This view would imply that science fiction is at root a farming literature. And that shouldn’t be such a surprise. Think of science fiction writers’ predilection for world-building: the careful mapping out of imagined societies, territories, mores, technologies, languages. Surely that’s a way of proceeding that has much more to do with farming than with hunting and gathering. Many writers who focus on Wells know how fond he was of cycling, and note that his Time Machine had a saddle. They encourage us to think of the machine as a bicycle. But perhaps we should think of it as a different sort of saddled machine — a tractor.
Great novels make their own rules and, if the writing’s properly, authoritatively alive, it will never once occur to you to question them.
Since life is change, how to claim that it changes at one moment and not another? All the “life-changing” books I read as a teenager I have forgotten. Books advertised as “life-changing” I avoid as I would a new vitamin or holiday package.
My overall conclusion for season 2 of The Handmaids Tale, is that it is a work of gratuitous, cynical, manipulation. This started with the very first episode, when the handmaids are subjected to a mock execution; we, the audience, know that it must be a mock execution, for June/Offred at least, because June is pregnant, because it is the first episode, but we still get the vicarious thrill of the characters’ drawn-out terror, and then see them subjected to further tortures, which June is also forced to watch.
It really jumped the shark for me with episode 8, in which Serena Joy somehow has enough mastery of Gilead’s totalitarian system to know about the existence of a martha who used to be a world-class neonatal doctor, and can manipulate things behind Commander Waterford’s back to get this doctor into the hospital to see a sick and dying baby. The world-class doctor declares the case terminal, but the baby is then miraculously cured by having skin-to-skin contact with Janine, her birth mother.
In the same episode Commander Waterford beats Serena Joy with a belt, for not staying in her place; later we get to see the bruises on her backside, and also get to see that wives are allowed to wear sexy high-cut briefs (June wears bloomers), dyed regulation ‘wife blue’ of course (matching the blue stiletto heels the wives wear in the tv series as well).
As if that episode wasn’t bad enough, everything is reset afterwards; Janine, despite her miraculous healing abilities, is not allowed to see her daughter again, and relations between Commander Waterford and Serena Joy seem to return to normal. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly Joseph Fiennes describes how he refused to perform a scene for episode 9, where Commander Waterford rapes Serena Joy, so we were spared that at least.
Another ridiculous contrivance is Emily and Janine being brought back from the toxic, radioactive colonies, where they were being slowly worked to death, because Gilead was short of handmaids, and what harm is a little radiation poisoning going to do to a woman’s fertility? Or, realistically, cynically, because they needed to keep the characters going.
There are lots of nice touches in the series, it is still a high-quality programme, with high production values and first class acting, and every last drop of drama and emotion is wrung out of every scene. June’s memorial to the executed reporters at the Boston Globe is a nice touch. June’s attempts to recruit both Rita and Aunt Lydia to help protect her unborn child once it is born and June is moved on, is a nice touch. The man in the underground, who hid June in his home, being secretly Muslim, and the lesbian wedding performed by a female Rabbi out in the colony, and Eden’s secret, annotated Bible are all nice touches; but I am ambivalent about the overall message here that religion isn’t inherently bad, it’s only when it’s done ‘wrong’ like in Gilead that it’s a problem – I am not sure if this is even-handedness or cowardliness.
June’s mother is introduced in this season, and their complex relationship is nicely done, but the protest June attends with her mother as a child, is changed from a Second Wave burning of pornography, to the far more unchallenging ‘MeToo’-esque burning of rapists’ names (The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist warning about patriarchal control of women’s bodies, minds, and souls, but let’s not go too far, right?).
The contrivances continue in episode 10, where June is driven to a remote country house, for a brief reunion with her daughter Hannah (as a ‘reward’ after being raped by Commander Waterford to try to induce labour). After the reunion, Nick, who drove her out there, is taken away by security, and June is left alone in the house, in the middle of winter, heavily pregnant, with a wolf (a wolf!) menacing her when she goes outside. June appears to miscarry, waking up covered in blood, but then gives birth alone in the house, with ‘rescuers’ arriving shortly after.
The contrivances continue after the birth, with June’s low milk production being used as an excuse to get her back into the Waterford’s house after Serena Joy had insisted she be moved out after giving birth.
Before the final denouement of the series, we are treated to a new ritual, when Eden (Nick’s child bride) and Isaac (a guard assigned to the Waterford household), abscond together, are caught, and refuse to repent, so are drowned in a swimming pool – because being hanged on the wall is old hat by now? Drowning certainly did allow for some artful underwater shots of floating dead bodies – young, beautiful dead bodies. It reminded me of the French SF film Alphaville, I wondered, for a moment, if there were also going to be divers to stab them underwater to make sure they were properly dead. Given the fertility problem in Gilead, wouldn’t it have made more sense to turn Eden into a handmaid (she hadn’t been married long enough to determine if she was fertile or not)?
Now we come to the final episode, where Serena Joy has a finger removed as punishment for reading, and June escapes with her baby. The theme running through this episode, of women working together to help each other, is moving, particularly the marthas working together to get June and her baby away; but the wives petitioning their husbands in government to allow girls to read the Bible is less convincing – Serena Joy, in the tv series, is one of the original architects of Gilead, but it’s only after Eden’s execution (not, say, while she was holding June down to be raped by her husband), that she realises there is something wrong.
Emily, who was assigned to a new commander, Lawrence, an economist, and one of the architects of Gilead, is desperate; she steals a knife from the kitchen, but doesn’t stab Lawrence (because he is going to help her and June escape at the end of the episode, but, of course, Emily doesn’t know that at the time). Instead, she stabs Aunt Lydia, and kicks her down the stairs. We are invited to sympathise with Serena Joy, especially after she has a finger removed, but not so much with Aunt Lydia, so now we get yet another scene of violence against a woman, although this one, we are maybe being told, deserves it.
At the very end of the episode, June hands her baby over to Emily, and turns down a chance to escape Gilead, because she wants to find her first daughter Hannah. This is quite ridiculous, the idea that she would have the power to do anything, that she would just hand over her baby when she was willing before, twice, to escape without Hannah. It looks like an attempt to transform June into some kind of action hero, which has no realistic chance of working in that totalitarian society.
It makes me wonder what they will do with season 3; there can be no reset back to the Waterford household, unless Emily and the baby get caught and it all gets covered up as an abduction again, which would also be ridiculous.
I think I was only really watching season 2 to see what happened, rather than because I was emotionally invested in the characters or story, and I would probably watch a third season, but only to see what happens. I have to ask, what is the point of this now? As Rebecca Reid put it, writing in the Telegraph about why she had given up on watching, “It becomes counter intuitive – lulling you into a false sense of security, where you think that unless women are having their eyes cut out, it’s all ok.” It can only really go down-hill, more ridiculous plot contrivances, more gratuitous violence to out-do the previous episodes.
If season 2 had ended with June escaping, I could have respected it, I could have seen some overall integrity; with the way it did end, I just see it dragging on forever.
It’s central to Alex Garland’s self-conception that he isn’t academically gifted: he was a poor pupil, and a lacklustre undergraduate, studying art history at Manchester University. In practice, that just means he hasn’t acquired the dinner-party-glibness with big ideas that an Oxbridge education can provide. He doesn’t “wing it”, in the way that leading politicians who stumbled through undergraduate tutorials with a terrible hangover are prone to do. Intense research lies behind even simple lines of dialogue. His science fiction makes the science feel as exciting as the fiction. Annihilation includes mentions of Hox genes – which give living organisms “maps” to create their bodies – and the concept of autophagy, where cells eat themselves. (“As with all the scientific details in Ex Machina, he put that in the script. I didn’t put that in,” says Rutherford [the science advisor].) Garland’s next project, Devs, is set in Silicon Valley and involves quantum computing. Yeah.
Helen Lewis. This is an interesting article about Annihilation , even if I am not as enamoured with the film as Lewis herself is. It also contains spoilers and would be better read after watching the film.
But when I ask her about her writing routines, she laments the “shaming culture” that dictates “all these didactic rules” one must follow to be considered a writer – like having to write every day.
“Everybody has their own process … You’re not a machine,” she says. “I feel like as long as you’re reading, you’re fine. If you’re a writer and you stop reading things that don’t relate directly to your work, for pleasure, then you’re fucked. What are you even doing? How can you expect people to read your stuff for pleasure if you’re not?”