Quick review: The Handmaid’s Tale (book)

In this review, I am talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Artwood and published in 1985, in which Offred, a young handmaid, is sent to a family to be the surrogate womb of a couple that can’t carry, in a society where women have no right anymore.

The Handmaid’s Tale is getting more popular now thanks to the recent Hulu series, but since I don’t subscribe to Hulu, I decided to read the novel instead. Written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, the Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the nation of Gilead, a post-USA theonomic state that is run through a very literal application of the bible. Basically the utopia of white christian (male) supremacists. In this wonderful new country, we follow Offred, who has fallen really low in the social hierarchy, first because she is a woman, and then because she tried to escape this magnificent paradise. The really wise men in power probably didn’t understand why on earth (which is flat obviously) she’d want to do that, so they placed her in the very charitable position of being the surrogate womb of an unlucky couple who can’t have kids, and that way, maybe God will forgive her for her sins. Or else she’s a useless eater, and she would get the rope treatment, 3rd Reich style.

It’s not a story of great heroes. It’s a story of survival and resilience. It’s the story of the people who end up living in a despotic government and keep their head down, accepting every humiliation hoping that some day they will see brighter days. People are not all ready to fight. Here, the resistants seem to exist, maybe, but they are in the background, while Offred is the narrator. It’s her story, her struggle to stay alive until she can find a way out. She tells it from the beginning: she intends to survive. She will do everything she’s asked to do, because she has no other choice. She tried her luck once and she was lucky she wasn’t executed or sent to a labour camp, thanks to being able to carry a child, so she will carry one again, for someone else, and maybe have a better opportunity later. But what opportunity? That’s the biggest question mark. She doesn’t know what would become of her after she gives them a child, especially since it’s the beginning of the new government and they don’t really have thorough regulations on the matter. But she only have hopes, hope that her daughter is fine, hope that maybe her husband has survived, and that’s the only thing that keeps her going.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a really great and frightening story. It’s great because the story is so well crafted that it seems all so plausible. And it’s frightening because, well, it seems so plausible, especially when we hear what some US officials say nowadays. This tale shows us what’s the worse that could happen if we let evangelists and christian extremists run a country, and the thought I couldn’t get out of my head all the time I was reading was that in this novel, the government falls after a coup d’état, but in my opinion this kind of situation is more likely to happen without a civil war. With years and years of carefully escalated despotism, until the time it becomes impossible to stop it without a fight, a theocratic government could be installed without a real struggle. Maybe they didn’t think that it was plausible back in the 80’s. After all, the only example they had of a new theocratic government was Iran, and it had to go through a violent revolution to put it in place, so I can imagine they didn’t think people would willingly vote for the same person who would gleefully take that right to vote away from them, even though it happened before.

I can only recommend this novel. It’s a cautionary tale in the same vein as 1984 and deserve the same appreciation, while we are still allowed to read.

Quick review: Seveneves (Neil Stephenson)

In this review, I talk about Seveneves, a sci-fi novel by Neil Stephenson, about a cataclysm that makes humanity finds its survival in orbit, waiting to colonise the Earth again. Great story, burdened by too much technical jargon and an abrupt end that it’s just there begging to be continued.

I took time before writing this review. I was wondering if I was going to do it at all. See, I don’t have much time to talk about everything I read or watch, so I try to focus on the works that I really liked, that I can recommend. But I really don’t know what to think about Seveneves. It was so different from what I expected that I still don’t really know if I like it or not. It took me several months to make it to the end⁽¹⁾, just because I really didn’t see if there would be an end at all. And in a sense, there wasn’t.

The back cover says that it’s the story of people who lived in space for several thousands years while Earth recovered from a catastrophe, and were then trying to make it back to the surface. That sounded really interesting. Maybe they didn’t know, or didn’t remember, what happened to Earth and were about to find out while they make the first settlements.

But that’s actually not what it talks about. It starts now when the catastrophe happens, and humanity have two years to find a solutions to send as many people they can to orbit before Earth’s surface gets utterly destroyed by a several-thousand-year moon rain⁽²⁾. And that’s two thirds of the novel. The story advertised is only the last third, and feels so abrupt that it seems like there should be another book following. In some way, this end looks like the end of the Cryptonomicon, where the characters find the treasure and scene. But at least the “quest” of the heroes was finished. In Seveneves, they have just met a new civilization and it’s the conclusion? Seriously? I want to know more. How the fuck did they survive? It’s not explained. I want to know that. Also, right before the meeting, they were that close to going into war with their arch-enemies. How does that go? Is it over? Do they make peace?

I personally find that disappointing. Building up the suspense for 600 hundred pages, to end up on a cliffhanger. But if there is something you can’t take from Neil Stephenson, it’s that he really does his homework. And he really wants to show it off too. At some point it’s an overdose of technical details that are really hard to picture because no such devices or technologies currently exist. So it’s sometimes nauseous and other times plain boring, turning pages of technical details before any action happens… And I get it, it’s hard sci-fi, but does it have to be so much detailed to be categorised as such? If the technical side makes sense, then it’s hard sci-fi, whether it’s explained down to the atom or just enough to understand the concept.

And I really feel sad about this situation, because it’s a very good story but hundred of pages are just dedicated to technical jargon in a level of details that has little to no effect on the actual story. It’s just there for the author to show that he’s not making shit up⁽³⁾, when he could instead focus on detailing some element of story or characters.

So in the end, I really enjoyed the story. It’s really well thought of, with a nice bunch of well-explored characters, but all this is burdened by technical details that tend to make the book more boring than interesting. And the story’s end is so abrupt I’m still wondering if I wasn’t missing another hundred pages.

 

⁽¹⁾ It’s a 850-page novel, but still.

⁽²⁾ They call it the “Hard Rain”. Basically, an unknown event breaks the Moon down into several parts, that subsequently break down into smaller and smaller parts through collision until a million rocks surround the Earth and end up falling on the surface, burning everything. Shiny!

⁽³⁾ Well, he is making shit up though, since it’s science-fiction. It’s just a very-well-researched shit.

Quick note: The Hate U Give/Seven Seconds

Crime against African-American people in America is a hot topic, so hot that many works of fictions are made on the subject. I am no expert, far from it, but I’m always interested in filling some of the blank in my own knowledge, to complement the limited information that we get in the press.

Crime against African-American people in America is a hot topic, so hot that many works of fictions are made on the subject. I am no expert, far from it, but I’m always interested in filling some of the blank in my own knowledge, to complement the limited information that we get in the press. So recently, I have read and watched back to back two works on the subject, that are very different, both in terms of media and treatment.

Williamson Starr

The first one was The Hate U Give, first novel from Angie Thomas. It follows Starr, a high school girl who witnesses the murder of her friend by a policeman. She tries to avoid having to talk about it publicly or even give a witness account of the event until she can’t take it anymore and comes to realise that her silence is making it worse for her friend’s memory.

Then I followed with Seven Seconds, a Netflix show created by Veena Sud (The Killing US) about a cop who accidentally kills a young boy on his bike, but leaves him for dead until he is found by a passerby hours later. In this one, the story follows all the protagonists. It focuses on the prosecutor, KJ Harper, but also shows the perspective of the cops, the family and the witness.

seven-seconds-netflix

First, let’s focus on what make them stand apart. The first obvious thing is the type of crime: while The Hate U Give depicts a cop who shoots a kid because he thought he was armed (which becomes his line of defence), in Seven Seconds, it starts with an accident (texting and driving), but becomes a conspiracy of four officers (the first cop is helped by his colleagues) to cover the crime.

Then, Angie Thomas is so focused on her main character (who narrates the story) that every one else serves her narrative. In that regard, it takes a lot from coming-of-age stories, but on top of teenage feelings, family troubles and the discovery of adulthood, her friend is shot dead in front of her eyes. Nevertheless, the other characters are not accessory, they have deep personalities and reasonably lead Starr in her path. Veena Sud’s story is at the complete opposite. It wants to show everyone’s side. Not so you can empathise with the killer, but to understand everyone’s motivation.

Now, in the end, both stories have huge similarities. They both showcase the death of a young black boy who has links in the drug rings, which is used by the media to steer the public opinion, and the family tries to disprove it, both stories keeping the suspense on the matter until the end. They also show that cops can get out of killing black people pretty easily, even when evidence of wrongdoing is staggering, and the novel and the show keep realistic about it. The verdicts are neither over-dramatic or optimistic, they only reflect the current situation.

But that’s not where they draw the biggest interest. Their main feature is that they both show a tormented character who feels helpless and with the help of a few people, will rise to the challenge and help the cause. Starr is still a teenager, and the choices she makes will echo all her life and define her. Her story ends with the discovery of who she want to be, and it could only have happened because of the choices she made with or against the good will of her friends and family. In Seven Seconds, KJ has hit the glass ceiling, is haunted by a past investigation, and she gets to investigate this death that has no hope of leading to a conviction. As she gets discouraged and then supported by the only policeman who actually gives a crap (and serves as a comic relief), she has to face barriers and obstacles to uncover the truth. In the end, even if she doesn’t really win (nobody does, seeing their faces), she gains the respect of her peers, and most importantly, her own.

So, are they worth reading/watching? Definitely. The Hate U Give brought me several times to tears. It’s very powerful, and I was staying late at night to finish it. It is also refreshing to see that it is full of humour despite the serious subject. Seven Seconds is also good. Being 10 episodes, it trails sometimes, mainly because of the mother-uncle’s ark, which tends to be sloppy, and some moments at the end when it goes over the top. But the series is so well played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, and even though it didn’t create the same effect than Angie Thomas’ novel, I still recommend it because it’s a really important story and it makes a lot of efforts to remain honest, especially by keeping the human side of all characters.