Thursday, 4 May 2017

Dystopian novels by Margaret Atwood - Handmaid's Tale / Oryx and Crake [Review]


Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Rating: ★★★★

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Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...

Title: Oryx and Crake
Author: Margaret Atwood
Rating: ★★★1/2

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Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.


In light of recent events in the world , I decided to re-read the Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel which I had once read in high school. Back then, I thought it to be a pretty strange book and I couldn't really relate to it. But, perhaps because of reading it a second time, maturing, or recent politics, I now found it a terrific story with a terrible message. Because I liked this book so much, I started reading Oryx and Crake, another dystopian novel by Atwood. This too I finished quickly, but, although I very much enjoyed it, it stuck with me less than the Handmaid's Tale.

The most interesting thing about these two dystopians is their focus on different reasons and causes for the world we know to have come to an end. The Handmaid's Tale centres on fertility problems, which end up constraining women's rights. Oryx and Crake on the other hand discusses the downsides of scientific progress, especially DNA mutation and bacterial warfare. Both protagonists grow up in a world like ours - women have to fight for equality, surveillance is increasing and science has more and more breakthroughs. Like us, they saw nothing wrong with this world - only when it went it sideways they remember the warning signs. A creepy prospect...
Atwood once said nothing about her books was made up, everything came from the real world. Unfortunately, I really believe that. All gender issues discussed in the Handmaid's Tale - women as sex objects, as baby producers, as pretty housewives, as property of and subordinate to men - have occurred and still do all over the world. I'm glad people keep reading this book, especially in times when sexism is starting to get normal again.Similarly, the catastrophe in the story of Oryx and Crake could probably happen any minute in this world too. I am sure that there are many dangerous viruses stored in labs, which could cause a pandemic when leaked. And although the ethical side of science is discussed quite a lot nowadays - like, can you experiment on fetuses or clone people? - this does not really seem to stop scientists from advancing further and further. For example, in Oryx and Crake people are designed to have better traits and handy traits lent from animals. Scientists are currently trying to discover genes for characteristics such as aggression. But, if (or when) they have found those, what stops them from trying to change those genetics? Then we quickly move from our world to Oryx and Crake! Thus, these books really make you think about the world and its issues.

One negative point is that both novels have a pretty confusing chronology. This is because both are told from a 'survivors' POV, who switches between the present dystopia and flashbacks from the 'normal' world in the past. You really have to give it time to get into the books and to understand what is going on  - keep calm and carry on! Atwood only gives away pieces of the story at a time, which does make the ultimate understanding of it all more rewarding. So be prepared to be confused by weird terms like Crakers and Handmaids in the beginning, you will get them eventually. In the Handmaid's Tale around page 100 you discover the truth of the dystopian world, though I of course knew the story already the second time. However, in Oryx and Crake, the real reveal is only almost at the end, which leaves you with quite a lot of questions, both throughout the book and at the end.
Also, both books have an open (and 
quite cliffhangery) ending, although Oryx and Crake has a sequel which will probably continue on this ending. The Handmaid's Tale in turn contains an epilogue which looks back centuries later at the dystopian world. This gives some perspective to the story world and the rebellion which is only touched upon in the book, but provides no answers about the protagonist's fate. One thing I found odd about this epilogue was that is said the Tale was based on tapes found, indicating the storyteller had recorded them afterwards. However, the way the story was told - unchronological with flashbacks - seems more like a diary than a recollection of memories. Strange...

Unfortunately, both stories were not really character- or plot-driven in my opinion. All characters were quite flat and did not develop throughout the story. In case of the protagonists, you only saw the difference between them before and after the dystopia happened. I guess I liked the book Oryx and Crake less because I did not really connect to Snowman, the protagonist. He had this weird obsession with a child porn star and admired the friend turned 'villain', who seemed a bit too ambitious from the beginning. I did feel sorry for him though, as he had no one to really talk to. 
The Handmaid's Tale's protagonist, on the other hand, whose name we never learn, seems more likable, as she has lost so many people, plus of course all her rights and freedom. However, she seems to have cast aside most emotions. Her story is told fairly straight forward by herself and she has no frantic outbursts. This could indeed be a survival strategy or acceptance, but I did not really feel emotionally bonded to the character because of that. 
Furthermore, because there are so many flashbacks, not much happens in the actual plot. The Handmaid's Tale does have some suspense at the end because of some rebellious stuff that happens, but this is cut off short by the end. Oryx and Crake is essentially only a walk from the beach to a compound, thus also not that exciting. The flashbacks carry the stories in both books; they provide the action and 'exciting' apocalyptic memories. These however come scattered throughout the book, leaving you to make sense of them together in the end.

So you should really read the books for the message behind it, not the fantastic characters or fast-paced plot. Nevertheless, that message is so powerful and the slow discovery of the dystopian world Atwood created so eye-opening, that they are still both amazing books!
That is why I give the Handmaid's Tale 4 stars and Oryx and Crake 3,5 stars and I can definitely recommend them to everyone! Perhaps if I re-read the latter in a few years, it will have become 4 stars too...

PS: There is now also a TV series about the Handmaid's Tale. I'm excited to see how they have adapted the book!

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