March is Women’s History Month, but here at the Know Your Dystopias underground bunker I am always looking to the future — the depressing, bleak future. So I will recognize this occasion with a roundup of (mostly) recent contributions to dystopian lit written by women that specifically envision what the future might hold for women. During these “history months” we are supposed to reflect on the lessons of the past, and the past informs the present. Dystopian literature is often inspired or informed by the past, but it is ultimately about the present. As Margaret Atwood said in a recent interview, “Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now.”
Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a story about subjugated women in a patriarchal society. The book was published 33 years ago, but is still an essential read in this genre because of both its lasting influence and continued relevance. A television adaptation premiered last year and won critical praise and awards. The story is about the former United States of America — now the Republic of Gilead — where a religious military dictatorship rules based on judicial laws from the Old Testament. Women’s rights have been removed, and a class of women known as “handmaids” are kept exclusively for reproductive purposes. The book primarily follows a handmaid named Offred, and the reader learns about this world through her experiences.
In “Future Home of the Living God,” Louise Erdrich has taken a surprising turn from realist fiction to a work of speculative fiction that explores themes of environmental degradation, government overreach and women’s rights. In the future biology has gone haywire and there is a growing police state. More and more women are giving birth to children that appear to belong to a primitive human species. Plants and animals seem to be regressing too. In an attempt to contain the panic, the government has seized control of telecommunications and is rounding up and incarcerating pregnant women. There are rumors martial law will be declared. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is pregnant and must decide what to do in order to preserve her freedom and save her child.
“Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas is set in a near-future America where abortion and assisted fertility have been outlawed. Single people are no longer allowed to adopt. The book follows the intertwined lives of a single high-school teacher who is trying to have a baby, a frustrated mother of two in a crumbling marriage, a pregnant high school student, and a forest-dwelling herbalist. Their fates are brought together when the herbalist is arrested and put on trial as part of a (almost literal) witch hunt. By writing about these characters in a small Pacific Northwest fishing village, Zumas describes nation-wide upheaval by drawing the focus in close. You see the effects of macro-level changes at the micro- level. The result is an intimate and personal look at the impact of those changes.
By contrast “The Power” by Naomi Alderman takes place all over the world to tell the story of what happens when young women everywhere are displaying a new power- the ability to discharge electricity through their hands. It doesn’t take long for gender inequality to begin a major reversal. Revolts begin in countries where women are most oppressed, while in more egalitarian democracies the changes are more gradual but no less dramatic. New religions take hold: some are new interpretations of established religions and some of them outright cults. The book is constructed as an historical novel based on research and archaeological findings, many five thousand years old. Illustrations of some archaeological findings are included in the book, identified as from either the pre or post “Cataclysm.” Clearly, humanity did not handle this sudden change well. This book is a riveting and harrowing exploration of the dynamics of power.
Finally, I would be remiss if I left the comic book series “Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick off this list. This dystopian patriarchal society is disturbing but the storylines are propulsive. The concept and artwork (especially the covers) are a riff on exploitation-era films like the “women in prison” genre. You will be rooting for the “non-compliant” women locked up on the prison planet to come back to earth and make things right. For more on “Bitch Planet” and other works see my colleague Josh’s recent post, “Quintessential Comics: Top Five Female-Driven Series.”