The Handmaid’s Tale / 1985 / Margaret Atwood
The Mandibles: A Family / 2016 / Lionel Shriver
Ideology, man. What a trip. Sounds like the study of lightbulb moments; actually, a way of umbrella-ing stories we collectively tell ourselves to make the world work. Stories of Religion, Money, Nationalism, and as Yuval Noah Harari unnervingly points out, Human Rights.
‘if you take a human being and look inside…you don’t find any rights.’
– Yuval Noah Harari, EconTalk podcast
Harari argues that shared myths are the only thing that enables large scale human cooperation. Capitalism, for example, is based on the enticing fiction that money has inherent value. While physical, concrete exchanges take place (of green pieces of paper for limitless types of goods), it is a system based on an arbitrary series of human beliefs.
Changing the stories that society believes in is the basis for social change, moral progress, and in the most dramatic case, revolution.
In novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mandibles, society’s internalised story is wrenched out from the communal unconscious and forcibly retold. Atwood creates Gilead, a military dictatorship which (re)installs morals and social practises from Christian fundamentalism. Here, women are reduced to breeding-facilitators. They are denied basic human rights. They are not allowed to read. Principles of liberty and equality are revealed as contingent on the ruling class’ taking part in ‘retelling’ their doctrines.
In Shriver, narrative change is forced by a failing economy. The US national debt reaches astronomic levels. An alternative world currency is created. The ‘Bancor’ becomes more secure than the dollar, and soars above it in conversion rates. Blind faith in currency begins to erode. As hyperinflation hits, citizens hoard physical objects to trade: medical supplies, food, tools. Newly printed Dollars feel plastic-y, inauthentic, crudely clad in garish-green (a little like post-Brexit bank notes, whose remodelled, small, rubbery nature seems intertwined with Britain’s ‘exit’ from exalted nation status). Promises of pensions, potential wealth stored in government bonds, and even agreements to pay employees for past work are revealed as contingent parts of the modern Capitalist system. People’s promise to repay debt only holds if faith in the currency remains. Without the fictional medium, the narrative falls apart.
Both Atwood and Shriver’s dystopias extend from the worst caprices of contemporary society. Atwood critiques Puritan-influenced conservativism, where appeals to ‘return’ to old morals are used to justify elitism, austerity measures and gross inequality. Shriver focuses on ballooning national debt, hand-wringing attitudes to international issues, and the cognitively-dissonant contortions of late stage Capitalism.
Handmaid’s is prescient enough to warrant a modern-day Hulu adaptation, which surrounding press has sought to label the first ‘post-Trump TV show.’ It is Trump’s America that Atwood herself describes as most in danger of embodying Gilead. The Mandibles takes the celebrity-takeover of politics to blackly comic new levels: Judge Judy on the supreme court, Schwarzenegger taking a run at the Presidency, Strictly Come Dancing stooge Ed Balls installed in Britain’s Prime Ministerial position. Crucially, it’s the Nationalist narrative which takes the biggest hit in both novels.
“We lived in the gaps between the stories”
– Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale
In Handmaid’s, America has become synonymous with an overbearing male aggressor. It is a brutally efficient patriarchy suppressing its citizens through subjugated classes. And, through a postscript from future scholar Professor Pieixoto, we learn Gilead is the ‘North Korea’ of its contemporary world: bottom of the pecking order, keeping its citizens in near-poverty to compete on the international stage. It conducts business in terms of veiled masculine rivalry with other nations: who has the best morals? The biggest guns? Internally, its authoritarian regime betrays an insecurity on the world stage: brutality and dominance overcompensating for a sliding national status. Remind you of another administration? Whose leader ran on isolationist grounds, but continues to throw weight around in willie-waving, war-mongering fashion? One who just took away $880billion in healthcare funding for its nation’s poorest citizens? Make Gilead great again, right?
Shriver sequesters America from the rest of the world too. References to flourishing countries overseas, where the Dollar-alternative ‘Bancor’ currency has taken affluent hold, include China inheriting superpower status. Chinese tourists swamp New York streets, taking advantage of favourable exchange rates. Mega-Hooverville settlements spill over from Central Park. All personal Gold reserves are called in by the government. The devaluing of the dollar effects not just the country’s material wealth, but the characters’ sense of self-worth. Their soft power is melting. They are being dressed down, de-masculinised.
Atwood and Shriver are arguing that Nationalist narratives foster division, short-sightedness, and corruption. In an unholy hybrid with masculinity and Capitalism, Nationalism is a mega-ideology which spells bad news for peace-loving humans.
New states in Handmaid’s and Mandibles form a vacuum where ultra-nationalist experiments are given free reign, whose test subjects are drawn kicking-and-screaming from ‘the land of the free’. These novels do not discuss the end-of-the-world as much as the end-of-America. Their dystopias deal with the crumbling USA empire; oft prophesised in fiction, but whose morals, Constitution and cultural standing in the real world seem more at risk than ever. We await the arrival of America’s future with Atwood and Shriver’s conceptions in mind. Neither are optimistic regarding the Republic for which it stands: one nation overwrought, incapacitated: sans Liberty, injustice for all.
Margaret Atwood: http://margaretatwood.ca/
Lionel Shriver: https://www.harpercollins.com/cr-103190/lionel-shriver
Sam Harris, ‘Waking Up’ Podcast feat. Yuval Noah Harari: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/reality-and-the-imagination
 In the sense of ‘it could have been otherwise’, not ‘randomly assigned’
 See American interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea.