THE HANDMAID'S TALE: By Margaret Atwood. Houghton Mifflin. 311 pp. $16.95. WE MUST THINK of ourselves as tourists, travelers in time. These streets are familiar, yet it would appear we have entered the Dark Ages. We are in a well-tended suburb in New England. Pleasant old houses, manicured lawns. A college town, perhaps Cambridge, although it is evident that the university has been closed permanently. Hooded bodies hang from hooks against an old brick wall, black vans with eyes ominously painted on them patrol the streets, uniformed men are stationed at checkpoints. On these streets there is an absence of children and old people. Everyone is also white.

Women are dressed oddly in floor-length costumes that appear to delineate caste -- wives of commanders wear blue with matching veils, the dresses of "econowives" are striped. And then there are the young women in red habits, who look so medieval with their white- winged headdresses -- the handmaids. They walk demurely in pairs with their baskets, careful to avoid eye contact with strangers.

It is some time around the year 2000. Those who were in college in 1986 (children of parents from the Sixties generation) are now in their mid-thirties. They grew up in the culture that is so familiar to us today -- they remember punk hairstyles, Humphrey Bogart festivals, painted toenails, adultery, women's liberation, paper currency, the TV shows that from time to time featured leaders of the Moral Majority. We would share their frame of reference, yet we would have immense difficulty adjusting to the demands of this new, austere, regimented society. Life as we know it in the U.S.A. no longer exists. We have entered the Republic of Gilead.

Recently the Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood was asked to describe her religious views for her listing in Contemporary Authors. "God is everywhere, but losing," was her answer. In The Handmaid's Tale, her fifth and most powerful novel, she looks into the clouded glass of the future and, fully attuned to some of the negative signals in the present, envisions startling but by no means illogical consequences. In opening her imagination to what we might find some years down the road, Atwood joins the company of Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, literary writers of future shock fiction -- a genre whose pioneers include H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell.

In a period when the novel of bourgeois life increasingly suffers from a poverty of subject -- when we read over and over again about the attenuated sufferings of those in comfortable circumstances who should be a little happier than they are -- the novel of the disastrous future offers the writer of fiction rejuvenated possibilities. Characters are placedmis, calling upon all their resources of courage and ingenuity in order to survive. Rebels defy the rules of society, risking everything to retain their humanity. If the world Atwood depicts is chilling, if "God is losing," the only hope for optimism is a vision that includes the inevitability of human struggle against the prevailing order.

Atwood's richly conceived heroine and narrator is a handmaid, one of those young women in red. She is called Offred (Of Fred) -- she never reveals her real name. Offred has been stripped of her identity, cut off from her history, from the husband and child and friends she loves. Within her lifetime, the environment has become so polluted that the birthrate has dropped alarmingly and few of the infants that come to term survive. The scarcity of children makes them highly prized by the state. In a coup d',etat a fundamentalist monotheocracy has taken over in which women have been deprived of all rights and in which adultery and abortion are punishable by death. As one of Gilead's fanatics puts it, society had been "dying of too much choice." Women like Offred, who have borne healthy children but who have broken the puritannical rules of the new society, are awarded by the state to elite childless couples to produce offspring for them. Within these households, the procreative act is drearily performed in the presence of the wife in a curious ceremony devoid of all eroticism inspired by the legend of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah in the Book of Genesis. "Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a symptom of frivolity, merely, like jazz garters or beauty spots: superfluous distractions for the light-minded. Outdated."

Just as the world of Orwell's 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood's handmaid. She has succeeded in finding a voice for her heroine that is direct, artless, utterly convincing. It is the voice of a woman we might know, of someone very close to us. In fact, it is Offred's poignant sense of time that gives this novel its peculiar power. The immense changes in her life have come so fast that she is still in a state of shock and disbelief as she relates to us what she sees around her. Her present reality is constantly invaded by painful memories of what she has lost -- everyday life as we ourselves know it. Vestiges of the recent past take her by surprise. Staring at a group of Japanese tourists, she reflects, "It's been a long time since I've seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture." She admits she is "fascinated but repelled." It has taken little time to change our minds about things like this.

"Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom."

"Westernized, they used to call it."

In Atwood's Gilead, even the male leaders are not immune to longings for the illicit pleasure of the past, to "an appreciation of the old things," although Offred's elderly commander points out to her that men used to suffer because sex used to be too easily come by. "Anybody could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for." The double standard still prevails, however. Offred's commander takes it upon himself to break the rules, summoning her to visit him alone in his private study. She goes to the assignation expecting, as the reader does, whips and chains, sexual perversion. Instead there is a marvelously comic turn. What he wants is to play a game of Scrabble with her, and he wants to be kissed as if she means it. In return, she asks for a bottle of hand lotion to use on her face and -- because women have been deprived of knowledge -- she makes a classic demand for something even more valuable and forbidden: "I want to know," she says. "Whatever there is to know. What's going on."

The Handmaid's Tale is a novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections of politics and sex, and it will no doubt be labeled a "feminist 1984." Yet it is Atwood's achievement to have produced a political novel that avoids the pitfall of doctrinaire writing. Offred lives and breathes. She is defiant in her own way, but no Superwoman. She resembles neither her mother, a militant feminist leader of drives against pornography, nor her friend Moira, a gay activist who refuses to become a handmaid and briefly manages to join the underground. She is simply a warm, intelligent, ordinary woman who had taken for granted the freedoms she was to lose -- the freedom to love, the freedom to work, the freedom to have access to knowledge. Gilead threatens those who break its rules with extinction. Yet for Offred, the price of obedience is even higher -- the death of the senses, the death of the spirit. She catches herself in the absd contradiction of smearing butter on her face to preserve her complexion and simultaneously contemplating hanging herself from a hook in her closet. Overwhelming loneliness and boredom afflict her even more than oppression. "Nobody dies from lack of sex," she discovers. "It's a lack of love we die from. There's nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well as be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person."

Offred's plight is always human as well as ideological, and so is her inevitable assertion of her needs. Her tale, in Atwood's masterful hands, is extraordinarily satisfying, disturbing and compelling.