The delusions of literary dystopias

Anti-Christian bile may be inventive, but it stems from dangerous misunderstandings

Screen
Anti-Trump protestors in “handmaid” costumes: The “Handmaid’s Tale” TV series firmly places Gilead in the modern USA (©Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It is Christianity that the radical baby boomer really dislikes. He may direct a few barbs and jibes towards Mecca, though he will often have a fierce sympathy for Islamist condemnations of Israel and be happy to denounce the alleged Islamophobia of critics of multiculturalism. It is the religion of his parents, of his school, of the Coronation and the royal weddings and the bench of bishops that he needs to reject, if he wants to be a modern person.

This distaste takes many forms. Most of them are cultural. Those who feel it spurn christenings and church weddings.  Sometimes, they reject marriage itself, even its most stripped-down and patriarchy-free form. They are often actively furious that so much of the better education in this country comes with Christian extras. And they feel uncomfortable at just how much of the British cultural inheritance, from architecture and music to literature and poetry, is tinged and flavoured with Christian sentiment and references.     

The novelist Philip Pullman has been taking swipes at the Christian church for decades now, turning a small personal preoccupation into a sizeable industry. He has been frank and explicit about seeking to attack the basis of Christian belief, though many of his readers don’t know about his vehemence and are disturbed when it is pointed out to them.  But now he has more worrying companions in Margaret Atwood and Robert Harris. These are accomplished novelists with large followings who have not really been identified as ideologically anti-Christian until now. Margaret Atwood published her clever, enjoyable novel about an America ruled by evangelical fanatics, The Handmaid’s Tale, an amazing 34 years ago. It became reasonably well known, over the years, but it was not the great overpowering cultural monster it has since become.

Its adaptation into a TV series has changed it into a much more explicitly anti-Christian work. Many of its readers thought, when it came out, that it was very much based on the Iranian Islamist revolution of 1979, still an event of gigantic, shocking force in 1985. There is evidence that Atwood thought so, too. Until the recent rise of anti-Christian feeling in the West, nobody would have had any doubt of what was being described, in a nation in which women were stripped of former freedoms, and compelled to scurry about with their heads bowed and their gazes controlled, in enveloping robes.

The satirical endnotes, supposedly a transcript of a historians’ convention in 2095, mention a study of “Iran and Gilead: two late-20th-century monotheocracies”. And in the years when Atwood was writing it, the images of westernised Persian women being forced into submission and compelled to hunch timidly in black chadors shocked a culture that had come to see female emancipation as irreversible and worldwide. The invented Gilead, on the other hand, never came to pass in its predicted time (as Nineteen Eighty-Four did not, and as Brave New World did, though hardly anyone noticed). Nor did anything like it take place in any Western or Christian country. Atwood followed it with many other successful novels, which were often radical and feminist in tone, but made no attempts to revisit Gilead, the patriarchal, misogynist republic of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The rather nasty TV series, amusingly starring a Scientologist actress, Elisabeth Moss, as the anti-religious heroine, Offred, gave the Handmaid and her tale a completely new existence, as TV tends to do. Just as Colin Dexter’s fictional Inspector Morse acquired a red Jaguar car in Dexter’s later books, to bring him into line with the TV version, Offred’s miseries became much more rooted to one time and one place—an alternative modern USA. This heavy-handed melodrama turned Atwood’s carefully-revealed imaginary world ,which she gradually uncovers to the reader, into a relentless, leadenly-explained reality.  The TV series placed Gilead quite definitely in the 21st-century USA, and gave it an explicitly Christian character, with a recording of a choir singing “Onward, Christian soldiers” rather oddly chosen to accompany a scene of officially sanctioned rape. As it extended itself beyond the original, it also became more graphically cruel and melodramatic.

The same has happened in The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, £20), the sequel now launched on a world that knows very little of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but a great deal about #MeToo, Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. It also has to make up for the fact that in 1985 the great new faith of anthropogenic global warming had yet to be born, and must now be inserted into the story. Gilead is denounced in its fictional demonstrations in Canada as a “climate science de-liar”. 

I suspect Atwood set to her work without much enthusiasm but with a strong sense of duty. The fiction writer’s motto is show, don’t tell. But The Testaments tells as well as shows, relentlessly and ploddingly. Officials of Gilead speak to each other like this: “Our own version is that the Canadians are covering up, and the depraved Mayday terrorists enabled by Canada’s lax tolerance of their illegal presence killed Aunt Adrianna. Though, between you and me, we are baffled. Who can tell? It may even have been one of those drug-related killings so prevalent in that decadent society. Aunt Sally was just around the corner purchasing some eggs . . .” and so on and on, a bit like the not-very-thrilling later Le Carré thrillers, where duty has replaced pleasure or excitement. This leaden dialogue may be meant to be satirical, but I am not sure.

One quite good running joke, which millions will not get, is that the dreaded Aunts, traitors to their sex who operate a kind of puritan secret police, relax from their labours over cups of hot milk in the Schlafly Café. I think this unalluring place is the only thing in Gilead named after a real figure in modern politics. Its regime, of puritanical censorship, hangings, torture and imposed illiteracy, is thus identified with the late Phyllis Schlafly, the highly-educated, resolutely unfashionable, Roman Catholic, Republican woman who defeated the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA, opposed abortion and argued against second-wave feminism. It is a perfect illustration of the total loss of proportion that sometimes afflicts the radical movement.

In the cross-cutting between funky Canada and strait-laced puritan Gilead, leaving aside the repression and the persecution, there is no question that Atwood is declaring an allegiance. On one side of the border is freedom, which is, deep down, all about bodily autonomy. On the other is repression, enforced ignorance and hypocrisy, which is, deep down, identified with Christianity. TV has transformed Atwood from an interesting author into a propagandist. I doubt anyone will read the later work for pleasure.

But what has brought Robert Harris, master of the intelligent thriller, to his condemnation of Christianity? Harris is famously grumpy about the vote to leave the EU, but how has he managed to identify Nigel Farage with the King James Bible and the Church of England, if that is what he has done?  And if not, what has motivated this very odd work?

The premise of The Second Sleep (Hutchinson, £20) is as good as all Harris’s ideas. Civilisation has ended because it became too reliant on computers, which failed. Hundreds of years later, in rural Wessex, we are introduced into a new dark age. Our world has ended in terror and is a matter of myth and archaeology.  Out of the ruins man has built a society that is relentlessly hostile to the scientific ideas that are believed to have led to an apocalypse.  Far from seeking to find out how the past was so prosperous and healthy, and to avoid the problems that brought it down, it has turned its back on “science” and “scientism”, without making much distinction between the two. 

This wilfully stupid and ignorant regime suppresses knowledge of the past, burns books, and calls those who seek that knowledge “heretics”. It imprisons them and brands their foreheads.

Somehow this rather moronic despotism has settled on Stuart England as its ideal era. It has its attractive side. Though they struggle with exactly when to say “Ye”, or “Thee” or “Thou”, its people speak something like the language of the King James Bible or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is back in universal use. English customary measures are restored, and the metric system is forgotten. But we are not spared details of the squalid poverty and cruel, untreated and unprevented disease, which the lack of “scientism” has inflicted. The Bible has become a sort of Oldspeak Dictionary, whose words are the only ones allowed to be used. Somehow, this restriction is supposed to deter “scientism” and science, which makes one wonder how Isaac Newton managed.

I cannot say that it is Harris’s best work, though I longed to like it. Its plot is, like its mud-choked brambled roads, reminiscent of Launcelot Andrewes’ great description of the journey of the Wise Men: “The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.”

But there is a spite in it: the identification of the Church, especially the Church of England and its glorious, poetic texts, with the suppression of human inquiry. At least Atwood’s conflict between bodily autonomy and Christian conscience is real, for the Church is ultimately on the side of the stable married family against the new fluid world, even if this is not a recipe for a repressive police state. But science is not the enemy of Christian belief. It is based upon the idea that the universe is a purposeful thing governed by discoverable laws. Einstein, though no sort of religious believer, was emphatically not an atheist. And in any search for human freedom under a proper rule of law in a world where these things are rare, those countries where Protestant Christianity has been the predominant belief are the best places to look.

Yet intelligent, literate, creative people such as Atwood and Harris—and many of their readers who will no doubt endorse both these books—continue to identify Christianity as an enemy. Will they only realise their mistake when it is too late, as is so often the case?