Don't let the bastards grind you down.

That's my takeaway from "The Handmaid's Tale," both the Margaret Atwood novel and the recent Hulu adaptation.

For those out of the fallopian-dystopian loop, this is the story of a woman who enjoyed all the freedoms of modern-day America until a junta took over and funneled her into a glamorous new life as a reproductive slave. So, you know, a breezy TV show to take your mind off the state of the world. Except the opposite of that.

"Handmaid" may be set in an alternate reality, but its characters go through shaming and restrictions and violations that mimic current events. It depicts a world that values women less than men in a way that sucks many orders of magnitude worse for women but ultimately hurts all players. Stop me if you've heard this one before. It's hysterical.

When it comes to TV and books, science fiction is my go-to genre because it's a space where one can reverse societal roles and imagine infinite diversity in infinite combinations. It delights me to watch the "Futurama" gang contemplate death by snu-snu or see a burly male officer walking around the USS Enterprise in a Starfleet-issue miniskirt uniform.

But the best sci-fi, like any art, informs as well as entertains. And it takes a massive pair of ovaries to try to amuse an audience when the subject matter is a fictional version of real-life atrocities.

Atwood has said she prefers to call her work "speculative" fiction instead of sci-fi, because stories like "Handmaid" and her "Oryx and Crake" trilogy are set on Earth and don't depend on technology so advanced it may as well be magic, like Babel fish or bowel disruptors. But the label doesn't matter. You say potato, I say space potato.


For those who want to explore gender issues but prefer more sci in their fi, the obvious choice is the 2004 reboot of "Battlestar Galactica." This award-winning and Atwoodian series depicts a decimated human population fleeing the wreckage of a robot uprising and was panned by dudes who were offended that a couple of characters were recast as women. There's also a refreshingly competent female president and lots of steamy mammal-machine miscegenation. I know if I were a sultry Cylon sister, I'd let Lt. Karl Agathon plug into my circuitry in a nanosecond. Beep boop rawr.

But it's not all cyber sex and games. Like "Handmaid," this is a tale rife with sexual violence set in a society suffering the fallout of a population implosion.

Although one's first impulse is to root for the humans, this isn't a binary between good and evil. The story forces you to gestate empathy with the "toasters," a slur for the show's AI enemies. That's the greatest accomplishment any story can achieve and the source code for decency: learning to walk a mile in someone else's servos. And if you can do that, there's hope for humanity AND robotkind.

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