The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a masterclass in worldbuilding.
Most authors would have detailed the story’s premise—or at least painted the broad strokes—within the first few pages, or even the first paragraphs: that in the late 20th century, after disease and pollution rendered many women infertile, Christian extremists overthrew the U.S. government and established the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy. Women who can still bear children are now breeding concubines for high-status men, while barren women are ordered into a rigid hierarchy subordinate to the new patriarchy.
But Atwood only gives this concept to us bit by bit. Her narrator, Offred—meaning “of Fred,” the Commander she’s assigned to—relays the tale in journal format. And through the daily happenings Offred recounts, we gradually learn how changed the new world is, in terms of things both large (revised gender roles and classes, a civil war within Christianity) and small (warped rituals for sex, childbirth, and intimacy). Offred intersperses her reflections with earlier memories of how this world came to be, but she doesn’t sequence them chronologically. For example, it’s not until two-thirds of the way through that she recalls how the extremists machinegunned the president and Congress during the coup.
Atwood’s prose is striking, and I found her slow drip of context more compelling than a massive dump of information. But she may have taken this approach too far: there’s nothing really driving the story except the worldbuilding. Sure, Offred wants to survive and, for a time, find love (which, like many things, is prohibited), but those are nebulous goals. This isn’t a hero’s journey; I’m not even sure I could map it to a three-act structure.
A different author—maybe one of those who would have accomplished the bulk of the worldbuilding upfront—might have had Offred search for her lost husband and daughter, or join the resistance, or become pregnant illegally and fight to keep her baby. That story probably would have been tauter… but I’m not sure it would have been as memorable.
Oddly, at the end of the book, Atwood appends a (fake) historical note that serves as the information dump she spends the entire novel avoiding. The postscript feels unnecessary, but the brief comparison to Iran reminded me that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s, shortly after the Iranian Revolution established a theocracy in the Middle East. Perhaps that’s why Gilead seems so chillingly plausible at times.
One other note: I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Claire Danes. She crushes it. Hopefully Hulu does as good a job with the TV version.