All rights reserved.
conceptual
fiction
[kuhn-SEP-choo-uhl FIK-shuhn]

Noun:   Storytelling raised to a higher degree through
artful reconfiguration of the reader's conception of reality.
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Every so often, a sci-fi scenario finds its
way into the serious fiction shelves.  
The
Handmaid’s Tale
is one of those works.
So even if the name of the author is
Atwood, don’t expect to find it next to
Asmiov on the bookstore racks. You will
have better luck looking adjacent to Jane
Austen.

Why are most of the high lit sci-fi novels
based on dystopian future societies? If
you look at 1984 by Orwell or
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy or Brave New
World by Aldous Huxley, they all build
their emotional force by painting the future in dark, foreboding
tones.  
The Handmaid’s Tale is much the same, and it is not out of
place when considered alongside these classics of the genre.  And
not just for the gloomy totalitarian nature of the world it depicts.
Atwood is a forceful, nuanced writer, and mostly avoids the clichés
and banalities associated with fiction of this sort.

Her novel presents a Taliban-type society in which a centralized
theocracy controls all aspects of day-to-day life, and is especially
oppressive in the restrictions it imposes on women.   Imagine the
type of political and social structure most anathema to subscribers
to
Cosmopolitan or viewers of the E cable network and you will have
some idea of what Atwood is conceiving.   In other words, this is a
world in which old issues of
Vogue magazine are contraband,
makeup is strictly prohibited, high fashion non-existent and sex
limited to the needs of procreation. . . . Well, maybe not completely.  
There are still some kinks in the process, and the world’s oldest
profession has adapted to the new world order.

What ushered in this new era?  Atwood is sketchy on the details, but
in a prescient passage she mentions that the ruling powers used the
fear of Islamic extremists as justification for its own theocratic
extremism – a fairly interesting detail from a book published in
1985.

Atwood is adroit in structuring her narrative, using flashbacks and
shifts in chronology, and mixing first and third-person accounts, in
constructing her tale.  Her writing takes on an ascetic tone that is
well suited to the subject matter, but she adds just the right dose of
metaphor and poetry, while never getting too flashy in a story that
requires a certain amount of starkness in order to set the right
mood.  A surprising epilogue adds a satirical element that contrasts
effectively with the main thrust of the narrative.

As with Orwell, the political angle her is obvious at every turn in this
novel.  But this book never collapses into mere polemic.  And
Atwood’s characters often surprise you, rising above the cartoonish
good-guy versus bad-guy structures of so many dystopian novels.
This is no
Atlas Shrugged.  Hence, in a book focused on the
oppression of women, Atwood takes time to offer some insightful
details on how the patriarchal structure controls the men in society
as well.  Even the most successful participants in the system are
forced into hypocrisy and subterfuge.

All in all, this is a first class novel which has held up with the passing
years, and has well earned its status as a modern-day classic.  When
Atwood wrote this book, many would have seen class differences as
the main driver of future global conflicts, and may even have
envisioned a day when theology no longer figured much in current
events.  But the oldest belief systems have proven to be the most
persistent and deadly. By focusing instead on theocratic impulses
and religion as a channeling force for tyranny, this author has
created a work that is still highly relevant today.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction and
its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.