The Handmaid’s Tale- Yes it is Science Fiction

April 29, 2017 - 9:34 am No Comments

The Handmaid’s Tale; Yes, it is Science Fiction

Theresa Derwin









I saw an article about The Handmaid’s Tale in The Guardian a few days ago that really annoyed me.

Ive decided to consider the topic myself.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale Science Fiction?

No, I will not be defining the genre. That’s already been done many, many times.

I first read Margaret Atwood’s seminal SF text at University of Worcester i in the 90s. I read it along with The Female Man (Joanna Russ) and a contemporary romance in a class led by an in influential lecturer Debbie Sly. A woman who at that point helped me choose my career path; a writer.
When the book was initially released, in 1985 Atwood was adamant that the novel was not SF. Some years later she did an about-face and said yes, indeed, it is SF.
I think part of her reticence in admitting her writing as SF or Fantasy came from the reputation of that genre by the literary minded aka snobs. And of course the ‘fact’ that women didn’t write SF or if they did, they didn’t do it well. No, don’t get me started. That’s a whole other argument for another day.
However, in critical essays she has defined it as ‘speculative fiction’, which we all know is code for SF, Fantasy and/or Horror. That list is not exclusive.

With the new TV adaptation which premiered Wed 26th April starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) there has been a lot of buzz and talk recently within and outside the genre about this novel. In full disclosure, I haven’t caught the series yet but fully intend to.
The Handmaids’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in a place called Gilead (a 19th Century American style town) where Offred (as in property of Fred) lives as a handmaid. With the future at risk, birth rates plummeting due to pollution and STD It’s a totalitarian regime in which women only have set roles;
Sexual servitude (to help a dwindling population being the most prevalent.
Notably, women are forbidden to read. (Good job or they might be devouring the Gor series by John Norman)


Lots of exciting rebellion type stuff occurs but the most interesting aspect of the novel is Offred’s revelations about women’s rights and roles in this new society.
It won the Arthur C Clarke in 1987 and the Nebula in 1986.
There are three time periods present in this novel; flashbacks ‘before Gilead’, the ‘present’ near future of Gilead in which the novel is predominantly set and here we go kids …. the future of 2195 in which the tapes containing the ‘handmaid’s tale’ are found and presented at an historical academic symposium.
You could also argue that it has elements of horror; for what is more frightening than living in an unrecognisable world without choice?
Like now.
So, to SF or not to SF? That’s not really a question is it?
Alternative society/world? Check
Future? Check
Dystopia? Check

No written by an old, dead white dude? Check (oh, that might be the issue)
I could go on, but I don’t need to.
The Handmaid’s Tale;
Yes, it is Science Fiction

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