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How, and to what extent, can storytelling enable us to think differently about environmental catastrophe?

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was written at a time when educated women were making significant inroads in the workplace and public realm. Atwood presents a dystopian world, presumed to be Northern America after a political revolution and environmental catastrophe. In this society, women are “recruited for reproductive purposes and allotted to those who both required such services and could lay claim to them through their position in the elite.” Atwood’s first person account presents females as the first individuals to have their money and jobs removed by the new ultra orthodox Christian state, the governing powers then proceed to strip females of their human rights, such as independence and personal autonomy, until women’s roles become solely governed by fertility and the patriarchal economic power of the few.

Offred, the name of the protagonist, is taken from the name of her commander Fred, as is the custom for all ‘Handmaids’ within Atwood’s Novel. This patriarchal naming immediately ‘others’ women as second class, valid only though their ownership by a man. Essentially, women in this society become simply men’s property , only worthy because of their fertility. Atwood’s traumatic fictional society is born from our own society’s attitude towards women, their bodies, and their value, highlighting the patriarchy and Atwood’s fierce desire for change.

The “Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale” is the epilogue, inspired by the appendix in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984 (1949). It is used as a tool by Atwood to remind us of how our past influences our present; how this dystopia seems far removed from our own society, however, so does the past but we are nevertheless a product of it. It is difficult to escape the past because it is part of the story we tell about our society and ourselves.

As all storytellers’ do, Atwood’s novel is written from her experience of the world, as a western North America woman. These Historical Notes act as a reminder of society’s ability to adapt and change, a reminder that can be inspiring and perhaps vital when change is needed most, such as times of environmental catastrophe.

The rise of capitalism and globalisation only begun at the end of World War II and yet it dictates day-to-day lives all over the planet. “It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypercritical self-congratulation.”

While Atwood’s novel can be read as a response to patriarchy’s growing disquiet at the increasing influence of women in the latter part of the 20th century, both in the workplace and public life, and the potential changes that might bring to gender politics both in the boardroom and the bedroom, Thomas Hardy’s 1889 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles reflected the fear and upheavals brought about by the industrial revolution, specifically their effect upon women’s roles in society. It was a time of great change in Britain that saw masses move from the country to the cities and a drastic upheaval in the way of life brought about by technological advances.

Hardy’s novel, set around the time that is arguably the start of the Anthropocene resonates with a fear of change and anxiety over the future. Advancing technology and the resulting cultural shifts lead to the destruction of Tess who represents the rural way of life. Tess’s loss of innocence represents Hardy’s own fear of the threat of urbanisation. Technology’s portrayal throughout the book is negatively showing Hardy’s nostalgia for a lost past.

Although written almost a century apart Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Handmaid’s Tale are both stories of women being used and taken advantage of in patriarchal societies that view women as means of reproduction. This repeated story seen over and over perhaps highlights a stagnant society still based on enlightenment philosophy despite the significant technological advances of the past 150 years.

In writing The Handmaid’s Tale, and subsequent novels, Atwood was strongly influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) considered by Atwood to be the most important environmental book of the 20th century as it highlighted how new 20th century chemicals were poisoning the biosphere. Interestingly, many attempts were made to destroy Carson’s reputation with many of the attacks concentrating on her gender.

Atwood’s dystopian novel explores an imagined future and presents it as history. As suggested in Beyond the Cyborg “the focus of feminist SF (science fiction) authors was not so much exposing the ways that patriarchy had limited women’s lives, but asking what could be done differently.” This is crucial when faced with climate change and the destruction of Mother Earth. The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009) discusses how it is “through stories that we weave reality” particularly at a time of “social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.”

Our intensified and increasingly reliant relationship with technology means that imagined futures are now becoming realities. “The Cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality.” We have entered an age where the cyborg, both organism, and machine, is ever more present in our society. The film Ex Machina (2015), written by a man, Alex Garland, is based on the Turing Test. The test is passed if the, “the human doesn’t know they’re interacting with a computer.” The artificial intelligence (AI), Ava, must try to convince Caleb to help her escape. However, from the outset of the experiment Caleb knows that Ava is an AI. The predicted outcome and Caleb’s intended role in the experiment are hazy for the most part of the film. Seen from Caleb’s perspective the audience experiences the film from his position to discover his purpose in the experiment.

From the outset of the film, the audience’s first view of Caleb is through his computer screen surrounded by technology. This opening presents human’s dependency and intimacy with technology, a theme that is explored throughout the film through the sharp contrast between the technological world inside the complex and its backdrop of wilderness and nature. In the end technology triumphs over man who is playing god, in effect destroying him and his future, and Ava escapes into the real world outside.

Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto plays on the idea of how the cyborg creates a possibility to change how gender is perceived. The cyborg exists between binaries male/female, organism/technology. However, the female image AI shown in Ex Machina presents a very traditional view of gender relations and demonstrates the unwillingness of men to let go of the power they have over women by viewing them as the other. It comes back to a society based on Cartesian Dualism where existence and the repression of the other holds a power even at a time when technological advances mean that society and communities are changing rapidly. It brings to question is the way that people think, lagging far behind where technology is taking us?

This would seem likely as a movie such as Ex Machina demonstrates that the uneasy relationship of men to women, of man to technology, and of man to nature, are still areas of anxiety and concern. If Hardy’s Tess reflected the anxieties brought about by the industrial revolution, Ex Machina highlights the concerns that arise when technology outruns our philosophical mindset and view of the world. If we are still stuck in the past, how can we reimagine the future and solve the most pressing problems of the present including climate change and environmental catastrophe? As The Dark Mountain Manifesto observed back in 2009 “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” That was seven years ago during which time the pace of technological advance has accelerated. Storytelling may hold a way forward. As the tellers of fantastical fairy tales knew well, and as Atwood shows in her dystopian fictions, the imagination can be as powerful as technology itself.

Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto and science fiction both operate as writings that blur the line between fact and fiction and help to challenge and break down fact/fiction binaries. Indeed, this is seen further with the cyborg becoming reality and; “its promise in the confusion of boundaries between organism and machine that seem reified as part of the science/arts, nature/culture, animal/human binaries.” This confusion of boundaries enables the binaries of Cartesian Dualism to be challenged and thus storytelling enables independent thinking.

When looking at storytelling and the alternative ontologies that stories create the possibilities are unlimited and so too is the extent to which storytelling can enable people to think differently about sexual politics, as well as social and environmental issues. Yet it is personal experience that affects how stories are absorbed and the effect that they have on a person. When considering how and to what extent storytelling can enable people to think differently about environmental catastrophe there is no limit. What limits people, however, is their social conditioning and their ability to accept change whether that is regarding their relationship towards the rights of women or with the earth itself.

Image: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990), dir. Volker Schlöndorff © ODYSSEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED