refers to her dystopian worlds as ‘unpredictions’. This neologism references her primary objective in putting her worlds onto paper. By examining current social trajectories and writing about the catastrophic potential she foresees from their continuation, Atwood hopes to use her books to bring people’s attention to dangers burgeoning in society and to help prevent dystopian worlds from coming into being.
"It is frightening to know that Atwood considers these futures to be entirely probable and in many ways already present in society. Yet simultaneously, Atwood refers to her dystopian worlds as ‘unpredictions’"
Alongside the consistently and prominently discussed theme of female oppression in Atwood’s oeuvre, another theme of her work is becoming increasingly salient. With a climate change denier in the White House who has withdrawn the US from the global Paris agreement, the environment is under greater threat. Throughout Atwood’s canon, Atwood focuses attention on how female exploitation under capitalism is often abetted and accompanied by environmental disaster. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a fertility crisis provoked by environmental factors has provided an excuse for the sexual enslavement of fertile women. Women who rebel – ‘unwomen’ – are given the choice of either prostitution in Jezebel’s or exile in toxic colonies left uninhabitable after chemical accidents and environmental disasters.
Atwood’s post-apocalyptic MaddAddam Trilogy, meanwhile, explores the aftermath of a bioengineer’s decision to release a plague through ‘BlyssPluss’ – an all-purpose pill serving as a contraceptive, STI vaccine, sexual stimulant, and aging antidote. The plague’s purpose is to replace humanity with a ‘perfect’ human species, not only divested of jealousy, art, and religion, but capable of feeding off leaves and living in harmony with nature. Hence ends a world rife with inequality, recognisable as belonging to the not-too-distant future, where the wealthy elite in sheltered Compounds feast on endangered species' fleshwhile poor ‘pleeblanders’ struggle under oppressive conditions. In the trilogy’s second novel, the narrator Toby is one such ‘pleeblander’ who works at SecretBurgers, whose ruthless exploitation of their employees is only matched by their ingenuity at churning miscellaneous animal proteins (including humans from the pleeblands) into burgers. More and more animals have become extinct, while new animal types have been bioengineered to serve the curiosities and supposed needs of humans, including unnervingly intelligent ‘pigoons’ with some human brain tissue. Consumer capitalism is presented as a highly destructive force. The Corporations rule supreme with their own law enforcement, and the OilCorps even have their own affiliated PetroBaptists and Church of PetrOleum where oil is worshipped.
The MaddAddam Trilogy is ambivalent in its presentation of many social forces and the role they have to play in environmental protection. Religion is a front for accruing power and promoting destructive agendas, as exemplified by the Church of PetrOleum. However, there are also more complicated presentations of religion, with the second book, The Year of the Flood, being narrated by two members of the God’s Gardeners, an environmentalist survivalist cult that stresses the importance of living in harmony with nature but ultimately plays a critical role in enabling the spread of the plague; whether this is deliberate or not remains uncertain. The God’s Gardeners and their leader Adam could be interpreted as well-meaning but naive, with narrators Toby and Ren finding their restrictions stifling and Zeb questioning the effectiveness of their commitment to pacifism. Responsible for unleashing the plague, they could also be seen as complicit in the destruction of humanity. Whether this destruction should be viewed as wholly negative, given the brutality and inequality among the human race that has been largely wiped out, is another question.
At the same time, the trilogy pokes fun at contemporary environmental movements. The conservation programme ‘Bearlift’ lives off ‘the good intentions of city types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving something.’ Atwood calls out the corporatism present even in charity at the same time as she highlights the darker pharmaceutical corporatism of ‘HelthWyzer’. The vegetarianism of the God’s Gardeners is mocked, too, with most of the Gardeners who survive the apocalypse returning to meat-eating with a certain zest. Yet Atwood’s trilogy also makes sharply obvious the need for such movements by providing a visceral picture of the degraded planet that we are creating, so that the overall sentiment Atwood communicates is a frustration that environmentalist movements are not able to create the behavioural changes necessary to save the planet.
Similarly, Atwood presents the impact of technological advancement ambivalently. Since she began writing the trilogy in 2003, many of the inventions she predicted have come closer into being. Atwood addresses this in the acknowledgements section of MaddAddam: ‘Although MaddAddamis a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.’ Despite rejecting the label of science-fiction, many of the technological word mashes Atwood creates for her world have a certain sci-fi ring to them that can distance the reader from recognising their proximity to the world of today, but the bioengineering of new animals and diseases is now very much a possibility and in some cases in practice. Atwood has described our new technology as ‘a double-edged sword’, unable to be simplified to either ‘a curse or a blessing’. The ability to create new biological species is neither ‘good or bad’.
Just how close is Atwood’s writing to the world of today? The fertility crisis that provided a partial political excuse for the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is burgeoning; male sperm counts have halved. The exact cause of this decline is unknown, but the environmental factors blamed in the novel’s epilogue are likely contenders. Meanwhile, in The MaddAddam Trilogy, it is a global pandemic that has pushed an already dystopian society to the brink of extinction. While widespread, deadly pandemics like bird flu and HIV have emerged through intensive farming methods including that of bushmeat, a naturally occurring pandemic that would wipe out all members of humanity outside of seclusion seems unlikely. The human race has, after all, survived many plagues before. However, the possibility for a disease developed and spread by bioterrorists exists. As our understanding of viruses increases, it is possible that this knowledge could be used by some to manufacture deliberately deadly diseases. Before the plague, the HelthWyser Corporation of the MaddAddam world was already spreading illnesses through its vitamin pills for which it then provided the costly cures. The privatisation of healthcare poses a public health risk in that, when profit is the driving force behind treatment, an unhealthy population becomes more profitable to corporate healthcare providers.
Pre-apocalypse MaddAddam also disturbingly echoes our current reality, simply with familiar dark forces taking on a more prominent role. Accompanying this fact are also unsettling implications for the condition of society and the world. The depravities of internet culture have accelerated and child pornography (‘HottTotts’) and virtual reality simulations of pornified beheadings (‘Feel This Hot Red-Head Spurt!’) are commonly available. Meanwhile, sex trafficking is rife. In the brothel where narrator Ren works, an option she finds the best available to her after financial circumstances force her out of college, alongside the skilled trapeze artists like her there are also many trafficked women considered physically disposable to the whims of clients like the ‘Painballers’, criminals who have survived a televised fight-to-the-death Painball. Oryx, one of the titular characters of the first book, is herself a victim of child abuse and sex trafficking. She captures the obsessive interest of both the narrator and his best friend Crake, the future bioengineer of the global pandemic, who as teenagers view videos of her abuse, and she is later made to play an integral role in Crake’s plot. She is largely voiceless throughout the novels, disempowered as a woman, a foreigner and the victim of child abuse and trafficking, with the narrator and Crake projecting their fantasies onto her while the reader is made uncomfortably aware through this individual of experiences commonly ignored.
The novels link the intensification of violence against women to the intensification of environmental degradation. A hypercapitalism has emerged, rooted in extraction - of oil, by the Petrocorps, of sex, by the Secscorps - in which everything and everyone is a commodity. Nearly all the female characters in the trilogy suffer repeated sexual abuse, with Toby raped repeatedly by her boss at SecretBurgers in the pre-pandemic world, while Ren and her childhood friend Amanda both suffer repeated rape after the pandemic. The sexual violence permeating the novel is not an element purely of the dystopian society predicted but an already-present reality. Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked every year, the vast majority female and half of them children. In the UK, 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual assault. When asked why all the women in her books endure such suffering, Atwood replied that it is because most women suffer similarly in reality.
Atwood draws attention to the fact that climate change perpetuates inequality, both internationally and between genders. The effects of climate change fall disproportionately upon women, and Atwood has predicted that this will only increase as climate change progresses: ‘Less food will mean that women and children get less, as the remaining food supplies will be unevenly distributed, even more than they are’. The ‘social unrest’ she foresees will harm women - ‘Women do badly in wars - worse than in peacetime.’ Here, Atwood refers to the intensification of violence against women that often accompanies war.
The framing of climate change as a gender-based issue is an important perspective. Social unrest and the violence that so often accompanies it, depleted water supplies and a lengthening of the time taken to collect water, a shortage of food and the unequal divisions of food between men and women - all these factors will be exacerbated at the expense of women as climate change progresses. Women in poverty, such as Toby in MaddAddam, and especially women in developing countries, will be worst affected. Climate change’s disproportionate effect upon the global poor, which also disproportionately comprise women, will contribute to this. Climate change is a social justice issue, and tackling it is a crucial part of tackling inequality. Atwood’s work can serve to ignite thought about the links between gender injustice, global inequality and climate change, and push us to find integrated solutions to these problems.
Despite Atwood talking about the human harm arising from climate change as if it were an inevitability, the tone of her novels seems optimistic. The novels point to the resilience of women and of life on earth: Toby, Amanda and Ren survive horrific sexual abuse and, despite their subsequent trauma, rebuild their lives. Toby goes on to become a crucial member of the God’s Gardeners and then a fundamental figure in the new post-pandemic society, and finds self-sufficiency, romantic love and satisfaction within an educational role. Towards the end of the final novel, Toby begins to see a re-emergence of the spunky young Amanda she knew in the pleeblands. Atwood does not understate the suffering of these characters, yet allows them to move beyond it. Likewise, the trilogy asserts a belief that the planet will survive, in some form, whatever humanity does to it. The trilogy ends with the new birth of human-Craker babies, with the transmission of knowledge to the Crakers, and with friendly relations established between the human and pigoon civilisations. This theme of survival is a trend throughout Atwood’s work, running from early in her career when she wrote a thematic guide to Canadian literature named Survival. The forms of life left in the world of MaddAddam are strange and different, but they have still survived to witness a better world. Perhaps intelligent life can continue, despite the efforts of the bioengineers of pandemics. Perhaps there is still time, even, for us to heed the ‘unpredictions’ of Atwood and tackle the dystopian world we are creating.