Asked to describe this story, my one-word reaction is “disturbing”. I suppose dystopia always is, but the sense of foreboding and captivity here is so oppressive that it overpowers everything else.
I was very annoyed with the author because she basically doesn’t tell us anything at all. I’ve heard that too much backstory is bad, of course, but none at all really made me mad. There is simply this highly regimented life where everything is controlled: from the clothes you must wear for your status in society, to the tasks assigned to that status, and especially everything surrounding the act of breeding, which one gathers has become rare and sacrosanct, but without being told the hows or whys.
At the same time there are hints of flashbacks that begin very vague and become progressively more specific as the book goes on. This is all a reader has to go on to figure out what has happened in apparently just a few years to shift the normal-sounding society, in the flashbacks, into the horrible yet whitewashed existence of the story’s present day.
It’s all very surreal. The tale of one woman only, with not a clue as to the bigger picture or the inciting incident for the societal transformation. Making it even more surreal is the epilogue, a transcribed speech by a professor some hundred years later, speaking about the story itself. And this is where you find all that elusive background information that actually explains what’s going on.
Perhaps it was more creepy to leave all of that unsaid before the epilogue. It certainly creeped me out; I dreamed about the story twice in the days after reading it. I admire an author being able to do that, even though I can’t say I enjoyed the reading of it very much. I can see why this won a Hugo – such a completely haunting story is rare.