Handmaids are so hot right now. I mean the new Handmaid's Tale television series, which stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a fertile woman held captive by an authoritarian government attempting to reverse an epidemic of infertility through reproductive slavery.
As creepy and unsettling as U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is, it's the most watched series in Bravo history.
I also mean the 1985 book, back on the bestseller list, and the many resulting memes. In March, a group of women protesting a draconian abortion bill walked into the Texas senate chambers wearing the red robes and face-obscuring white bonnets Margaret Atwood imagined three decades ago.
Nothing satisfies everyone, of course, and as with anything so popular, the objections are plentiful. One I've seen fairly often is aimed at both Ms. Atwood and series developers MGM/Hulu, a disappointment at how the story skims over the nuances of the politics of reproduction.
In Ms. Atwood's original version, the "Children of Ham" (i.e. black people) and most "gender traitors" (queer folk) have been shipped off to clean up toxic waste. The series sprinkles in lesbians and characters of colour but is almost worse for doing so, as that introduces the question of whether such a mishmash of genetic material would be accepted by the men who run things.
I saw the first episode at an event where Ms. Atwood answered questions, and unfortunately did find her answers concerning race lacking depth and enthusiasm. I also think she's a genius. So while I do wish our most famous novelist would more fully engage with identity, I also believe she's earned the right to do her own thing.
Besides, there's plenty of hope for those who liked The Handmaid's Tale but want something to love, a fat catalogue of fiction that speculates about reproduction going back more than a century.
Author Leah Bobet, who works at Toronto's Bakka Phoenix sci-fi bookstore, reminded me of Herland, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915, about a community of women who reproduce asexually and live in happy utopia. Much of the canon deals with "anxieties about bodies and control," says Ms. Bobet, who really knows her stuff. There are stories about pregnant sorceresses who lose control of their magic, and books in which women prefer adoption to the "indignities of pregnancy and birth."
We're both fans of African-American icon Octavia Butler, whose mind-expanding Lilith's Brood series takes on the issues of racial genetics and love for children born of rape.
Unsurprisingly, authors who make reproduction central to their considerations of the future are usually women. "What makes The Handmaid's Tale so successful is that it takes on a much-needed viewpoint that so much speculative fiction just talks around," Ms. Bobet says. Ms. Atwood's vision is rich and unflinching: As seen in the show, she imagined exactly how Handmaids were raped by their controlling Commanders and Wives, the tiny details of a ceremony meant to purify a grotesque violation. Or, in Ms. Bobet's words, "She just walks up to things and goes there."
But if you need something more, much has come since. For a heartwarming story, Ms. Bobet recommends the 2013 book The Best of All Possible Worlds by Bajan writer Karen Lord; for a frightening one, Meg Elison's 2014 Book of the Unnamed Midwife. Both are award-winners set in worlds coping with a scarcity of females.
I'll get to them as soon I'm done re-reading Woman on the Edge of Time, a personal favourite by Marge Piercy from 1976. In it, Connie, a Mexican-American woman, time travels to 2137. There, she meets Luciente, whose world is full of music and art and free of pollution and hierarchy. Everything seems idyllic until Luciente takes Connie to the "brooder," where babies of all colours are grown in tanks, then raised by three parents until adolescence. Connie, who in her own time has had her child taken by authorities, is horrified at this loss of blood connection. She also can't believe that women would give up the primacy of motherhood. Luciente explains that those sacrifices were essential to creating an equal world.
"As long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal," the future-dweller explains, going on to say that women's abdication of this power has encouraged a new generation of loving, emotional men. With much of today's world seemingly slouching toward Gilead, it almost seems like a good idea.