Offred of Dune.

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.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

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.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

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.

Nah.

*

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…

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday July 18 2017at 10:07 am , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

27 Responses to “Offred of Dune.”

  1. I still don’t want to watch it. Go ahead, hate me.

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  2. Whoa boy. I’ve got a lot to say about this particular issue. I can feel nascent epic text walls forming as I type this. So out of respect for the author, I will exercise some rare restraint and not clutter his blog–this time.

    Except for this–if Atwood doesn’t want to be considered science fiction, that’s fine with me. A lot of so-called literate speculative fiction that gets lumped under the science fiction banner simply isn’t big enough–isn’t *good* enough–to carry the torch of the golden age thinkers and writers I grew up on.

    I wouldn’t labor to argue with her on this point. Maybe Science Fiction doesn’t want her either.

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  3. Ah shit. So now I have to go see that then. Elisabeth Moss was the best part of Mad Men, and you seem to be implying, with characteristic subtlety, that she continues to be above average.

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  4. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”
    It’s more like – Sapiens fiction – or ‘Ways We could be, if things changed for the better, or worse (depending on your POV)’.

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  5. DA: Except for this–if Atwood doesn’t want to be considered science fiction, that’s fine with me. A lot of so-called literate speculative fiction that gets lumped under the science fiction banner simply isn’t big enough–isn’t *good* enough–to carry the torch of the golden age thinkers and writers I grew up on.

    I’ll admit I haven’t read her Maddadam trilogy (or however the hell it’s spelled)— I still hope to find the time, although from what I’ve read it basically relabels wine the rest of the genre’s been drinking for half a century now— but I read a lot of her earlier stuff, and liked it. (Hell, I even liked Surfacing.) Novel’s like Cat’s Eye and Life Before Man stick with me even to this day. Personally, I think Atwood’s a brilliant writer.

    I just wish that, back in the eighties, she’d told her CanLit publicist where to go.

    :-Daniel: Elisabeth Moss was the best part of Mad Men, and you seem to be implying, with characteristic subtlety, that she continues to be above average.

    I thought she was terrific in Mad Men too; but her Handmaid’s performance is a whole other level. (Hell, the whole damn cast is terrific, worthy of the scripts. There are even moments when you feel a certain empathy for Aunt Lydia.)

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  6. Anonymous coward:
    I still don’t want to watch it. Go ahead, hate me.

    I don’t. I can’t bring myself to watch it because I grew up with a very religious background. The show is probably amazing, but I just don’t want the experience of watching it. I actually did watch the move from ages ago, but it wasn’t as uncomfortable then because it was so far out there. It doesn’t feel as unrealistic now.

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  7. Peter Watts: I just wish that, back in the eighties, she’d told her CanLit publicist where to go.

    Atwood started publishing in the late 60s / early 70s. Much of the SF that was coming out at that time was… not very good, to put it gently. Most of the stuff coming out during the 50s and early 60s (which is what she might have read and based her opinion on) was worse. It’s understandable that an up-and-coming writer with “literary” aspirations would try to steer clear of that particular pigeonhole (and pigeonholes in general).

    No matter what label she slaps onto her books, Atwood writes fine science fiction with “literary” merit. It’s unfortunate that genre fiction (especially SF and horror, literature’s perpetual whipping boys) gets dismissed out of hand. But the themes associated with genre fiction will keep creeping up in “literary” work for as long as writers keep writing.

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  8. “If they didn’t want us to be an army, they shouldn’t have given us uniforms.” And so season 2 was born. It will be interesting to see if it remains essential viewing when it goes beyond Atwood’s original text. But for now, I agree that – despite my never being an Atwood fan – it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. And Orphan Black – even though it’s apparently missed the awards window – is right up there with it. Canada’s come a long way since The Starlost.

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  9. I have to agree with others here in that I don’t really want to watch it. Unfortunately, there are people in this country who would love for things to go the way they do in that story. They want that control over everyone, not just women. Too close to home right now. I often find myself wondering if people are really aware enough to keep it from happening, and what kind of war that would create on our own soil. I’m not eager to find out how bad it could get before people would finally have enough, but I do think a great deal more people are getting really tired of religious bullshit these days.

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  10. I think speculative dystopian fiction earns a lot more respect in the science fiction genre (1984, Brave New World, etc), and letting titles such as Handmaiden’s tale escape the classification will just lower the tone of sci-fi in general. Better to keep a firm grip on these sterner, more real titles, in case we ever get in an argument.

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  11. Fatman: Atwood started publishing in the late 60s / early 70s. Much of the SF that was coming out at that time was… not very good, to put it gently. Most of the stuff coming out during the 50s and early 60s (which is what she might have read and based her opinion on) was worse.

    *Sputters*

    Bester, Vonnegut, Lem, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury, and many others were all producing seminal works during that time. Even poor writers like Asimov had to be respected for their ideas. Cinema produced a number of high water marks in science fiction during this time.

    If the time frame you mention (50s-70s) is indicative of “much” or “most” science fiction being bad, then that is true of any genre, of any era. Even in the so-called age of “peak television” we are in now, much or most of it is bad.

    If this is your defense of Atwood, then at best she could be considered poorly read, or at worst, lacking the vision to appreciate the big ideas being tossed around at that time.

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  12. DA: Even poor writers like Asimov had to be respected for their ideas.

    That’s just the thing. SF used to be written by visionaries, rather than writers (with notable exceptions, of course, some of which you mentioned). A work can be seminal without being well-written. Maybe I’m biased because I read some of these seminal works decades later, but I feel that the prose and structure have not aged well.

    DA: If this is your defense of Atwood,

    I’m not defending Atwood, as she needs no defense, especially from the likes of moi. And I enjoy reading SF from that period because I like the big ideas, just like I enjoy horror and SF movies others ridicule. But I think it’s important to provide some context for Atwood’s statement.

    Heck, even Vonnegut didn’t consider himself a science fiction writer until later in his career and downplayed the SF elements in his work (I tend to agree – when I think of him I think satire with flying saucers and time travel, not science fiction with added humor).

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  13. Fatman: SF used to be written by visionaries, rather than writers

    This is a condemnation? This is why we have to hem and haw over the science fiction label, because someone is afraid of being merely a visionary?

    Feh. I’ll take a shot of visionary over a tumbler full of “literature” any day. I come to science fiction for the brains and ideas–ideas which have become increasingly small in decades since (present company excluded of course).

    Fatman: Maybe I’m biased because I read some of these seminal works decades later, but I feel that the prose and structure have not aged well.

    As could be said about fiction from any number of genres or eras not your own. Context is crucial. By your own estimation, Atwood started during a period of visionaries and thinkers, but was content to condemn an entire genre on intellectual grounds, not the quality of prose.

    /old man rant

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  14. Fatman,

    Interesting that you should bring this up. In Cat’s Eye, which I think has some autobiographical elements in it, she refers to the sort of pulp fiction publications in which most SF appeared in the 40s and 50s (possibly mixed in with the horror comics that were getting banned back then – the protagonist shoved the whole lot under her brother’s bed, on the grounds that this was the sort of thing that he got up to anyway). And then in <The Blind Assassin, there was quite a good pulp-style planetary adventure that one of the characters was supposed to be writing – Atwood’s work, of course, but it was at least at the level of your average C.L. Moore sort of story, and it showed that Atwood was quite familiar with the pulp tropes and style. So what she thought of science fiction, or at least the bulk of it, was at least based upon familiarity with what was being produced in the 40s and early 50s.

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  15. Dear Dr. Watts,

    Longtime fan and lurker on this blog, first time posting here. For added context, being no great watcher of television other than a few regular favourites such as [i]Fringe[/i] and [i]Game of Thrones[/i] – each of them big darlings in the family – it wouldn’t be an overstatement for me to say that your glowing review of [i]Westworld[/i] is what inspired me to watch the show to begin with. And, to a lesser extent, all sixteen current episodes of [i]Humans[/i], but the contrast between the two series leaps out from their respective opening shots in stark fashion, where, to someone hot off beholding the clinical nudity of the Hosts in [i]Westworld[/i], the sight of “naked” synths in storage wearing underwear instantly marks [i]Humans[/i] as a safer, less challenging show. (Yes, half the previous words were carefully selected. After all, a beginning is a very delicate time.)

    As such, I’d been waiting to hear what thoughts, if any, you might have on [i]The Handmaid’s Tale[/i], it being one show that I didn’t need to wait upon anyone’s recommendation to watch. Because, as a fan of the book, I loved it – and at the same time, I was concerned at the possibility it might fall under what I call the [i]Game of Thrones[/i]-effect; said label applying to adaptations that, whilst they generally recapture the heart of their source material, cannot resist the lure of simplified characterisations, or making the content more “uplifting”. Offred has a thicker spine than she ever did in the book, to name the big one. Emily-Ofglen’s indomitable spirit. That Handmaid power walk at the end of the fourth episode. Spoilers, Luke and Moira getting out of Gilead alive in anticipation of Season 2. Last but not least, the closing scene of Janine’s arc during the finale.

    For a while, I’d had to seriously ponder whether these changes diluted the novel’s power. Atwood’s original text made a point on how totalitarian societies render people, especially the most downtrodden, incapable of empathising with one another. No heart-warming gestures of solidarity between Handmaids in those pages, no sir. Reading this blog, I actually felt a bit surprised, at first, that you made no mention of Janine, whose personality and storyline were so altered as to effectively make her a different character, all the more given how the revision of Janine affects the tone of the series as a whole. In the book, Offred’s feelings of sympathy for Janine have eroded by the time the other Handmaid is flaunting her success at getting pregnant, whereas in the series, Janine serves as a terrible reminder to those who’ll see it that Offred is one of the lucky ones.

    Just as Hulu’s [i]The Handmaid’s Tale[/i] is a stylistically deft and well-balanced work on its own merits, I came away from it with the sense of an adaptation which differs somewhat from its source in ethos. While Atwood is a sharp and incisive writer in her willingness to plumb the depths of human nature, her approach lends itself to an emotional distancing from characters who are often pitiful, seldom conducive to empathy. We may feel pity for them, we may even ask whether we’d act like them, but we’re left with enough wiggle room to resist seeing ourselves in them. This version of [i]The Handmaid’s Tale[/i], in my opinion, bypasses that and is arguably the stronger for it – the same message as Atwood’s, that totalitarianism ropes us all into sharing the guilt for its existence, chimes with new clarity when the oppressors are themselves shown to be trapped by the system, purely for the sin of being human. And for that, I love where the series went with Janine, developing her far beyond her origins in the book as the slave who wishes to please.

    The book, to me, remains excellent, one of my eternal favourites. It just happens that the series does what any great adaptation should do, go to places unexplored by the original without losing touch of why the original worked.

    Still waiting upon the Denis Villeneuve-helmed [i]Blindsight[/i] mini-series, mind you.

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  16. I’m inclined to call Handmaiden’s Tale a feminist horror story, and I’ve read the book once, will never read it again; I’ve seen an earlier adaptation and would never want to see the new one no matter how good it is. Too close to the knuckle to be enjoyable for me.

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  17. DA: As could be said about fiction from any number of genres or eras not your own.

    We can agree to disagree about this one. I believe that modern sci-fi authors are fine writers as well as visionaries, and that someone reading OGH or Iain Banks in 2067 will enjoy both the writing and the ideas.

    Lars: So what she thought of science fiction, or at least the bulk of it, was at least based upon familiarity with what was being produced in the 40s and early 50s.

    We form opinions based on what we know. Pity Atwood didn’t try to learn a bit more about SF before speaking out against it (sort of).

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  18. Fatman: We can agree to disagree about this one. I believe that modern sci-fi authors are fine writers as well as visionaries, and that someone reading OGH or Iain Banks in 2067 will enjoy both the writing and the ideas.

    Maybe. But maybe they’ll also have the capacity to love the science fiction from the most important era for the genre of the last century as well, and won’t be crippled by an inability to appreciate writing styles outside of their contemporary comfort zone. I refuse to have a serious discussion about whether people like Bradbury, Heinlein, Vonnegut etc. were good enough “writers” to be enjoyed, but your insistence on denigrating SF from that era is running smack into the black monolith sized chip on my shoulder.

    Clearly I read and enjoy a lot of modern science fiction, and there are great minds working in the genre today as well. But it is easily observable that a number of the minds working during the analog era you malign were well ahead of the curve in their thinking on things which had not yet become reality, for instance Asmov’s work with artificial intelligence and the increasing effects of automation on society long before they were every day concepts.

    A lot of modern writers are just iterating on these concepts now that they’ve become fact– or worse, reducing SF to mundane social issue posturing where the text becomes a disposable veneer for some ham-fisted subtext designed to appeal to a sympathetic audience that already agrees, and ignored by anyone else.

    To continue Dr. Watt’s reference, Dune may have been cool because it had themes of religious manipulation and manufacture, as well as an ahead of its time focus on ecology and geological sciences as opposed to physics and chemistry, but it was also cool because humans achieving long distance space travel by being whacked out of their minds on a hallucinogenic narcotic that allows them to observe the timeline from a non-fixed perspective is fucking rad. Great science fiction isn’t afraid to make text every bit as bold and expansive as subtext, though it has ever had to endure the slings and arrows of those not gifted enough to come along for the ride and therefore compelled to shit all over things they don’t understand –those who insist that everything be made smaller.

    ***

    Many people think that 50s to 60s period you cited in defense of Atwood’s ignorance was the most *important* era for science fiction of the last century, if not ever, and we’re still chasing it today. One of the names missing from the original list I rattled off the top of my head, Phillip K Dick, was writing the bulk of those short stories and novellas during that time that Hollwood is still scrambling to adapt today.

    In addition to all the previously mentioned masters of the genre cranking out genre-defining works during that period, you had the massively influential Twilight Zone on television, argued by many as one of the greatest television shows of all time, and itself a stomping grounds for great SF writers like Ellison and Matheson.

    Then “Beam Me Up Scotty” happened. Say what you want about Star Trek, it’s a ripe target on any number of fronts. But it was massively important, and occasionally even good. Interestingly it was at its best when it used science fiction to tell human stories, like in City on the Edge of Forever, and Balance of Terror, and at its absolute worst when using science fiction for social soapboxing, as in the infamous “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”.

    Cinema produced arguably the greatest science fiction movie ever made–if not the greatest movie ever made *period* during that time. I’m speaking of course of the original Planet of the Apes–but 2001 was pretty good too. Even the “dumbest” SF being written during that time is massively influential–Marvel Comics revolutionized the comics industry this time and defined the Silver Age of comics by creating flawed, more human superheroes with feet of clay that existed in an shared universe and interacted with each other. Take a look at the box office recently? It’s dominated by those same superheroes and Apes.

    Much of the fiction of any genre, any media, and any era is poor. We remember the great things, and forget the rest. The 60s in particular has so many great things to remember for science fiction. So again, either Atwood was uninformed, or she lacked the capacity to appreciate the work being done at the time. Pick whichever you like, but neither is flattering.

    ***

    As for you, I’m so sorry that the timing of things in your life has left you unable to experience the same joy I have in certain things. For the record, my childhood didn’t happen in the 50s or 60’s. William Gibson was cutting edge when I was a kid. But it didn’t stop me from raiding the library for everything of worth (and plenty without it) I could find. By age 11 I was well read of Poe, Verne, HG Wells, Bradbury, Asmiov, Clarke, Howard, Herbert, Doyle, Stevenson, Shelly, Stoker and many others that would probably sound impressive but I don’t love overmuch. It never even occurred to me to be put off by antiquated dialog or writing styles–I simply parsed things from context and accepted them as capsules of their era. It’s truly a shame some of us lose that ability as we age.

    To me, dismissing a great SF writer because of dated writing style or rough edges in the writing, is like dismissing Bob Dylan as a musician because he isn’t a great singer, traditionally speaking. Clearly there are other things he brings to the table to make for a captivating experience. Quality singing from a technical standpoint, like writing from a craft perspective, is common, even mundane. Great ideas are rare and elusive, and a great mind can’t be simulated through any amount of education or writing workshops. Sadly, people unable to understand or take joy in more intangible concepts, all too often cling to mundane critiques of craftsmanship to justify their rejection.

    At the risk of offending our host, I sometimes have quibbles with his writing style. I found Echopraxia frustratingly opaque in sections, and not from an inability to understand the concepts involved. I simply found it difficult to tell what was happening at times from a storytelling standpoint.

    And yet Echopraxia, and Peter Watts, will always have a place on my bookshelf over many of his SF contemporaries precisely because I find his work challenging, always interesting, and always worthwhile on balance. He has a great mind, he has great ideas, and a big enough imagination to realize that a treatise on the nature and worth of human consciousness is interesting, but a treatise on the nature and worth of human consciousness with genetically reconstituted space vampires, chemicals, rockets, and goddamn space squid is fucking rad. Science fiction will always be criticized by people who simply couldn’t do what Watts does, who don’t have that extra gear to love and wield the fantastic. Personally, I chalk it up to jealousy.

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  19. Angela D,

    Keep in mind that a central point of AHT is the persecution of religious folks. Quakers are rebels who smuggle handmaids into Canada. Jews and Catholics are herded up and killed. The totalitarian regime is concerned with power and control, not religion, which they use only as a tool…

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  20. Wes:
    Angela D,

    Keep in mind that a central point of AHT is the persecution of religious folks.Quakers are rebels who smuggle handmaids into Canada.Jews and Catholics are herded up and killed.The totalitarian regime is concerned with power and control, not religion, which they use only as a tool…

    This. In many ways statism is a religion.

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  21. DA: As for you, I’m so sorry that the timing of things in your life has left you unable to experience the same joy I have in certain things.

    Don’t get me wrong, I read widely in the SF genre and appreciate stuff from the 60s/70s. Rather than be put off by clunky writing (where this is the case), I embrace it and consider it part of the appeal. I also have a predilection for horror stories and novels from the same period, horror movies, slashers, pulp, exploitation, etc. As for special effects – the rubberier and less convincing, the better.

    But I do recognize that this stuff is not to everyone’s taste and that people who make fun of Halloween or Star Trek may have a point, and that my pretentious exhortations on the merits of Night of the Living Dead (But you see! Guys! It’s really clever! Social critique! Get it?) mostly fall on deaf ears. We see things differently, as Bruce Sterling would say.

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  22. Fatman: Don’t get me wrong, I read widely in the SF genre and appreciate stuff from the 60s/70s.

    Important to clarify I’m speaking specifically of the 50s/60s/early 70s era you originally cited–the 70s were indeed a rough era for SF, although good stuff still happened. The 50’s /60s though…man that *was* the era for heady science fiction..notably the 60s, because the 60s was just such a potent era for art and culture all around.

    Otherwise, we have no serious argument. You just had the misfortune to get caught up in a number of overlapping arguments I was making, and made the mistake of throwing shade at some important authors from my youth–whom I *still* read and enjoy. This past year alone I’ve re-read the Herbert Books, The Stars My Destination, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and the Elijah Bailey robot books, in addition to plenty of contemporary SF by people like Alistair Reynolds, Neal Asher, Neal Stephenson, Peter, F Hamilton, Richard Morgan, and Greg Bear.

    I’d caution you on one thing though. You theorized that some future generation would find Ian Banks somehow more readable or valuable than the great authors doing work in the 50s and 60s. I think it’s far more likely that you’ll have this same conversation with some kid in the future who finds stuff that’s contemporary for us dated, and be forced to write your own frothing wall of text to explain the merits of the late Mr. Banks.

    Think better of me when that happens.

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  23. DA: If the time frame you mention (50s-70s) is indicative of “much” or “most” science fiction being bad, then that is true of any genre, of any era. Even in the so-called age of “peak television” we are in now, much or most of it is bad.

    As good aficionados, let us remember that, according to the master, about 90% of anything is crap 😉 Including of course comments, possibly this one.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law

    Examples of bad SF will not be lacking. Then, each decade had its particular achievements and creative currents as well as its portion of fads.

    That said, the teenager in my past enjoyed more Lord Valentine’s Castle than The Book of Skulls. But SF would not have been the same without the 60s and their exploration of the inner space and the (let us say humanistic) emphasis on soft sciences. And freedom. Including that related to gender and all kinds of social conventions. Left Hand of Darkness, anyone? Venus plus X?

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  24. If 1984 is science fiction, then so is The Handmaid’s Tale.

    With apologies to feminism and to Ms. Atwood, whose work I enjoy, the book The Handmaid’s Tale is 1984 with vaginas. I remember thinking that when I read it back in the day – what a great book, nearly as good as when I read it by George Orwell.

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  25. “; 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.”

    I love the image of one of the greatest writers of our time sitting little Peggy down for a chat! She writes such good SF it’s hard t tell her what to call it but yeah, it hurts.

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  26. From the book “Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation”, by Seo-Young Chu:

    “Accordingly, SF is distinguished by its capacity to perform the massively complex representational and epistemological work necessary to render cognitively estranging referents available both for representation and for understanding. Realism, by contrast, is distinguished by the alacrity with which it can imitate certain kinds of objects, objects such as almonds and nickels, objects themselves distinguished by the alacrity with which they offer themselves up to flat description. Yet to differentiate between science fiction and realism in this manner is misleading. As I suggested earlier, all representation is to some degree science fictional because all reality is to some degree cognitively estranging. What most people call “realism”— what some critics call “mundane fiction”— is actually a “weak” or low-intensity variety of science fiction, one that requires relatively little energy to accomplish its representational task insofar as its referents (e.g., softballs) are readily susceptible to representation. Conversely, what most people call “science fiction” is actually a high-intensity variety of realism, one that requires astronomical levels of energy to accomplish its representational task insofar as its referents (e.g., cyberspace) elaborately defy straightforward representation. In this book, “realism” designates low-intensity mimesis, while “science fiction” designates high-intensity mimesis. Realism and science fiction, then, exist on a continuum parallel to the above-mentioned continuum where every object of representation has its place—from shoelaces, dimes, and oak leaves to cyberspace, trauma, black holes, and financial derivatives. Although the distance between realism and SF may be vast enough for the difference in degree to amount to a difference in kind, the distance will never be so vast as to render “science fiction” and “realism” each other’s antonym. There is no such thing as the opposite of science fiction. Likewise, there is no such thing as the opposite of realism.”

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  27. In fairness Atwood herself has, over the past decade, softened considerably on the genre question, although she still tends to prefer “speculative” over “science”. I suppose writing two sequels to a post-apocalyptic novel will do that, alongside the growing mainstream and even critical acceptance of Sci-Fi and Fantasy works.

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