“Is The Handmaid’s Tale Science Fiction?” by Shannon B.

Shannon Bhulai

Professor Jason Ellis

ENG2420 E573

20 May 2020

Is The Handmaid’s Tale Science Fiction?

The topic I chose to research is the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale. The series is based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood. The series was created by American television writer and producer, Bruce Miller. The first season was released 2017 and a fourth season is currently in the works. There is considerable debate about whether or not The Handmaid’s Tale (novel and series) is science fiction. In this paper, I argue that the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction.

There are many definitions of science fiction. “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” (Rod Serling, 1962 “The Fugitive”). “In the not too distant future, corporations and government have destroyed the environment of the United States. Pollution, artificial birth control, and abortion are blamed for widespread infertility. After a revolution that destroys the United States and establishes a Christian theocracy with the biblical name Republic of Gilead (means “hill of testimony”), society is restructured and organized anew by gender and class, to the benefit of men.” (Rose, 23). Rod Serling’s definition of science fiction accurately describes the story of The Handmaid’s Tale because the idea of the United States government being completely overthrown, and women’s’ freedom completely eliminated is indeed improbable. However, it is not impossible. The series shows what life was like before the execution of Gilead. It shows the beginning of the transition into a new world. The clamp down on women’s rights began with cutting off women’s bank accounts and firing them from their jobs. Occurrences like these are possible in today’s society. In fact, women in the United States face similar unjust treatment such as gender pay gaps. Not to mention, there are nations around the globe that valiantly treat women unfairly.

A major science fiction aspect the series presents is the totalitarian dystopia. “…We explored the relations between science fiction, utopia, and fantasy concluding that all three occupy positions within the contemporary global science fiction field and therefore contribute to the science fiction selective tradition. Twenty years ago, both fan critics and academics alike would have found the inclusion of fantasy much more problematic than that of utopia. Today, however, the central site of contention, albeit not to the point of exclusion, is almost certainly provided by dystopia.” (Milner). Often times, the future in science fiction is presented in a dystopian setting. Dystopian fiction is an aspect of science fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale is a perfect example of this.

“Science fiction is, of course, about human concerns. It is written and read by human beings. But the culture from which it comes – the experiences, attitudes, knowledge, and learning which one must bring to it – these are not at all what we are used to as proper in literature. They may, however, be increasingly proper to human life.” (Joanna Russ, 1975 “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction”). Russ’s definition of science fiction is another that suits The Handmaid’s Tale because the elements and details that make up the series are genuinely valuable to human life. The series explicitly displays human concerns that affect many lives on a daily basis. What is portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale should be of concern to all including those whose lives are not affected by it.

The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction because the social sciences explored in the series are indeed sciences. “Had the election gone a different way, Moss and Atwood might have fielded different questions. But like many other recent tv and movie projects, Handmaid’s has taken on a more pointed meaning in the Trump era. The seemingly newfound relevance, Atwood says, stems from the fact that totalitarian theocracy she created for the novel is grounded in history.” (Lawler). The totalitarian dystopia that comes to be is an entirely brand-new environment to the characters. By extrapolating the social outcomes of new forms of society, economy, and government, the story is referencing science. The series also delves into sociology and anthropology. Furthermore, the quote insinuates a deeper meaning as it references current events and politics.

Moreover, what makes The Handmaid’s Tale science fiction is its essential focus on religion. Sometimes works of science fiction incorporate themes of religion. Religious themes can be used to portray a deeper meaning. Science fiction rarely accepts or rejects religion as it is. When religious aspects are presented, they are usually deeply investigated. The government that is the Republic of Gilead is a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. All events that occur and actions that are taken by the leaders of Gilead are excused by the Bible. “Rather than religion in The Handmaid’s Tale, however, Tennant’s analysis focuses narrowly on Christianity – often with reference to specific biblical passages. For instance, she explains how the greeting “Blessed be the fruit” finds its origin in Luke 1:42 and how the name Serena Joy ‘reflects two of the gifts of the holy spirit listed in Galatians’ and draws attention to the fact that the character is neither serene or joyful. …Tennant makes the point that abandoned churches in the dystopian setting reinforces the ways in which Gilead’s leaders are ‘using religion for political control but lacking actual faith… churches have become museums’”. This quote is a detailed explanation of the role of religion in the story and verifies its contribution to the science fiction aspect of the story.

This next definition of science fiction is by Margaret Atwood herself. She also explains a perspective of hers about The Handmaid’s Tale. “I define science fiction as fiction in which things happen that are not possible today – that depend, for instance, on advanced space time travel, the discovery of green monsters on other planets or galaxies, or that contain various technologies we have not yet developed. But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. So, I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as Dystopia”. In her definition of science fiction, Margaret Atwood describes The Handmaid’s Tale as speculative fiction. Nonetheless, I contend that The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed science fiction. “Speculative fiction imagines scenarios that transcend normal reality, but such works always reflect the real world and encourage readers to consider psychic, philosophical, and metaphysical truths or assumptions that we normally pass over without reflection. Such fiction remains forever ambiguous in its meaning and capable of endless and multiple interpretations. It is not limited to science fiction and modern works of heroic fantasy, but includes religious and other myths, folktales, and fairy tales as well as later revisions of such archaic narratives.” (Heberle). This proves that although The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, it is science fiction as well. It has been argued that speculative fiction has not yet developed a distinctive feature that separates it from the term that is science fiction. 

Science fiction is referred to as an umbrella term for other genres including fantasy, horror, alternative history, and speculative fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale dabbles heavily with science, specifically, how theocracy restricts it in the near future.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Writing Utopia.” Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2005. 92-100. Print.

Heberle, Mark A. Review of An Inquiry into the Purposes of Speculative Fiction — Fantasy and Truth.  Marvels & Tales, vol. 19 no. 1, 2005, p. 142-145. Project MUSE,          doi:10.1353/mat.2005.0003.

Lawler, Kelly et al. “Politics Hangs over Hulu’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’” USA Today. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=J0E110662156517&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 17 May 2020.

Milner, Andrew. Locating Science Fiction. 1st ed., vol. 44, Liverpool University Press, 2012. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjgzj. Accessed 17 May 2020.

Pacatte, Rose. “Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Presents Striking Oppression, Silent Sisterhood.”    National Catholic Reporter, 2 June 2017, pp. 23–27. EBSCOhost,                         search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=123424224&site=ehost- live&scope=site.

“Religion in the Handmaid’s Tale: A Brief Guide.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 266, no. 27, July 2019, p. 81. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=137336049&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Russ, Joanna. “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 6.2 (July 1975). n.p. Web.

“The Fugitive.” The Twilight Zone. Writ. Charles Beaumont. Dir. Richard L. Bare. CBS, 1962. Web.

The Handmaid’s Tale (TV Series 2017– ) – IMDb. www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/.

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