The Handmaid's Tale and the economics of apocalyptic fiction: Don Pittis

One strength of Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction is that economics is part of the story.

Can revelling in the fear that the economy could go horribly wrong prevent it from happening?

Women dressed as handmaids stand in a public street in Texas last month as part of a promotion for the television series based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian book. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

If she could rewrite her novel The Handmaid's Tale today, what would Margaret Atwood change?

"Well, I'd give people cellphones," quips the author in an interview with Tom Power on the CBC program q.

In speculative fiction, getting future technology right is a familiar problem.

But having the economics ring true may be even harder. Usually read as a feminist commentary, Atwood's novel gains part of its power through the imagining of a credible economic future.

Even in the original book, written more than 30 years ago and updated into a television series that is now getting rave reviews, Atwood captures an element of economic technology still relevant today.

Horror of recognition

Reading the book all those years ago, I remember the horror of recognition when the escaping characters try to get money from a bank machine and find access to their account has been denied.

The scene, slightly reworked in the current TV series, strikes a very modern economic chord.

Almost everyone has experienced the moment when the clerk at the shop says, "Sorry your card isn't working," leaving you digging through purse or pocket and feeling like a criminal.

What if one day it didn't work and you lost access to all your finances? (J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)

As Calgary senior Malaney Ellingson found out last week, the coercive power of big government to influence your life is no invention of fiction. In her case, the tax department's move to digital tax filing meant she couldn't get her hands on paper forms to file her taxes, leaving her in danger of having her pension cut off.

In Atwood's imagined future, that power is used for more sinister purposes. In a world where so many elements of our lives, including all our finances, consist of data in computers, we can too easily imagine a totalitarian government, allied with big business, controlling every moment of our lives. 

As the author points out, the events that happen in the original book were not mere invention.

'Twisted, bizarre, sadistic imagination'

"I didn't want people saying 'what a twisted, bizarre, sadistic imagination you have making all this stuff up,' so I wanted to be able to say 'none of it's made up.' People have done these things and what people have done once, they are quite capable of doing again," Atwood told Power.

Perhaps that's why the real-life warning of the story remains relevant.

As the increasingly authoritarian leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demonstrated last week, the electronic age has made cracking down much easier.

The messy book-burning stage has been bypassed. With a push of a few buttons, Turks have been denied access to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia of everything that has become a standard tool of human knowledge. Could bank accounts be next?

Part of Atwood's wisdom is to remind us that economics is more than a simple formula of supply and demand, buying and selling. Those things exist, but they are embedded in a complex set of social and political power relationships that ultimately have far more influence over our lives than mere pricing mechanisms.

Future political economy

Not all fiction about the future does as good a job at imagining the complexities of political economy. 

"Does anybody besides me wonder what the banking system looks like in the background of Star Trek?" Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz once asked a gathering of New York financiers. If Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are worried about their mutual funds or the issue of pay equity, it is not part of the plot line.

When The Economist reviewed Atwood's economics book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, back in 2008, the magazine described her as "greenish" and "leftish."

But part of the author's brilliance in that book, and in her fiction, has been to avoid the blinkered views of conventional economics. 

Without debt and capitalism, "mankind would be living in caves and eating whatever it killed," says The Economist in its review. But when people are destitute or owned as slaves, when enemies of the state have their wealth stripped away, or when woman are chattel and have no access to money of their own, the continued existence of capitalism is scant reassurance to those excluded.

In Payback, Atwood refers to Grameen Bank, the South Asian micro-lender that helped transform the lives of poor women by giving them access to relatively tiny loans, thereby raising their status in the community. 

In The Handmaid's Tale women are returned to a state, not so distant in our own history, where women have no access to money of their own, stripping away their economic and political power. They still serve, but their economic contribution goes unrecognized, a key observation of modern feminist economics

There is something strangely attractive about dystopian, post-apocalyptic and speculative fiction of all sorts. When writers throw up the pieces and have them fall in new patterns, readers are helped to imagine new systems of political economy.

To those fearful of the power of the Trump administration, The Handmaid's Tale also serves as a warning that people must stand up to abuse of power. That people in the U.S. are standing up against encroachments on their freedom — some dressed as handmaids — gives Atwood some optimism.

"I think the fact that there is a lot of pushback is what is going to weigh in on the side of this not happening," she says.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis from Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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