Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Yes, The Handmaid's Tale is Science Fiction (and that's okay)

Recently, Damien Walter published an article entitled "No, The Handmaid's Tale is Not Science Fiction".

While I have reservations about doing a targeted op-ed response like this, I found the article really troubling on a few levels. It probably wouldn't have got under my skin if it weren't for the fact that Atwood herself has a history of saying weirdly dismissive things about the genre she often seems to be writing in—for a quick intro if you're unfamiliar, I'd suggest Lauren Davis's overview of Le Guin's take Atwood's genre status, or Cecilia Mancuso's article on Atwood and how "speculative" differs from "science" fiction.

I should say, going into this, that first and foremost I really enjoy The Handmaid's Tale (and much of Atwood's work); it's an important novel, and one that's on a lot of people's radar right now as it heads to a television adaptation at a time when women's health and reproductive rights are under attack. It's a good novel, and it's a science fiction novel, though not always shelved as such.

Where things are shelved is not, in this case at least, such a big deal, but there are aspects to the "not science fiction" argument, especially as presented here by Walter, that really bug me.

Definitions are Fickle (and that's okay, too)

First, of course! Prefatory quibbles:

The definition of science fiction is famously complex and unsettled. It's also good to remember, throughout genre arguments, that most values of "genre" don't exist in some objectively-verifiable way, it's more just about finding useful ways of talking about groups of works.

I've found it useful to think about genre along three different levels:
  1. The External genre: where works are physically shelved, how they're categorized by booksellers, publishers, librarians.
  2. The Formal genre: the fuzzy set of features that we think define the genre internally. These might be simple signifiers or devices—aliens or time-travel, for instance—or more abstract ideas like "cognitive estrangement" or the relationship of the fictional world to reality.
  3. The Cultural genre: trickier to prove than the other two, but I think this is frequently the level we're arguing about when we debate whether a work is "really SF or not". Does the author work with a generic tradition: are they informed by, responding to, building on a (probably loosely-defined) body of works and the commentary surrounding it?
Anxiety about whether something is "true" science fiction or fantasy comes when these three levels don't match up. Consider Kurt Vonnegut or Michael Crichton, whose works are often clearly science fictional but are shelved elsewhere for publishing reasons, or when genre outsiders use SF/F techniques without, perhaps, being well-acquainted with the way those techniques and ideas have been explored in the field—McCarthy's The Road or Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. Whether it's works that feel science fictional being placed elsewhere, or works that somehow don't quite feel "of the genre" coming in, there's an odd kind of dissonance—and sometimes defensiveness—likely to afflict SF readers.

Also, it's probably true that much of this problem is just agreeing on terms. Many writers and critics use "science fiction", "SF/F", or "genre literature" in a very broad way; "science fiction" as the term is probably here to stay, but often it's safe to read that as speculative fiction, a much more inclusive term—and one, incidentally, that Atwood doesn't seem to have a problem with. It's clunky and doesn't seem likely to catch on as a popular term, but I've always liked "non-mimetic literature" as the broadest catch-all: literature that explicitly doesn't stick exactly to the real world, with many different species under that heading. One of the reasons many of us default to "SF" is that it can sneakily stand for science fiction, speculative fiction, or even structural fabulation.

Since one of Atwood's recent forays is a comic about the adventures when a "young genetic engineer accidentally mutated by his own experiment and merges with the DNA of a cat and an owl", I'm kind of assuming that she's relaxed a bit about questions of genre.

Okay, all that said:

It's kind of weird to insist that The Handmaid's Tale isn't Science Fiction

Because, quite frankly, it's so clearly science fiction from a simple, formal perspective. It's set in the future (or alternate timeline; you do you), it extrapolates a world different from ours, but in ways we can understand.

So what motivates the argument that it's not science fiction?

Is it published as SF? Not usually! Is it shelved as such? You'll have to check your local shelves, virtual or otherwise.

Does it come out of the culture of science-fiction as an established lineage? Much harder to answer! Atwood has certainly gone through some rhetorical contortions, in and out of fiction, trying to claim otherwise, so let's just believe her.

It's certainly true, however, that 1.) it's widely considered science fiction, and is often placed and discussed quite firmly within the "core feminist SF canon", and 2.) it's a little difficult to be sure what exactly counts as "free of SF influence" these days, since arguably we live in a materially science-fictional world that has also had strong-to-dominant SF media presence for the better part of a century.

Like many works that seem to fit pretty cleanly into the SF category but might not be published/categorized as such, it seems pretty easy for a science fiction fan to think of The Handmaid's Tale as SF, perhaps with a footnote. And for folks who aren't science fiction fans, no worries: you can read it just fine without knowing or worrying about the genre at all.

Despite all this, Atwood has repeatedly said that her work is not science fiction, and now Mr. Walter makes the case again. The central idea for both relies heavily on (variably-explicit) negative claims about the genre.

This bothers me for 3 reasons:
  1. Least importantly, though not trivially, it's just kind of pointlessly mean-spirited. "You want this to be part of your thing, but it isn't, even though it looks like it, because your thing sucks."
  2. It perpetuates the long-stale idea that science fiction (and often the entirety of popular or "low-brow" culture) cannot be of merit. This is not only patently false—so clearly, and along so many angles, that I don't feel it needs my elaboration—but it also comes loaded with a strongly classist discriminatory bent. This idea has had a pernicious effect on publishing, academia, and our cultures at large, and, while I think the tide has shifted quite decisively (the "nerds won" hypothesis), it lingers on and should be addressed when the occasion arises.
  3. Finally, and this is the argument that most inspired me to respond: in saying that "Good Literature" like The Handmaid's Tale is not SF because SF is just immature male escapist fantasy, you're not only skipping over all the good and worthwhile bits of SF (regardless of creator), you're ignoring all the actual diversity of the field, erasing the vast array of voices and projects published as science fiction in favor of a reductionist focus on the field's least-savory offerings.
By the time The Handmaid's Tale is published, in 1985, Le Guin and Delany have been writing for almost two decades. "Feminist SF" is an established idea, as exemplified in immensely influential works like Russ's The Female Man and Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. The New Wave and Cyberpunk movements are infusing new energy and ideas into the field, a young writer named Octavia Butler has started grabbing people's attention...one could keep going, and these examples are restricted to "SF proper", leaving out fantasy and magical realism and harder-to-categorize speculative works.

Only by ignoring many wonderful works and many different voices can one declare: The Handmaid's Tale is not science fiction, because science fiction is low-quality and mono-vocal. (Cis/het, white-male sexist escapist fantasy is the angle Walter focuses on; more on that below.)

And yes, perhaps there's some merit to the idea that, had The Handmaid's Tale been published as science fiction, it might not have attained the wide readership it did—but there's some serious question-begging with that assumption. Many people have a first encounter with fantastic fiction in some kind of scholastic setting, and until recently that generally precluded most genre SFF. Books like The Handmaid's Tale, works by Vonnegut, Frankenstein & 1984—all of which are available under non-SFF imprints—have historically been easier to include in curricula from grade-school on up. The Hobbit is the only outlier I've discovered, with the note that fantastic works aimed at younger readers—A Wrinkle in Time or The Giver, for instance—are given a kind of pass, and were typically not published under designated SFF lines.

But it's circular to imply that The Handmaid's Tale should not be considered science fiction on the argument that being published as such would have kept it out of many reader's awareness. The issue here is not with the proper categorization of this particular novel, but rather with outdated notions of canon and respectability that circumscribe a very weird group of "acceptable" literary works. It's good that The Handmaid's Tale and other speculative works have been able to duck around these barriers, but the issue is those barriers themselves—which are chock full of 'isms, but that's another discussion.

While we're at it, it's disturbing when people avoid calling The Handmaid's Tale "Feminist"

Alongside her refusal of the "science fiction" label, Walter notes, Atwood has also avoided embracing the term "feminism"—a refusal that came up again last week as actors for the forthcoming mini-series (coming out tomorrow on Hulu, actually) were talking on a panel last week, with Elisabeth Moss (who plays Offred, the lead role) and others going to odd lengths to avoid calling the work feminist.

Even Atwood's tweeted responses—that Moss's remarks need clarified to "not only a feminist story, but also a human one"—seem to me to be, what's the technical term: weaksauce.

marching sign via Mollie Simon
Yes: feminism is an aspect of humanism, and the best feminist thought is intersectional. But come on, just say it: The Handmaid's Tale is a feminist story. It's a biting, grim satire of patriarchal & theocratic control of women's bodies. If that's not feminist, I don't know what is.

It is resonating with current issues and (hopefully) fulfilling what's literally one of the highest roles science fiction can play: acting as a "self-preventing prophecy" by mobilizing opinion and protest before its scenario comes to pass. I saw a number of Handmaid's Tale-related protest signs at the Women's March—Sara Levine has a roundup of some good examples.

What would it even mean for something to be "only" a feminist story, and nothing else?

What the heck does Gor have to do with this?

That The Female Man is less well-
known than The Handmaid's Tale
has, I suspect, less to do with genre
publishing category or inappropriate
covers than with Russ's formidable
What I found particularly weird in Walter's article is his use of the Gor series as a main rhetorical point—to rephrase his argument baldly and badly: "If The Handmaid's Tale had been published as SFF in the '80s, it might have had racy/sexist cover art, or appeared next to such works on the shelves, or be lumped in with poorly-written pornographic escapist fantasy."

If you're not familiar with John Norman's Gor, don't be surprised. A reportedly popular pulpy series in the '80s, the Enyclopedia of Fantasy entry suggests they "degenerate into extremely sexist, sadomasochistic pornography". I can't speak for them, and I'm not here to shame anybody's reading taste...but I'm really confused as to why Walter would pick so flimsy a straw-man as Gor to represent the science fiction that The Handmaid's Tale needs to be kept safely separate from.

And yes, perhaps if Atwood had been published as genre SF, her novels might have had lamentably different covers. The covers to some of Joanna Russ's astonishingly good stories are more than a little...mis-matched. But that's not much of an argument.

And then Walter's reasoning takes a really strange turn, suggesting that the (fictional) men who created Gilead (the society of The Handmaid's Tale) were inspired by Gor-like novels, and then goes on to suggest that fictional works are driving forces for actual far-right patriarchies like ISIS, Nazi Germany, or Trump.

Is he seriously implying that a major factor in Trump's ideology is that he and his followers were reading too much, and that the problem is that they're reading escapist fantasies?

I really have to quote this at length because the more I read it the more it bugs me:
Look at ISIS today, the Nazis in the 1930s, or any brutal patriarchal society in history. These are men driven to make their personal fantasies of power, dominance and control the reality that others must live under. The newly empowered Trumpist far right is terrifying because it shares so many features with those patriarchal regimes, not least its worrying preference for fantasy over reality and fact.
...sci-fi floods the world with fantasy...if we’re going to understand, and change for the better, our reality, we need to clearly recognise the work of writers, artists and other creators, who are doing more than selling us escapist fantasies.
First paragraph: with you, yep, bad stuff. But then! Walter conflates "general disregard for objective reality" and "misogynistic daydreams spilling over into behavior" with, um, reading genre fantasy. And compounds the mistake by claiming, basically, that anyone who's writing something more than bad escapism isn't writing science fiction, no matter what it might look like.

Oy. This is taxing my ability to respond intelligibly.

First off, to be fair: yes, I'm sure Walter's referring to more than just written SF as an influence on these Nazis & Trump supporters. Also to be fair: it's a completely valid and important point that narratives have power, and the kinds of narratives we empower have an impact on the kinds of societies we make.

However. Dismissing vast swathes of fiction as dangerous "escapist fantasies" just seems not only wrong but tiredly, outdatedly wrong, just like dismissing science fiction or other popular culture as unworthy of "serious" study. My classic rebuttal-referrals would be Le Guin's Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? (1974) and bits of Tolkien's On Fairy-Stories (1947), as well the heaps of scholarly articles finding no links between violent media consumption and violent behavior.

And, again: if you keep the "good" literature out of science fiction, because you've reduced science fiction to a pile of low-quality, misogynistic porn? You've done a great disservice to the many, many writers of science fiction who are doing...different things.

I really, really don't get why Walter takes this tack—nor why he uses the "high quality entertaining fantasy like those great Marvel movies" as the opposite end of the spectrum from the Gor series. As a writer of and about genre literature, Walter surely knows and loves many laudable science fiction works—perhaps bringing them into this conversation would implode the argument for The Handmaid's Tale elevation out of the genre?

Okay, I'm done

I've had questions of both genre generally—continuing to work on ideas about genre boundaries & blurring for some upcoming talks and publications—and genre dismissal much on my brain lately. Despite what I've increasingly come to think of as total victory of the nerdy culture wars—it's completely acceptable for adults to be enthusiastic about Star Wars, comic conventions, watch movies and series about fantasy worlds or superheroes, spend time & money gaming, etc.—there's still the odd pocket of genre-focused antipathy out there, and it's a strange thing. Have been thinking a lot about Le Guin's essay (Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?) and how it's simultaneously completely out of date and still relevant. I was flabbergasted and moved by director Tiffany Keane Schaefer's thoughts on a bad review that Otherworld Theatre's production of A Princess of Mars received, based almost entirely on the fact that it's a genre work. (I loved it, if you'll recall.)

Thus, I was perhaps a bit primed to take offense on behalf of science fiction. Apologies if this was a bit long-winded.

Wherever on the shelf you may find it, you should read The Handmaid's Tale if you haven't! With the warning that it is not particularly cheerful. As with so many things, one is cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming adaptation.


  1. Wouldn't you define this as more of a futuristic story than straight-up science fiction? btw, the other blogger's definition of SF is wrong, but I do agree this is not straight up normal science fiction. I'd say futurism is a subgenre of it though.

  2. No, I think it's straight-up science fiction; practically a text-book example.