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The Handmaids Tale is set in the future. But not just any future. Welcome to dystopia, one of the most popular sub genres in 20th century fiction. In the early part of the last century books and films tended to predict a perfectible society some time hence. This would be a calm world where machines have made our lives completely comfortable and totally safe. The only problem facing us all would be deciding what to do with all this new leisure time. Even Thunderbirds - the 60s TV series which featured a different disaster every week - portrayed these mechanical catastrophes as taking place in a world of order and almost permanent sunshine. Technology might get a trifle too ambitious at times but no-one suffered or died, thanks to the philanthropy and technical wizardry of Jeff Tracy and his five heroic sons.

But these utopian narratives are inherently flawed. From the beginning it was obvious that problem-free futures are deeply undramatic. Consequently it wasnt long before a new sub-genre emerged which subverted our optimistic future from within. There had always been writers - like H.G.Wells, George Chesney and George Orwell - who could foresee problems coming up in the future but it wasnt until the sci-fi novels of the 1950s that a critical mass of dystopian narrative came into being and this in due course spawned films like Zardoz (1974) and Logans Run (1976) which demonstrated how these brave new worlds had been bought at considerable human cost.

Later the prognosis darkened still further in films like Blade Runner (1982) Terminator (1984) and Terry Gilliams Brazil (1985) which predicted humanity descending into a bleak future, cruel, polluted and doomed. Interestingly what further divides these later films from the world of Zardoz and Logans Run is that the dystopias of Bladerunner and Brazil have not arisen from any failed ideal. Heroes like Dekkard (Blade Runner), Reese (Terminator) and Sam Lowry (Brazil) live in a world that never stood a chance of anything better whereas the beautiful eternals in Zardoz and Logans Run set up their lives in a futuristic paradise, even if it has all gone pear-shaped since.

The Handmaids Tale by Canadian author Margaret Atwood belongs to a vision of the future similar to that of Logan and Zardoz. This novel (written in 1986 and filmed in 1990) follows the premise, found in many dystopian fictions, that after some awful catastrophe the remnants of humanity have withdrawn into a world of safety and privilege bolstered by its own curious belief structure. Just as the eternals of Zardoz hide from harsh reality in a glass dome known as Vortex 4 and Logan 5 is shielded by a very similar dome in Logans Run, the elite who rule Atwoods Gilead keep themselves in sanitised compounds using their wealth to escape from an outside world that has gone seriously wrong.

In Zardoz the problem is that planet will only support a few people living in comfort and so the proletarian Brutals are kept in slavery beyond the Vortex. Here they grow corn for the Eternals, collected by harsh Exterminators like Zed (Sean Connery) All violence and passion has been eliminated inside the Vortex. This is how life has to be. In Logans Run the problem is one of overpopulation within the dome. As life outside is deemed unsustainable members of this pampered community are killed off on reaching the age of 30. This is how life has to be but Logan 5 and his fellow sandmen do not believe they die. A belief has been inculcated within the dome that each 29 year old transmutes into the soul of a new born baby. Logan 5 (Michael York) actually sees Logan 6 developing in a test tube and genuinely believes that he will soon take possession of this new body.

The military theocracy ruling Atwoods Gilead have equally potty ideas. They are having to deal with the opposite problem but they go to similarly arcane lengths to justify their behaviour. National infertility, a result of the Times Before poses a long term threat to the survival of Gilead so a rigid, belief system has been invented which helps both sustain morale and enforce the rules of this bizarre Utopia. Thus it is that Gilead turns to the Old Testament and extrapolates from Genesis that it is acceptable to seize fertile young women like Offred and use them as handmaids - breeders who will be inseminated for the benefit of their owners barren wives.

Inevitably, in all three stories, cracks appear in the intellectual construct that has sustained these privileged elites. Logan 5 discovers that he will not be reborn as Logan 6. In fact he will be terminated at the age of 30 like everyone else. The Eternals of Zardoz find that boredom and apathy are the biproduct of a problem-free paradise and start to long for their own destruction meanwhile Offred finds that the Commander, her owner, is unable to treat her simply as a vessel in which his child will be conceived on behalf of another woman. He caresses her cheek, he gives her forbidden magazines to read and sneaks them off to a clandestine nightclub where he can try to turn his reproductive coupling with Offred into an affair.

In short, truth and life as we know it reassert themselves. The human spirit, which Orwell in 1984 foresaw as being stamped out forever, actually breaks through. Boormans Eternals smuggle in Zed, one of the exterminators, so that he can release them into death, Logan, realising he will not transmute into the body of a new born baby, goes on the run and the Commander, quite contrary to the Old Testament strictures, finds himself falling for the woman he is seeking to impregnate.

Another feature that these dystopias all have in common is an organised underworld which seeks to help our heroic rebel. Offred is contacted by members of Mayday, a covert alliance who may even be staging her arrest at the end of Margaret Atwoods story. Logan seeks out other runners who have sought a Sanctuary beyond the dome and Zed calls in other exterminators to help him destroy the Vortex on behalf of the Eternals. Even Sam Lowry, the tragic hero of Terry Gilliams Brazil is aided by Robert de Niro, one of a team of subversive SAS-style heating engineers.

Atwood leaves Offreds fate vague. At an International Historical Association Convention, held in 2195, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto delivers a lecture on early 21st-century monotheocratic governments. In referring to a series of recently discovered audiocassettes, made by an anonymous Handmaid after her escape from the Republic of Gilead the Professor has to admit that Offreds ultimate fate is not known. We can assume from the historical perspective now being adopted that Gilead fell eventually but whether rebels brought it down or it simply evolved into something more sane and healthy is unclear. Sadly the norm within a dystopian fiction is for the rebellion, more often than not, to fail. Zed does destroy the Vortex but Winston Smith in 1984 is crushed just as all the escaping replicants are gunned down by Dekkard in Bladerunner. Logan may get away but in Brazil Sam Lowry goes mad under torture. And this is as it should be. For if every Dystopia were defeated by the first human to dig in his or her heels the genre would lose its grim appeal. These perverted utopias will keep going until life outside improves sufficiently and humanity no longer has need of them. Until then the Handmaids Tale will be very typical of a future that may for all of us be just around the corner.

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