Sci-fi sells us fantasies. Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is all about the danger of fantasy. Why should they be pigeon holed together?
Damien writes on scifi, culture and politics for The Guardian, Independent, Wired, BBC and Aeon magazine, and also right here. Follow on Twitter @damiengwalter
Women understand, I think much better than men, how horrifying it is to be the object of another person’s fantasy. Glen Close going stalker crazy on Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction is so alien and horrifying to men that you can make a box office smash from it. Women experience that behaviour from men daily.
“The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story all about the skincrawling horror of being held captive as an object of fantasy. It’s literary lineage is closer to The Collector by John Fowles than anything by Arthur C Clarke. Margaret Atwood has generally resisted all labels for it, including the most commonly applied, that it is a feminist novel, preferring to call it simply a human story. And despite being nominated for numerous sci’fi awards, has never accepted that label either.
Science fiction fans have proved less than happy with that refusal to pigeon hole. As The Handmaid’s Tale has grown in fame, SF fandom has frequently asked why the book isn’t sold or marketed in the genre. It’s not an unreasonable question, after all it shares some similarities with science fiction. It’s set in the near future, in what you might think of as a branching alternate timeline from our own history.
Imagine an alternate timeline where The Handmaid’s Tale was published as science fiction. Possibly in the kind of pulp cover that many novels featuring women enslaved to strange obsessive Nazis often featured, with a subtitile like “I was a captive of fundamentalist perverts!”, and shipped out to bookshops, as one of many sci-fi novels released in 1985.
The sci-fi edition of The Handmaid’s Tale would have found itself in strange, and deeply inappropriate company. Among the actual scifi bestsellers of 1985 was Mercenaries of Gor, the 21st novel in John Norman’s Gor saga. For the unaware, the Gor novels are about a fantasy world where men are muscular barbarian warriors and women, many abducted from Earth, are their sex slaves. By the standards of the modern internet the Gor novels aren’t terribly shocking, but they are full on BDSM sex fantasies.
To give John Norman some minimal credit, he wove such a potent sexual fantasy in the Gor novels that they gave rise to the Gorean subculture, and remain quite widely read today. Is there anything wrong with the Gor novels? Only if you think there’s anything wrong with Laurel K Hamilton’s kinky wereleopard sex novels, with erotic fiction in general, or with pornography as a whole. Few people today believe that repressing our sexual fantasies leads anywhere good. We live in a liberal society that believes it’s much healthier to recognise, express and even celebrate our sexual fantasies.
But there is a serious problem if we can’t distinguish between indulging fantasy, and critically discussing the dangers of fantasy. Because without that critical discussion, we face the serious risk of fantasy being allowed to slip into reality. The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels. And enjoyed their fantasy so much, they used murder and violence to enforce it as America’s new reality.
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.
I fear that, had The Handmaid’s Tale been published as science fiction, it would not today be playing such a pivotal role as a symbol of resistance against Trump and the far right. Because sci-fi floods the world with fantasy. Sometimes high quality entertaining fantasy like those great MARVEL movies. Sometimes rather cheap and exploitative fantasy like John Norman’s Gor novels. But 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.