America in Atwood's bleak, unnerving novel is the theocracy of Gilead, established by religious fanatics who have dismantled the republic, liquidated the opposition and replaced our present political system with a quasi-military infrastructure. The northeastern United States has been transformed into Gilead with terrifying swiftness and remarkably little resistance, the transition eased by a lingering Puritan tradition fortified by neo-fundamentalism. The overriding concern of this regime is human reproduction; the time is the foreseeable future, when a devastating combination of chemical pollution, radiation and epidemic venereal disease has caused the national birthrate to fall below replacement level. For an assortment of good, bad and indifferent reasons, too few children have been born in the preceding decades to keep America from extinction. (Arthur Campbell, a demographer quoted in the Jan. 13 issue of Newsweek, believes that more than a fifth of the women born in the 1950s may never have a child.) By the time "The Handmaid's Tale" begins, he has been proved right and reforms long advocated by radical elements of the moral majority have become law.
Unlike science fiction, which is sharply fanciful, this sort of speculative literature merely extrapolates from past and present experience to a future firmly based upon actuality; beginning with events that have already taken place and extending them a bit beyond the inevitable conclusions. "The Handmaid's Tale" does not depend upon hypothetical scenarios, omens, or straws in the wind, but upon documented occurances and public pronouncements; all matters of record. For contemporary American women, "The Handmaid's Tale" could be the ultimate doomsday book; a man's reaction may well be ambivalent. In Gilead, such distinctions between the sexes have been revived and emphasized with a vengeance.