For a writer who grew up in an age when his chosen genre was routinely derided in polite company— when even impolite company could be forgiven for thinking that SF boiled down to megablockbusters about snarky sapient raccoons and alien-punching fighter pilots— it doesn’t get much better than waking up to find that a big chunk of this year’s Emmy Awards comes down to a dust-up between two actual, non-escapist, serious and thought-provoking SF series.
Not fantasy. Not superhero adaptations. Science fiction.
It is a wet dream come true.
Both The Handmaid’s Tale (13 nominations) and Westworld (22!) are brilliant in their own utterly different ways. Westworld impressed me with its clinical dissection of SF tropes and neurophilosophy, with the erudition of its premise and the skill of its execution. Handmaid’s, on the other hand, was like a weekly hour-long kick in the gut, an ordeal you couldn’t look away from, a story from a universe not so much parallel to ours as converging on it. (Yes, I’m familiar with the claim that said convergence happened generations ago, that every one of Gilead’s horrors have already and repeatedly blighted this timeline. I don’t dispute this, but it’s not the whole story. Read on.) If Elisabeth Moss doesn’t win every fucking award on the planet— and I’m including the Nobel in Medicine, and the Golden Rhododendron for best floral arrangement, and Best North American Guppy Breeder in that lot— if she doesn’t take home every award there is, there should be rioting in the streets.
One series is cryosurgical, the other intensely visceral. Both inspired widespread, almost universal acclaim; both are undeniably science fiction.
Or are they?
You might know my opinion of Margaret Atwood’s notorious aversion to the “science fiction” label when applied to her work. (If not, here’s a refresher.) Even if you’re unfamiliar with my take, you probably know about her infamous “Beam me up, Scotty”, “chemicals and rockets”, “talking squids in outer space” definitions of the genre; her half-assed back-peddling when Ursula Le Guin sat her down and gave her a good talking to; her more recent (if still vaguely ambivalent) self-acceptance: Hi. I’m Peggy, and I’m a science-fiction writer.
And yet, watching the virtually-flawless Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale— twice now— I found even myself plagued with moments of doubt. This is not a future world. It contains no advanced technology; if anything, it had the feel of a particularly nightmarish period piece. Maybe Atwood was right along.
Maybe this isn’t science fiction.
I’m sticking to my story. I’m going all in, too. I’m not even going to take the easy way out, stick Atwood over with those Humanities soft-SF types who aren’t even interested in science or technology, who’d rather use aliens and dystopias as metaphors for Othering and Intersectionality and Heteronormative whateverthehells. Atwood herself eschewed that particular cop-out when she wrapped herself in the flag of “speculative fiction”: the thing that separated her writing from science fiction, she said then, was that her fiction was rigorously researched and based on Real Science. (I myself have always preferred William Gibson’s offhanded rejoinder that “All fiction is speculative.”)
No, I’m going to argue— after, admittedly, some serious moments of self-doubt— that The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction in the pure sense: fiction designed to explore the societal impact of scientific and technological change. The All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again argument is true but irrelevant. The fact that Gilead is based on historical precedent does not get Handmaid a Get-Out-Of-SF-Free card.
Take, for example, the very reason Gilead was born in the first place, the catalyst that allowed the fundamentalists to seize power: a global collapse in human fertility, brought about by environmental catastrophes hinted at but never really explored. We know about “the Colonies”, places where the toxic waste is so ubiquitous your “skin falls off in sheets”. I seem to remember the novel talking about reactor meltdowns and high-rad zones. The apocalypse has already happened in that universe; Gilead smolders at the base of the same cliff that we, in this reality, still teeter on the edge of. The fact that it took place offstage, before the curtain rose, does not make it any less central; it set Handmaid‘s whole world in motion.
Environmental collapse. Imminent Human extinction due to pollution-induced sterility. A classic case of If This Goes On: the impact of technology, our birds come home to roost, sometime in the future.
Consider also the tactics used by the revolution: computer technology, used to disenfranchise half the population in an instant. Offred spells it out explicitly in the novel: “[T]hat’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.” “All they needed to do was push a few buttons,” Moira remarks a couple of pages later.
Of course, computers and ATMs aren’t what you’d call futuristic technology. (In fact, Atwood’s references to “Compubanks” and “portable money” seemed quaint even in 1985 when the book came out; the term “ATM” never even appears in the text, although such machines were ubiquitous back then.) That hardly matters. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon didn’t stop being SF when Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider didn’t turn into a historical drama with the coding of the first real-world computer virus.
If you want to be pedantic I could always roll out Offred’s cryptic references to “Feels on Wheels” and “Bun-Dle Buggies”— even the (incongruously optimistic) fact that Gilead is mainly powered by renewables, in the series at least— to plant this society clearly in a technological future. I could cite the presence of “pocket computers”, which were undeniably futuristic back in the day when amber-screened ATs with 8088 chips were the high end of personal computing. (The TV series, made in a time when the tech has surpassed that of Atwood’s original Gilead, just swaps in iPads and laptops and doesn’t sweat it.) Either way, Gilead arises via the manipulation and misuse of a particular kind of technology, inflicted on a society. It’s pretty much the textbook definition of the science-fictional thought experiment.
I admit, they had me going for a while. The lack of FX, the staid, almost Victorian setting, the overall undeniable low-key prestige of the thing had me wondering if maybe Atwood’s protestations might have more substance to them than the initially-diagnosed fear of SF cooties. This is certainly one of those shows that people who hate science fiction could watch without being any the wiser— maybe we could call it “Stealth-SF”. But SF it is: It describes a world compromised by one kind of technology, and a societal response enabled by another. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could disqualify it on the grounds that those elements are never the thematic focus of the tale, that the real spotlight is on the way that people use religion as a means of social control.
Of course, if that’s the literary bed you want to make, you might find yourself waking up next to a guy called Atreides…