The Handmaid’s Tale: A Study in Dystopian Worldbuilding

Recently I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it got me thinking about the role of dystopias in fiction and worldbuilding in general.

Atwood’s futuristic dystopia features a totalitarian regime that has taken control of a failing United States. The new state enforces rigid social roles, enslaving its inhabitants and providing only bare essentials in order to maintain a society. This is a situation that, if not imminent in modern society, still represents a relatively plausible future, should things take a dark turn.

Such is the nature of the dystopian world and other science fiction settings: they reflect a future for our world that could, by some stretch, be possible. While science fiction is often associated or shelved with fantasy, its worldbuilding necessities vary enormously.

Books: The Handmaid's Tale

In a significant way, science fiction worldbuilding is more difficult than fantasy worldbuilding. You have to account for real world problems, and you’re often tasked with explaining how the world got to this point. Now I can see the questions arising: what about Star Wars? How about similar “space opera” pieces? Are these not science fiction?

I would argue no. Star Wars, to me, falls much more into the vein of fantasy, with it’s mystical Force and strange creatures. More importantly, it is disconnected from our galaxy completely, as told by the famous phrase: In a galaxy far far away. Science fiction usually represents a future of our world: indeed, even Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward series is set in our distant future.

This is all very exciting. But it raises the question: why create a fictional dystopia in the first place? And what is the best way of going about this daunting task? While I plan on writing more extensively on worldbuilding in the future, here’s a snippet I’ve found quite useful in my ventures.

When worldbuilding, elaborate, elaborate, elaborate. This is a general rule used in fantasy worldbuilding, but it can be implemented just as well in science fiction. In society one thing leads to another; one problem leads to a solution which might unveil other solutions or create more problems. Keeping this in mind can make your setting seem much more realistic than simply adding in aspects that seem “cool” here and there. For example, if a theme in your future was that all the world’s freshwater had been depleted, then societies with the most advanced and large-scale filters would suddenly hold more power. Oil-rich states and those with similar markets of modern economic power would take a back seat to the countries who could quickly provide drinkable substance. What would this do to those back-seat economies? Perhaps they would collapse. If the most basic commodities start becoming scarce, people might start leading simpler lives to obtain those resources, no longer supporting economies that had thrived in the wake of modern convenience.

Perhaps this isn’t a realistic elaboration. But you get the idea. One widespread aspect of life almost always affects another, so be careful before you start creating more problems for your world to handle. See what will become of the existing problems first.

You can find my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

What have you been worldbuilding? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? If so, what are your thoughts on the text? Mine are generally positive, especially concerning the worldbuilding Atwood manages to convey.

Nai aurelya nauva mára! 

—J.

Published by J. Dan Goodberry

Writer, blogger, composer of music and fan of the genres of fantasy and historical fiction.

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