Is The Handmaid’s Tale sci-fi?
It’s not marketed as such, nor does the book cover pronounce it to be so, but that’s how it was sold to me. Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like the question might be irrelevant. If The Handmaid’s Tale wanted to be science fiction, no one could contest it: despite a blatant absence of the obvious signifiers (robots, rockets, et al.), it’s squarely dystopian in a way that places it well inside sci-fi boundaries delineated by writers like Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ.
However, it clearly doesn’t have any interest in labeling itself, least of all as a sci-fi novel (incidentally, is it okay that I prefer the shortened “sci-fi” to the more commonly-used “SF”?). So…do my external judgements in this particular case matter? What does it bring to the table in terms of a discussion of an already canonized novel to call it “sci-fi”?
Atwood herself makes a pragmatic distinction between science fiction and the broader, more inclusive notion of speculative fiction, noting in her essay collection, Moving Targets, that “the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.” (Less generously, she once told the BBC that science fiction was “talking squids in outer space.”) Those are reasonable criteria, but it seems to miss the point (and heart) of sci-fi, and I can’t help but think Atwood is just attempting to evade being prodded onto the dead-end road of genre fiction. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in a Guardian review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, “she doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.”
While it’s not quite talking squids in outer space, The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly futuristic. It takes place in a theocratic military dictatorship, enforced with the same kind of paranoid obliqueness as Orwell’s 1984 police state (“the Eyes might be watching!”). Born as a reaction to implied decades of agricultural degradation, widespread infertility, and social unrest, the new autocratic “Republic of Gilead” monitors its citizens (particularly women) with Biblical ferocity, condemning people to death for crimes as petty as homosexuality and reading. Here, the ideological control system revolves around fertility, or a lack thereof; our titular “Handmaid” is a kind of sex slave, begrudgingly valued for her fecundity, bound to a high-ranking officer and his wife to serve as a ritual chalice for their dwindling seed. If she conceives, the child is raised by the couple and she is guaranteed safety from “unwoman” status, i.e. death. Handmaids are denied free agency and education, exchanging their “freedom to” (do as they please) for a more dubious, institutionalized “freedom from” (danger, fear).
For what it’s worth, The Handmaid’s Tale might be a perfect example of Geoff Ryman’s controversial “Mundane SF.” There’s no interstellar trade, no quantum uncertainty, no faster-than-light travel or communication with alien intelligences. It’s the future alright, but it’s a future, as Ryman says, “in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Comparing the Mundane SF manifesto to Atwood’s own particular critique of what constitutes science fiction is pretty revealing; clearly there’s some overlap between what Atwood understands as being merely “speculative” and what Ryman calls “mundane.” That is to say, both are based in extrapolation of current social and technological events — Atwood’s Gilead is a nightmarish imagination of a post-feminist backlash by the religious right, not an impossibility for a fervent mind in 1985, when it was written (or now, even). Both, furthermore, avoid using the panacea of “science” to fill in the gaps of a future society, relying rather on thoughtful mutations of contemporary social structures. All of which suggests that the hot-button subject of Mundane SF is really nothing new.
It seems to be a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down one; instead of beginning with a general futuristic premise (like “what if Aliens lived on Earth?”) and then building the particulars of story around it, Atwood suggests we begin with the very specific, day-to-day exigencies of society — the Handmaid wears red, she does the grocery shopping — in order to cobble together a larger (and sort of hazy) image of what has happened, in the future, on a large scale. It’s a pragmatic approach, but ultimately it’s not revolutionary — just literary.
Perhaps what really defines this speculative/Mundane style (which is both conjectural and literary) is that it clearly aims to be critical, not escapist. The Handmaid’s Tale is a critical novel: of fascism, misogyny, reactionary fundamentalism, and the masculine fear of contemporary feminism. It’s critical in the same way 1984 is, or Fahrenheit 451, or any of the other great science fiction books that the literary establishment has absolved of nerdiness by calling “classic.” Is this a fair parameter? That science fiction in the traditional sense aims to escape the current world by suggesting radical alternatives, while speculative fiction aims to criticize and interpret it? Either way the final goal is the same: to find something better, be it through utopian idealism or cautionary speculation.
In a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is both. The Gileadean state is someone’s utopian dream, one in which everyone has their role, working together in humility towards the restoration of society and for God. It’s Atwood’s awareness of this — that even the most fascist of states begin with a dream — which makes it such a canny cautionary tale. And, perhaps, a very smart piece of science fiction.