The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Paperback, 1986

Call number



Fawcett (1986)


This look at the near future presents the story of Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, once the United States, an oppressive world where women are no longer allowed to read and are valued only as long as they are viable for reproduction.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cauterize
- Warning: Mild Spoilers -

A story about the dystopian future of America when it descends into extreme Christian fundamentalism. Told from the viewpoint of Offred, a 'handmaiden' in the society, who lives in the Commander's home and under the thumb of the Commander's Wife. A 'handmaiden' is a woman
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of proven child-bearing capabilities who must become a breeder for women of high status who cannot give birth.

This was my first Margaret Atwood book; I think I was one of the few Canadian high school classes who wasn't required to read this book. Most of my friends had to read it, and I remember they had found parts of it mildly disturbing but overall an interesting read. So what can I say about it, now that I finally meandered over to it? 'Chilling' is a good adjective. Atwood is able to effectively convey her idea that America can be this close to religious fundamentalism and how easily it would be accepted.

I was impressed with the world that Atwood has built in this novel. All the little details of ordinary life has been thought out and changed. I was intrigued how Atwood's view of Christian fundamentalism can so easily be similar to Islamic fundamentalism. Veils, feminine modesty, colours denoting role, limiting freedom of education and how each person's place in society can be rigidly proscribed by religious doctrine are all examples. What struck me most in this book, is how easily Offred and all the 'normal' people submitted to this extremist regime. Within a short period of time, even though they remember the 'old' world, they have accepted the righteousness of the 'new' world. I was impressed how Atwood was able to make the reader understand through the first person perspective of Offred how regular people can accept such a terrible life and make it their normal routine.

To be truthful, I was disappointed in the ending to this novel. I really disliked the epilogue and think it shouldn't have been included. I almost didn't even realize it was there, and now I wish that I had never seen it. The epilogue tells you the ultimate fate of Offred, and I thought the novel had built up to an ambiguous ending - the sort of ending I love. Have you ever seen the alternate ending to Terminator 2? It shows Sarah Connor old and happy as a grandmother and it shows the viewer they were successful in stopping Judgment Day. Now the real ending is the darkened highway at night and Sarah narrating that she does not know whether they were able to stop Judgment Day and only time will tell and in the background, ominous music plays loudly. My opinion is... sometimes the best ending is the unknown highway ending. I'm not telling you if the Handmaid's Tale ends happily ever after or if the opposite is true; but that the author actually gives you the answer... and I think the book didn't end as strong as it could because of that answer.

Still, I enjoyed reading the Handmaid's Tale. It's gripping, yet easy to read. Atwood's prose isn't dense or quirky, but straightforward. This trait ensures I will be reading more of her work. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member Stevil2003
About a third of the way into The Handmaid's Tale, I was a little skeptical-- I liked the protagonist and I really liked Atwood's style, but I didn't quite buy the world they were all in; why would you tie multiple women to one man if female fertility was jeopardized? But then the explanations
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seeped in (not quite as heavy-handed as those in 1984) and I came to understand that female infertility was nothing more than an excuse. We'd all like to think that as a society we've beyond this, that we're better than this, but Atwood makes us wonder if that's as true as we think. ("What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?") The last third of the book, as Offred slips deeper into the seamy underbelly of her society, witnesses the communal punishments, and makes her bid for freedom, was absolutely captivating; by this point, I had been entirely absorbed by the story. Transfixing and thought-provoking, what else do you need in a novel? (The epilogue, by the by, shocked me in an entirely different fashion. What a brutal, yet hard-to-refute, indictment of everything we academics do. It left me stinging and defensive.)
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LibraryThing member Lman
So chilling that, at first, I found I had to give myself short breaks from the narrative; yet during this lull, somewhat similar to witnessing a car crash or such - when the onlooker is horrified but mesmerised, unable to tear their gaze away - I constantly reflected and deliberated
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about what might unfold, until I returned to this most absorbing, but haunting story. The Handmaid's Tale delivers an accomplished but unnerving interpretation of religious fundamentalism transmuted into a totalitarian state; all the more alarming in that, twenty years after its initial publishing, there is much validity and acuity in the dystopia expressed – a frighteningly perceptive insight into a world holding such worrying relevance to today.

Essentially, in this alternate reality, the United States has been appropriated forcefully and changed into a quasi-religious state based on ancient sacred texts; where simple freedoms and expressions are now repressed for the good of the nation and each person is given a role, explicitly controlled by the authorities. Held responsible for the previous problems of low birth rates, sexual violence and social decadence, most-maligned of females is the handmaid’s role - part of a rigid social standing into which women are now ordered, and whose life supplies the basis of this story – a woman of child-bearing age, proven fertile from previous motherhood, forcibly separated from her children and after undergoing strict training is now used as a vessel to be impregnated by a designated male-of-power, in the presence of a wife no longer able to procreate, in order to provide a much-coveted child. The handmaid has her true name removed, is dressed in red, allowed no freedom, no privacy, no literacy, and no expression of personality at all, but by their own admission ‘sign up’ to this situation in a desperate hope of surviving this misogynistic and brutal regime.

Told entirely as an oral history, this is a narrative from the distinctively personal perspective of ‘handmaid’ Offred - an account of her situation and the events which led to her present circumstances, and the state of the nation. Hence it is exclusive: a fragmented, muddled, purposely-disordered version; an incomplete emotional adaptation of a horrifying experience in a much-changed world. And it is a glimpse into the soul of a victim of these circumstances with her vibrant rendition, her attempted explanations and, most importantly, the motivations she needs to stay alive. And it is with this that Margaret Atwood shows her considerable writing talent. Despite the disparate arrangement of proceedings, perhaps even due to them, the slow unveiling of the specifics of Offred's situation, the delicate disclosure of the daily trials and horrors of the society, and the distressing flashbacks, all add strength and sinew to this appalling premise; this gradual revelation, through magnificent prose, availing us with a masterly piece of literature.

Unashamedly this was written in the era of the women’s movement and is thus aimed squarely at the emancipation of women in the society of that time. But I find it extremely unsettling in the significance and bearing that this tale now holds for the society of today. And the fact that it was considered science fiction, to my mind, is no longer applicable – rather it is morbidly satisfying how eerily correct Ms Atwood was in her prophetic perceptions for the future. This vivid expression of total fundamentalism, rotting slowly at its core (as all such establishments are wont to do), is nonetheless still a likely possibility in some countries hereafter – and we will have no one but ourselves to blame if it comes to pass. The message offered so many years ago, and rendered so succinctly within the epilogue, is most pertinent still; I can only hope it continues to be heeded. If enough of us read this harrowing account, perhaps it will...
(Feb 13, 2009)
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LibraryThing member Ambrosia4
OK, WOW. Seriously that's what my response was to this. The layers of meaning, the messages, the utter repulsion I felt trying to imagine it actually happening and realizing it wasn't hard to at all. It was all superb.

This, I am embarrassed to say is my first Atwood book. I found her writing to be
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like my dream prose. It's poetic and descriptive, while not being long-winded or confusing. The pages seemed to fly by and I got to the end and felt desperate for more book. I liked that she didn't feel the need to wrap everything up neatly; after being confronted with so much throughout the narrative, a more conclusive end would have felt false to me.

Finally, the story said a lot to me. It made the trend's I've watched develop seem more eerie and sinister than ever before. Although I could look at this as simply a scary idea, I have been trying to see it as a further example that balance is important in all things.

Recommended for all those who like a little message with their juicy reading and don't have an objection to religious criticism.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel - The Handmaid's Tale - is timeless and relevant. Set in the fictional Republic of Gilead and spanning the Eastern seaboard of the United States after the collapse of the American government, the novel is narrated by Offred...a young Handmaid whose sole purpose in
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life now is to be the vessel for producing a baby for the upper classes. Atwood creates a terrifying hierarchy with men being "on top" and women being relegated to a variety of freedom-less classes such as Wives (top ranked married women who are unable to conceive), Daughters (the adopted offspring of wives), Marthas (infertile, single, older women whose skills at domesticity keep them from being shipped off to the Colonies), Econowives (low-ranked married women who must "do it all"), Handmaids (fertile women whose sole function is to provide babies for the upper echelon), Aunts (the only women who have any autonomy and are used to train and monitor the Handmaids), and Jezebels (the prostitutes who are hidden away in hotels and used for men's pleasure). Atwood uses irony effectively with Biblical references and play on words to craft a compelling story.

The novel questions how much freedom we are willing to give up in the guise of safety. Viewed in respect to our current world and political environment of red alerts, government lies to enact war, terrorism, airline security, phone tapping and the whittling away of individual freedoms...The Handmaid's tale is a thought-provoking expose on what could happen when we willingly give up our freedoms to supposedly ensure our safety. Are we on a slippery slope? Atwood also questions our sources of information (ie: the news media).

Atwood is a genius at creating character. Offred's voice is pitch perfect, taking the reader step by step through her horrible story. Even Serena Joy, the Commander Fred's wretched wife, elicits sympathy from the reader. Atwood's skill with language has never been more spot on then in this novel where she twists words and phrases, showing the reader that all is not as it seems.

I was hooked by the story from page one and read it straight through in two days.

The Handmaid's Tale is on the ALA's list of 100 most banned books. It was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1986, won the Governor General's Award in Canada in 1985, and made the Orange Prize list of 50 Essential Reads. Brilliant, chilling, suspenseful, and masterly written - this novel is a modern classic.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member jolerie
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.
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Don't underrate it.

The world is not what it used to be. Some say it's for the betterment of humanity and others would disagree, but they don't stick around for too long. Offred, a Handmaid, now on her second assignment has long ago submitted to the new social order. At least she does on the outside. The secret thoughts, the haunting memories, the inability to forget a life a lost, forever keeps her on the knife's edge of rebellion and subversion. Women either obediently play the roles in their designated castes, blue, red, and greens, or they are cast away. Women are to bear offsprings, or they are cast away. Women are to exist in silence, an invisible backdrop, or they are cast away. Some say this new way of life is God's hand of redemption on the world. Others disagree, but they too don't stick around for too long.

Ms. Atwood, you send shivers up my spine and goosebumps sprawling all over my arms in ways few others have. The fictional world of Gilead may be just a story on the page, and yet what makes the story so powerful, so haunting, is just how close to reality the mirror may be reflecting. In some parts of the world, Offred may just be another nameless, faceless women in a crowd of so many others, voiceless, helpless. The Handmaid's Tale is written with a deftness of hand, and will probably be the closest to an enjoyment of poetry that I will ever experience. The story is disjointed, bouncing between the present and the past, between poetic ramblings and narrative prose, but the overall effect only emphasizes Offred's tortured voice - a woman caught between two worlds and belonging to neither. A book that should be read, even if you may not enjoy what it has to say.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
A swift, hard slap of a book, shocking both both for its content and it's unrelenting bleakness. Atwood's dystopian fantasy of an totalitarian Christian America deserves some credit for consistency. The fictional world she has created here is completely imagined and none of its characters escape
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its horror, or even get much of a reprieve from it. This novel's emotional palate is dominated by isolation and constant fear. Reading it is, in some ways, a discomfiting experience, but it's tightly plotted and well paced. Even after I'd decided I didn't much like it, I stayed up well past my bedtime to see how its unnamed narrator ended up. She, by the way, is one of the best features of the book, a courageous, honest, and human voice fighting to survive in an almost comically brutal and inhuman social environment. She's not a particularly likely narrator, having no discernible interest in literature and having led a rather unexceptional life before becoming enslaved by the Sons of Jacob, but Atwood's decision to make her the focus of her novel pays off. Her tale-telling becomes both an act of rebellion and a desperate, inspiring bid for survival, and I can't remember the last time I rooted so hard for a character to make it out of a book alive.

Still, I've got to confess that I'm confounded by this book's popularity and by the numerous raves it gets here. It's so unrelentingly depressing that it sometimes seems like it could be something written by the humorless architects of the Republic of Gilead. It's also hard for me to think of Atwood's novel as anything but a product of it's time, that time being the mid-eighties when liberals and counterculture types watched, aghast, as the Reagan revolution and the Moral Majority made "traditional values" their rallying cry in a bid to undo the social shifts of the nineteen sixties and seventies. As might be expected, Atwood exposes the hypocritical lusts of her future society´s totalitarian moralists, but completely misses some of its larger ironies, such as American Christianity's general acceptance of free-market capitalism and the consumer society. "The Handmaid's Tale" was also written before the rise to prominence of sex-positive "third wave" feminism and its subsequent assimilation into mainstream culture, and this robs it of some of its relevance. In fact, most of this novel's ideas about gender seem rooted in a rather unimaginative reading of seventies-era second wave feminism, and unlike the works of, say, Angela Carter or Katherine Dunn, "The Handmaid's Tale" doesn't seem very interesting in redefining, or even playing along the edges of, already established gender roles. There are few grey areas here, even in the most private thoughts of Atwood's narrator. I like to think that really great literature expands the boundaries of human possibility, but I can't say that that happens here. While there's nothing wrong with writer's having ideologies or political opinions, Atwood's seem to constrain her here. The imaginative boundaries of this novel seem to have been set before the author even put pen to paper. As seventies-era feminism recedes into the past and readers are less familiar with the political debates that inform this book, I can't help but think that "The Handmaid's Tale" will be robbed of much of its context and, with it, most of its meaning.

Of course, you could argue that the narrator of "The Handmaid's Tale" isn't the center of the book at all. According to this argument, what really keeps readers turning the pages are the Sons of Jacob themselves, or, better said, the totalitarian impulse that motivates them. While I'm neither a Christian or a conservative, I have a suspicion that "The Handmaid's Tale" is one of those books that tells us less about the motives of its villains, in this case, America's cultural and religious reactionaries, than what the author imagines those motives to be. To say that her portrayal of them lacks subtlety is an understatement. I was far too young to vote when Atwood's book was published, but I get the impression that the events described in it would have seemed laughably implausible even in an America where Pat Robertson, of all people, could win Iowa's Republican caucus. Of course, I must admit that some of this book's appeal lies in its funhouse mirror portrayal of American life; every facet of American society seems turned grotesquely inside-out here. The familiar has become horrific in "The Handmaid's Tale," and to those who struggle to survive in Gilead, even the most prosaic elements of modern America seem to belong to a long-lost paradise. Iran, which is, as of this writing, a real live repressive misogynistic theocracy, is mentioned in the book's final pages, and I'd be interested to know how an Iranian reader would react to "The Handmaid's Tale." As for myself, I can't say I was terribly impressed or irrevocably changed by it.
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LibraryThing member Vanille
Reader's Perspective --
From an unwillingly person's point-of-view, this book may seem like torture. Let it be known that I felt the same way, yet . . . it didn't last long. Shortly into the story I was swept up into this mysterious, nostalgic world completely different from my own.

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World-Building: when the world-building (which, though slow, happens at a very natural rate and is incredibly vivid) picked up, you just can't help but see the similarities between our world and the book's. That, anyone should enjoy. The realism builds, flows -- its energy is like a wave, building and making readers go with the flow. Honestly, it frightened me. It made me go: whoa.

2. Audience: this is an incredibly feminist book. So, for some, this book may be difficult to get into at first. So, if you're a guy, this book will probably be hard to enjoy rather than if you were a woman, but it can still be equally as satisfying.

3. Plot: many things go unanswered. To some, especially teens, they will find it difficult to accept. I personally adored the ending -- oh, Atwood, how I do love that ending! To others, this may be off-putting. However, the non-linear plotline does twist and turn so much that even my best guesses were wrong. It will keep you guessing, doubting, and reeling.

4. Characters: Offred is strong, yet feeble; calm, yet erratic; broken, yet whole. She is a mass of contradictions -- she is real. Her feelings may be hard to understand, but that could be because no one is as fragile and broken as she is. Just consider what she goes through. Her emotions are realistic to a T. To me, Offred is mesmerizing. I met a person named Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, and I could never be her nor know another like her, yet I respect her. I respect how Atwood portrayed this shattered woman, and commend her for it.

The other characters are excellent, too. Everyone is in the gray, and they all make you realize just how diverse people can truly be, and how you never really know anyone except for yourself.

Writer's Perspective --
Excellence. The structure truly follows that of a broken mind: shattered, all over, yet concise in its direction. The short paragraphs, varying sentence structure, and unusual breaks with scenes only amplify Offred's tortured mindset -- her emptiness made me feel hollow, and I felt pity for her.

My only problem with the piece is the passive voice. Since the story is in present tense, the continuous usage of "is"s got on my nerves a little, but after a while I did grow unaware of them.

Analytical Perspective --
This book is filled with symbols, such as how the color used divides; the simple colors a person wears divides class, jobs, and importance in the Republic of Gilead.

Likewise, the theme is haunting. This story isn't about woman standing up against men. The theme is made clear by all of Offred's actions, and how her story ended -- a reality many forget or choose to ignore because it's a direction we do not wish to occur in tough situations; people wish (need) to be strong.

Everyone has their limits. Sometimes, you can't do anything.

This book wasn't about standing up and being strong. No, it conveyed the very real fact that humans are weak. We can't do everything. And that sometimes it is far harder to accept your situation than it is to rebel. Some people are just empty husks, some people are weak, and the real situation is to succumb -- because that is our nature.

Overview --
This book may have been read for school, but it affected me. It knocked me down many pegs. It opened my eyes to how others can act, live. For the beautifully broken character, excellent supporting cast, and imagery tantalizing world-building, I give The Handmaid's Tale a definite 5 Stars.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

Offred is a Handmaid. Concealed in a long red dress and white bonnet. She lives in the home of a military commander and his wife. Like all women, in this darkly repressive society, she is here to obey and serve and most importantly, follow the Handmaid’s
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vocation, which is to procreate with her aging Commander.
This brilliant dystopian tale, set in a near and very plausible future, is heart-breaking, horrifying and exceptionally well-written.
“Behind me I feel her presence, my ancestress, my double, turning in midair under the chandelier, in her costume of stars and feathers, a bird stopped in flight, a woman made into an angel, waiting to be found.”
This was my first Atwood and what an amazing introduction.

*Loose translation to above: “ Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
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LibraryThing member Bcteagirl
I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale at least a few days ago, it was my first completed book in 2011, and it was a very powerful book.

This book can be read as a dystopian book, or it can be read as a political warning (almost a satire, but a little dark for that even). I will try to avoid
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spoilers. Some events has happened that has lead to war, and has also lead women to loose virtually all of their rights. They are however protected from being attacked. (Freedom from rather than freedom to). The story is told from the point of view of one ‘Handmaid’ during the middle of her experience. Therefore we find out bits of what happened to cause this situation in retrospect which helps to soften it a bit, at least for me. There are various classes of women, she is a Handmaid, or a woman who is still fertile, and is essentially shuttled between married couples who cannot have children (for mating purposes). With virtually no rights (Reading, socializing etc) boredom is a very large part of her life, and she takes pleasure in the smallest of details.

I was initially worried that this book would be to dark for me. While this novel is dystopian it is not gritty in a sort of ‘rip the flesh of your bones’ zombie sort of a way. I also appreciated that it was broken up into manageable pieces. By that I mean that there are short sections on various parts of the past, short sections on the present, on her thoughts, etc. This means that it is not a depressing read, but it is a very powerful one.

Parts of the novel were even quite funny. The scrabble part made me laugh out loud in the middle of the airport. Several passer-by’s probably think I am insane. Oh well. It’s a free country.

What makes this novel stick with me so much is not only how ludicrous it appears, but also how realistic. You could very easily see *some* of these things happening. When you consider the ban the American army has on reading sections of the New York times, banning some reading is not implausible etc. What I am saying is that this books makes you want to play closer attention to things politically and not take freedoms for granted. The restrictions came suddenly after a shooting at congress. I finished this book a few days before the shooting took place on the weekend… it is really making me take a closer look at how politicians etc can use fear. If you are not generally a dystopian fan I think you would still very much enjoy this book if you are at all interested in politics or feminism. FIVE STARS.
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LibraryThing member otterley
From the moment Iopened the book, it felt as if I was in the hands of an expert. Atwood writes so beautifully, in characterisation, imagery and narrative structure. This is a very intellectually clever book, a mediation and allegory on gender and power, but also has a great emotional punch. She
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creates a dystopian society, a fundamentalist paradise involving the subjugation of women - and most men- to a rigid police state where gender roles are enforced and behaviour monitored and disciplined. She shows both how easily totalitarianism can take over a state, but also how the cracks in its walls are inherent (reinforced by the coda which reframes the novel brilliantly). This is not just a warning about religious fundamentalists, but a provocative book about the olimits of freedom and the use of power - that is also eminently readable.
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LibraryThing member nagem13
The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
Started August 23, 2007
Finished September 5, 2007

I can see why this novel is so often required reading in high school and college English classes. Margaret Atwood offers a richly contextual novel with no easy answers. While some of the major themes include
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feminism, misogyny, totalitarianism, religious extremism, and theocracy, the novel deals in ambivalence. In other words, there are no easy answers. While the futuristic dystopia that Offred, the narrator, describes is terrifying, the past that Offred reminisces about has plenty of its own flaws. In addition to forcing the reader to consider some difficult questions about feminism and religious extremism, I should also point out that I found this novel an incredibly compelling read. Offred, the narrator, is a "handmaid"- used basically as a breeder for the elite in the new totalitarian society. The novel jumps around in time from before the overthrow, to Offred's time being conditioned into a handmaid, to her present posting with Fred, her Commander. (Her name is Of-Fred because she belongs to Fred at her current posting...). I like to think that things have turned out somewhat better for women than Atwood imagines in this novel. I hope that's true. I like to believe that I'll be able to have a career that I'm good at and enjoy and also be able to have a meaningful relationship and a family. I guess it's important not to take the efforts for change from the past for granted. I can't imagine not being allowed to read like most of the women in The Handmaid's Tale!
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LibraryThing member m.gilbert
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood presents a horrifying tale of feminism taken to the extreme in the not-so-distant future. The protagonist narrator is Offred, whose real name we never truly learn, a young woman who dictates orally her life story as a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. In
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the household of the Commander, Offred is to bear a child for his wife Serena Joy, a cold, bitter middle-aged woman who has, in her own way, become a prisoner of the socio-political reality of this patriarchal totalitarian regime like Offred. The novel is filled with irony from page to page, as all powerful political satires are, in pointing out to the reader how ideology can quickly turn on those who advocate an extreme point of view, represented here as a theocratic totalitarian regime which claims to have rid Western society from the demeaning objectification of woman. Interestingly enough, the “freedom from” this objectification of women as sex objects only reinforces a paralyzing sexism all its own, in which female domesticity becomes the radical norm and young fertile women are reduced to vessels of the State. In the context of this society is the voice of Offred, whose compelling narrative expresses a hunger for the truth, namely, the whereabouts of a daughter who was taken from her years before, and a condemnation of the political and religious hypocrisy imbedded in this world. Offred's voice, however, remains personal as it inadvertently becomes political. In a world in which the personal has essentially become the political and vice versa, where womanhood and motherhood are strictly defined by the State, every personal observation made by Offred becomes a powerful political act in itself. Her voice is a voice of quiet defiance, for she can hardly "take down the system" on her own. At times impudent, often wry and sarcastic, but always smart, Offred transposes the tightly woven fabric of this society with the remnants of her past, with anecdotes that are sometimes opaque, sometimes transparent, and often fragmentary. She asserts her presence in a world of sameness, where her individuality could quite easily recede in the background. Instead, her voice comes through, like the knowing smile which bleeds through the bag covering the head of a victim of the Wall. Offred’s heroism just might not be heroic enough for some readers, who may not see the social worth of her subtle acts of transgression. Still, those stolen moments are her moments to covet and our moments to savor, and whether we should ask more from Offred becomes almost insignificant. She simply does what she can, knowing that the worth of such quiet defiance is much more valuable, albeit only to her, than a complete and impotent silence. In this respect, her story will inspire us just as much as the description of her present world may horrify and unsettle us. In Gilead, where power manifests through a violence that is sometimes veiled with a seemingly innocuous biblical truth, this is the handmaid's tale, which attempts to over-write what has been deemed, by virtue of a self-destructive "freedom from," an allegedly eternal truth derived from scripture.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
When the #metoo movement hit big in October 2017, there was a call for people to speak out about their experiences as victims of sexual violence. There were men, men like myself, who joined in the chorus and were promptly shut down. “This isn't for you,” was the general response. You don't
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belong here. And so, I was a good little victim still playing the role: I tucked my tail between my legs, turned my head down, and kept my mouth shut.

For some time I've been curious about The Handmaid's Tale, but I've been dragging my feet. The only reason I'm finally giving in is because The Testaments was placed on this year's Booker Prize list, and I figured I should probably read these books in their proper order. It was as I began reading on page one that I realized why I'd been hesitant all this time. I heard that voice saying this isn't for you.

I've been told about The Handmaid's Tale. I've heard the highest praise and the greatest criticism, primarily from women, who love it or hate it. Some readers have called it powerful, affecting, a rally to rise up against the patriarchy. In the same room, other readers called it depressing, distasteful, man-hating. Going into this book, I expected Margaret Atwood herself, along with every character, reaching out of the pages to point their finger at me and say, “You see, you are the problem.” But that wasn't the case.

Sure, feminist themes feature heavily in The Handmaid's Tale. It is told from a female perspective after all. But this novel really does take on more of a humanist approach to things. This is a warning against extremism. Some readers have called Gilead “a society ruled by men,” separating individuals into camps of good and evil based entirely on gender; yet, they've somehow ignored the fact that the majority of men we see in this story are victims of executions, hunters and hunted, or at the very best, subjugated to a life of servitude. (Oh, what a life!) Those who wield the power are men, but in this complete cast of characters, how many of these powerful men are there?

So some readers may be hesitant to pick up this novel. They may think this story isn't theirs for whatever reason. Someone may have even told them “this isn't for you.” Yes, The Handmaid's Tale shows the extremes of sexism and religion on a society, but it is not misandrist or anti-religious. This is a story of what happens when you abuse these roles. These are issues that affect so many of us. This is a world that should be terrifying for us all.

The Handmaid's Tale is a story for all of us.

I'll briefly go into my thoughts about the novel itself before I close. Atwood really does craft a well-drawn world in Gilead. Sure, she borrows quite a bit from historical images and events, but she brings them all together in a way that is incredibly eerie and startling. I think Atwood's choice to make “Offred” somewhat complacent was a good one. Taking a very radical approach wouldn't have given the reader the same idea of what life was like for a handmaid. The story was well formulated. I've heard some people hold it up as “the feminist 1984,” and while I understand the sentiment behind the comparison, the biggest difference is that this story is a well-written piece of fiction. The Handmaid's Tale is far more daring and brave in its composition and telling.

There were a few points that distanced me as a reader, the most notable were 1) the disconnect that exists between the contemporary setting and the pre-Gilead existence—the two events seem much too close in time for individuals and society as a whole to have so easily misplaced their memories of former years; 2) “Offred” seems to step out of believability by being so trusting—if your oppressor tells you reading is illegal, then invites you in for a game of Scrabble, the correct response (assuming you want to live) should be along the lines of “Gee, I'd like to, but there's this little problem and I seem to have forgotten my letters.” If she really were that fearful, she should've at least shown considerable hesitation. I don't know, perhaps I missed something. She just didn't always seem to give the most authentic response given her situation.

I'm glad I finally had reason to read this novel. It may have parts that are slightly dated, and it may have been emulated a hundred times in the last three decades, but it really does stand up well in 2019—perhaps even more so.
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LibraryThing member echoesofstars
The Handmaid's Tale is an interesting commentary on perceived morality. It explores the roles of women, sex, and strictly structured societal laws. It demonstrates how religion can be used to exploit women. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible, does it mean that it is moral, ethical, or
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even healthy? And in every society, who is the victim on which the society is built - the victim who must be repressed and used for the survival of the society? These questions are addressed in this fictional, but believable story.
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LibraryThing member Cynical_Ames
It's been a few years since I read this so forgive me if I get something wrong. As a woman I found this terrifying because of the possibility that this could happen. I live in an all-female household in the UK, we're independent, I could never see myself ever being able to rely on a man for
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everything I need. We've fought for the rights to work, spend our own money and enjoy the same freedoms as men.

Offred, stripped of her husband who may have been murdered and separated from her daughter, watching her being raised by strangers was horrible. When she is forced to have sex with the Commander I wondered why she had to, couldn't they do the turkey baster thing instead? Or was this just another way to degrade women and for the men to get their jollies - even if the wives had to be present? If they got pregnant, having your baby taken away from you is even more dehumanising. To be treated as an object and one that is not particularly valued is awful.

But then even the men were emasculated, like Nick, he had very little power and if you stepped out of line your head would end up on a pike on the fences. The Commander himself was a coward, despite his greater freedom he didn't seem to like how things were and taking her out to that secret club was for his benefit not hers - he wanted to alleviate his guilt by trying to keep this handmaid from suicide. His wife didn't approve either, who wants to watch their husband have sex with another woman and have their reproductive rights taken away from them? Though I know fertility problems amongst the people were one of the main issues here.

I think in a post-9/11 world this book is even more terrifying. There seem to be many more extremists (religious and otherwise), gender inequalities in other cultures have been highlighted as have corrupt governments and dictators who run societies where violence and persecution are apart of everyday life. So if this sort of society exists elsewhere, it could happen here too.

When I read this as a teenager this book did more to scare me than any blood and guts horror book ever could. An incredibly disturbing and shocking read.
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LibraryThing member gbill
You have to love a novel when one of the subversive and dangerous acts is playing a game of Scrabble.

Atwood’s dystopian feminist classic is chilling, scary, and claustrophobic. She paints a picture of an America in which a fundamentalist religious group has taken control, and because of
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widespread sterility caused by genetic experiments and a toxic environment, invoke Genesis 30:1-3, and have men of status take handmaids for reproductive partners.

The indoctrination of the handmaids, the strict regulations which govern them, and the violent rituals they must partake in are disturbingly believable. Part of the eeriness of the novel is that, despite what seems to be improbable, we realize it could happen. Militants take control after infiltrating the highest levels of government security, assassinating not only the President, but also the entire Congress. Just replace the ‘machine guns’ they use with the ubiquitous AR-15’s in America, and tap into the increasing hatred in our polarized culture war.

Atwood occasionally tries to do too much in connecting it with people or events of the 1980’s, but her writing from the handmaid’s perspective is excellent, and adds to the reader’s feeling of fear and frustration. Her reactions feel honest, and so much is simply unknown. (***spoiler alert***) How very real this feels, in situations like this, to simply not know, and to be haunted by that just as much as by the loss of what once was. The more I think about the ambiguous ending, which has the Handmaid’s story abruptly ending and a final chapter at a Symposium hundreds of years later, the more I like it. Just as Offred never will know what happened to her husband and daughter, we cannot know what happened to her, lost to time. It also puts the horrifying events in a historical context, with the previously all-powerful being somewhat clinically examined by scholars from following centuries, subtly telling us that even the most brutal or totalitarian regimes must fall, and often after in-fighting and purges. I suppose in that there is a glimmer of hope, in what is an otherwise dark novel.

Just this quote, on objectifying women in paintings:
“I remember walking in art galleries, through the nineteenth century: the obsession they had then with harems. Dozens of paintings of harems, fat women lolling on divans, turbans on their heads or velvet caps, being fanned with peacock tails, a eunuch in the background standing guard. Studies of sedentary flesh, painted by men who’d never been there. These pictures were supposed to be erotic, and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animation; about waiting, about objects not in use. They were paintings about boredom.
But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.”
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LibraryThing member Luli81
Closed the book last night and I'm still a bit dazed.
It's a weird feeling because I don't know whether I liked this novel or not. Pages flew by, I was engaged, I wanted to know more about this strange world, but at the same time I didn't. I felt threatened and anxious, does that make any
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Maybe some of the scenes became too plausible for my taste. Would it be possible? I couldn't stop wondering.

The future, Gilhead, somewhere in the States, after a war. Society has changed, men rule it, women obey.
Offred is a handmaid, her role is to bear children, she is property of the Commanders, and she only has 3 opportunities (3 different Commanders) to become pregnant, after that, she becomes an unwoman and she is sent off to the "Colonies" to die. Love is no longer an issue.
Offred tells us about her present and her not so far away past, when she had a husband and a daughter, and work and independence. The story moves onwards and backwards in time and it's not easy to have the whole picture, you are left with a lot of questions hanging until nearly the end.
And even after it's finished, you still have questions, of course.

Some would say this is a feminist book. It might be, but truth is, it has a point. And it's scary to think what might become of our world, because what's more unbelievable is the fact that this scenario might be a possibility someday.
And I have to say that the book is extremely well written, it's reflective and sad and touching in an alarming way.
It seems I've made my mind after all, this novel is quality and it deserves to be read with attention.
While it's still allowed.
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LibraryThing member phyllis01
Still timely, and still scary as hell.
LibraryThing member santhony
I was familiar with the background and storyline of this novel, having seen the outstanding 1990 motion picture of the same name, starring Faye Dunaway, Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall.

As has been pointed out, the novel is set in a near future dystopian theocracy, in which most adults are
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sterile. A select class of fertile women is designated to carry the children of their upper class employers, such practice having its origin in the Old Testament story of Abraham, his childless wife Sarah and the handmaid Hagar.

The handmaid in this story, Offred (Of Fred), is assigned to carry the child of the politically important “Commander”. The story, told from the perspective of Offred, details her life in the household of the Commander, his hostile wife and several other household servants. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of her life before the creation of the theocracy (Gilead) and how the American Republic is subsequently overthrown and females relegated to a life of servitude and bondage.

While this has been labeled a feminist tract, it goes well beyond such a narrow interpretation, touching upon religion and hypocrisy as well as sexual and racial oppression. The most striking emotion garnered from reading the novel is the abject hopelessness of Offred and many of her compatriots. Written immediately following establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and before the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the novel is eerily prescient in its resemblance to treatment of women in those regimes.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I first read this book in the mid-80's deep in the heart of the Reagan years. Despite his current status as the GOP mascot ostensibly representing all that is good about America, I was not and am not a fan of Reagan, the man or the president. In fact, I feel pretty comfortable drawing a direct line
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from the Reagan presidency to the kakocracy currently choking the life out of everything that truly is good about America. But I digress. The reason I bring up the timing of my first reading of this book is because it was a time of real fear that the rights and the standing of women were under attack, that the complete inaction of the administration with respect to the growing AIDs crisis meant that our president was hoping this was a plague sent down by God, and that in the end it meant Gay men would just die and leave us alone, It was a time when tough talk was valued over facts. That time though, hell it was a cakewalk compared to what is going on in the US now. And that difference makes the reading of this book a very different experience. In the 30 years since I last read this book it has gone from sci-fi to a chronicle of a dystopian very near future for America and a dystopian present for people in other countries.

Margaret Atwood is always brilliant, but maybe never more so than in this book. She really did see something on the horizon that others did not. Maybe as a Canadian she has a bit more distance than we Americans. Whatever the reason, she saw things I did not see until they were my reality. In the book, the Commander talks about how America was in decline and how what they have done has made it better. When Offred questions this,"Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some." She saw "Make America Great Again" coming down the pike, and knew was that meant. She saw that a government invested in controlling women's reproduction held the key to controlling women. She saw that the rise of Christian men in positions of power committed to making America a Christian country could convince the populace through a campaign of fear-mongering and shows of military force that America needs to be guided by their hands. This notwithstanding the fact that nothing they are advancing has anything to do with a single thing Jesus ever said. She saw that America would build on fear of Muslim terrorism to achieve these odious goals. "It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress, and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics at the time." (This was one of the most amazing things to me. Fifteen years before 9-11 this was not something I would have ever thought). She saw that the isolation and shunning of our LGBT+ community during the AID's epidemic was tantamount to a death sentence for "gender treachery." She saw that the degradation of a sense of community, the move from Victory Gardens to "greed is good" meant the end of the then-existing America.

Atwood saw too that this reduction of women from human beings to incubators would snuff out any power women have to fight back. There is a point in the book where Offred talks about her disconnection from her body and she says "I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it is shameful or immodest, but because I don't want to see it. I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely." That gutted me, because it felt so real. For me that stood with the several references to everyone being required to chant at Janine that her gang rape had been her doing as the book's most chilling events. Certainly there is not much in the book that is not chilling, but the physical degradation somehow seems less horrifying than the psychological war.

Atwood saw too how easy it is to twist religion to bring people into line. There are not a ton of giggles in this book, but one for me was where Offred is talking about the justification for the handmaid program and she reports they are told "From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs. We recited that three times after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts." I kept wondering if Marx would have found this funny or if it would have pissed him off. In America right now you can get mileage for nearly any idea by saying its in the Bible. But more often than not, these things are counter to all messaging in the New Testament, and much of the Old Testament as well. Don't even get me started on prosperity ministry. God does not want to buy you a Mercedes Benz. Really.

Finally, something Atwood focuses upon that I think is incredibly moving and true is our need for connection. Offred craves her conversations with the Commander. Yes she is trying to manipulate him, but she also just wants to connect with someone. She has been robbed of relationships."I can feel speech backing up inside me" she says as she explains why she presses him into conversation. She needs to converse. This too is why she goes to Nick over and over. They talk, they stroke, they kiss, and those things that make us human, that she has done without for years, are worth facing death to get. Would we be willing to die for intimacy if it were withheld? Maybe.

So for these reasons, in the 30 years between my first reading of this book and my second this went from a 4 to a 5-star. Sometimes it takes a little hindsight to see how great something really is. For the record, I keep hoping that she is wrong and America stops before it becomes the Republic of Gilead. If that happens, this will still be a 5-star book.
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LibraryThing member ouladybird2005
This is a book I can read over and over, and in fact have read over and over. Considering the dystopian nature of the world that the Handmaid's Tale is told in, I find it to have a great story that depicts the way women do actually see each other today. Though truthfully we (meaning modern women)
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do not wear certain colors to outwardly communicate our roles in the world, girls, young women, women and 'old' women move through the development and decline of our sexuality as depicted though the lens of our society. We are valued based on our beauty; youthfulness or at least the mimicry of youthfulness is valued more than the mind. In that way the modern society of today is the reverse of the world in the Handmaid's Tale; viable ovaries are more important than beauty. There is a significant amount of debate over the 'realities' of the world in Handmaiden's Tale, I have seen complaints that 'there's no way that something like this could happen in the timeline that Atwood has in the book', but if we really take a long look at our own world right now, there are instances of control over women's sexuality all over the world, many of which happened overnight. There are places in the United States where women do not have access to quality healthcare, there are places in the world where female circumcision happen everyday and there are places where women in recent history were able to walk out of their homes and drive or walk by themselves where now they have to worry about being raped, kidnapped or where they just cannot go anywhere without a male escort. I'm not saying that tomorrow the United States will turn into the world in the Handmaid's Tale, but freedoms can and do get slowly chipped away at, much of the time without notice until they are something very real. I will probably read the Handmaid's Tale again, if only to remind myself that I wouldn't be wearing red.
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LibraryThing member starbox
"Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse for some."
By sally tarbox on 17 September 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
Last read 18 yrs ago- I'd forgotten how utterly brilliant and engrossing it was!
Narrated by 33 year old Offred, this is a futuristic dystopia where pollution and
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disease have made sterility and birth defects commonplace. Wealthy and infertile couples can take in a 'handmaid' to give them a chance of their own child. But there is nothing wanton about this - the wife is present during the 'Ceremony', and the handmaid dresses like a nun.
Offred is one such handmaid. She recounts her life with the Commander and his hostile wife; her trips into town (always paired up with another maid); the police state, where capital punishment is commonplace; the rumours of an underground resistance movement. And she looks back to her youth, when things were still normal, when she had a partner, a child, feminist friends, a mother...
The reader will see hints of different political systems: it put me much in mind of African slavery, with people fleeing via safe houses to the North and freedom. But written in 1985, as islamic extremism was increasing, this also reflects that misogynistic world. Women covered up (Offred wears a headdress whose 'wings' give her a limited view), their freedom curtailed (allegedly for their own protection), public executions and enforced 'religion' as another tool of oppression.
Unputdownable writing.
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
This is a re-read for me. It is the story of an unnamed woman who narrates her life under a brutal regime -- the "Republic of Gilead" -- an extreme fundamentalist sect that has violently taken over the US and imposed a harsh political/social system based on a literal application of Old Testament
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laws. There is a radical restructuring of social relationships through which the power structure has relegated women to subjagated roles dominated by males. One such role is "handmaid" where women (those from divorced marriages in the "time before" or who were accused of adultery) are yoked to "commanders" for the purpose of procreation. The narrator, known only as "Of Fred", the first name of her commander, lives utterly constrained in all aspects of life under the rules of the new regime. She must dress in a prescribed way, can have no outside relationships and presents herself regularly to the commander for intercourse intended to produce a child. There has been some sort of catastrophe in the recent past that has dramatically decreased birth rates and the arrangement with the handmaids is intended to repopulate the nation.

The narrator had a partner in the old life with whom she had a child. She longs to know what happened to them, alternately believing they are dead or perhaps the child given to someone else. Because of her history she is forced to become a handmaid where she undergoes an oppressive "re-orientation" under the control of so-called "aunts", women who enforce the subservient roles now imposed on women.

"Of Fred" begins to learn of the hypocrisy of the power elite. Her commander, who is expected to have no contact outside their sexual liaison, invites her to secret meetings with him where some banal social interactions occur. This culminates in bringing her to a hotel where women have been compelled to be sexual servants of powerful men. Of Fred has not become pregnant which threatens her to be banished to a colony where women are worked to death in various ways. The wife of the commander, who otherwise shows great disdain for the handmaid, arranges for sexual liaison with the chauffer so that the pregnancy might occur. It is apparently important to their status in the regime that children are produced.

In periodic shopping trips another handmaid (Of Glen) she learns that there is an underground organization working to bring down the regime, but she cannot develop hope that it could be successful. By the end of the novel, we are given the impression that she might have escaped through a sort of underground "female" railroad. The epilogue features a symposium by scholars in the far distant future who have discovered the handmaid's narrative and are studying it from an anthropological perspective.

This is a chilling story. In the years since its publication has it become dated? Sadly not. Has the rising awareness of equality due women as a natural and political right made the story a bit too fantastic? I don't think so. The intentions of zealots to impose their views of morality and the proper relationship status between men and women seems to be lurking still, perhaps growing stronger. In our country there are many who believe that men should dominate women and point to scripture as justification. While this belief is mild in comparison to the horrors of the novel, still it is a belief that its holders would wish others to adopt. Can political systems be the pathways to impose biblically defined views of morality? Just read any day's newspaper or watch the media for an answer to that question. And, of course, in other parts of the world male power over women is overt and oppressive.

The dangerous power of intolerance and willingness to use violence to impose a set of moral views are lessons from this book we should heed always.
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LibraryThing member fromthecomfychair
I read this years ago but it's still fresh in my mind. Frightening because it seems so possible, especially in this President's (Bush) administration where we have given up more of our liberties for security. Whenever I hear evangelical Christians spouting their politics, I cringe, and it's because
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in the back of my mind, I am thinking of this book. I was so disturbed by it that when the movie came out I couldn't see it and never have. But it's a brilliant imagining of the future. Brilliant and scary.
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Booker Prize (Longlist — 1986)
Nebula Award (Nominee — Novel — 1986)
Audie Award (Finalist — Fiction — 2013)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Fiction — 1986)
Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Winner — 1987)
Arthur C. Clarke Award (Winner — 1987)
The British Book Industry Awards (Shortlist — Audiobook — 2020)
Otherwise Award (Shortlist)
Canada Reads (Nominee — 2002)
Prometheus Award (Nominee — Novel — 1987)
Prix Aurora Award (Finalist — 1986)
The Guardian 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read (Science Fiction and Fantasy)
Best Fiction for Young Adults (Selection — 1986)
The Big Jubilee Read (1985 — 1982-1991)


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