Dear devoted readers of Margaret Atwood, the long wait is over: today marks the release of The Testaments! If the name of this iconic Canadian author does not ring a bell, perhaps you have heard of the Emmy award-winning Hulu television series The Handmaid’s Tale. The show is based on Margaret Atwood’s explosive bestselling novel of the same name, and The Testaments is its highly anticipated sequel. When I say highly anticipated, there is no trace of hyperbole: fans have been waiting over 30 years for this. I was introduced to the novel in high school, and half a lifetime of waiting has finally paid off. For a more in-depth look into The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, refer to this article on the Kobo blog.
The world of literature has featured more female-centered dystopias as of late. This sub-genre has been gaining speed ever since the release of The Hunger Games, featuring daring, courageous, arrow-shooting heroine Katniss Everdine. Though feminist dystopias are not new and can be traced back to the 1970s. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man remain powerful reads today. Why the resurgence of this sub-genre? One must simply look around. The #MeToo movement and its fallout, ie. victim blaming. Increasingly restrictive reproductive laws for women, but not men. Sexual harassment of women as a norm in the workplace. Misogyny, toxic masculinity, sexism—those broken records we’ve heard too many times.
The saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ does not take into account the power of literature. Thousands of people gathered in protest can be just as effective as a novel when it comes to making a statement and spreading influence. Female-centered dystopias give voice to empowerment and equality in a world of chaos. Authors of dystopias show us, even in the face of disaster, the strength and resilience women are capable of. On the non-empowering, disturbing end: this is what could happen with the way things are going. While Sci-Fi & Fantasy dystopias do not channel realism, they do have fundamental elements that echo reality, which can be just as disturbing. Regardless of the genre, the words ring loud, and women are listening.
KWL recommends these dystopias featuring fierce females who overcome insurmountable odds:
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Sophie Mackintosh’s unsettling debut novel grew out of a simple, sinister question: What if masculinity were literally toxic? On a desolate island, three sisters have been raised in isolation, sequestered from an outbreak that’s causing women to fall ill. To protect themselves from toxins, which men can transmit to women, the sisters undergo cleansing rituals that include simulating drowning, drinking salt water and exposing themselves to extreme heat and cold. A haunting, riveting debut about the capacity for violence and the potency of female desire, The Water Cure both devastates and astonishes as it reflects our own world back at us. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018.
The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
Filled with echoes of The Giver, The Book of M transports readers to a near-future world shaken by a disaster — one in which people’s shadows begin to disappear, and with them, their memories. It’s called The Forgetting: a plague-like phenomenon that affords it’s victims strange, new powers, but at the cost of forgetting everything — and everyone — from their past. One couple, Ory and Max, have been on the run from The Forgetting, until the day Max’s shadow disappears, and with it, so does Max. Her disappearance sends Ory on a journey through a dismantled world, desperate not only to find the love of his life, but to seek answers for the future ahead. Named a Best Book of the Year by Elle, Refinery29, PopSugar, and Verge.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom. Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt. A Time Magazine Best Book of the Year.
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Nestled in New York’s Hudson Valley is a luxury retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, personal fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you’re paid big money to stay here. The catch? For nine months, you cannot leave the grounds, your movements are monitored, and you are cut off from your former life while you dedicate yourself to the task of producing the perfect baby. For someone else. Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines, is in desperate search of a better future when she commits to being a “Host” at Golden Oaks. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her family, Jane is determined to reconnect with her life outside. Gripping, provocative, heartbreaking, The Farm pushes to the extremes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures. National bestseller and People Book of the Week.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. For twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant. Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation. Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity. There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A chilling novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights. A New York Times Notable Book of 2017.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The world is a recognizable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who lounges around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly. This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman is not only a gripping story of how the world would change if power was in the hands of women but also exposes, with breath-taking daring, our contemporary world. One of The New York Times‘ Ten Best Books of the Year.
Arena One: Slaverunners by Morgan Rice
New York. 2120. America has been decimated, wiped out from the second Civil War. In this post-apocalyptic world, survivors are far and few between. And most of those who do survive are members of the violent gangs, predators who live in the big cities. They patrol the countryside looking for slaves, for fresh victims to bring back into the city for their favorite death sport: Arena One. The death stadium where opponents are made to fight to the death, in the most barbaric of ways. Deep in the wilderness, high up in the Catskill Mountains, 17 year old Brooke Moore manages to survive, hiding out with her younger sister, Bree. They are careful to avoid the gangs of slaverunners who patrol the countryside. But one day, Brooke is not as careful as she can be, and Bree is captured. The slaverunners take her away, heading to the city, and to what will be a certain death. Book 1 of the bestselling YA series The Survival Trilogy.
Vox by Christina Dalcher
On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than one hundred words per day, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. This can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs. Girls are not taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words each day, but now women have only one hundred to make themselves heard. For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice. This is just the beginning…not the end. A national bestseller and one of Entertainment Weekly’s Books to Read After The Handmaid’s Tale.
Athena’s Choice by Adam Boostrom
Athena Vosh lives just like any other teenager from the year 2099. She watches reality shows with her friends, eats well, and occasionally wonders to herself: what would life be like if men were still alive? It has been almost 50 years since an experimental virus accidentally killed all the men on earth. However, a controversial project is currently underway to bring men back. There’s just one catch. The project has been sabotaged. When the police of 2099 are tasked with finding the saboteur, they receive a mysterious command to investigate the otherwise innocuous Athena Vosh. After it becomes clear that the young girl might know more than she lets on, Athena is brought in to participate in the official investigation. Winner of the 2019 National Indie Excellence Award for Visionary Fiction.
Rippler by Cidney Swanson
When Samantha Ruiz turns invisible in front of team mates on a rafting trip, she knows something’s wrong with her. According to her knowledgeable friend Will, she’s got a rare genetic disorder. Fearing a lifetime sentence as a lab-rat, Sam wants to keep her ability secret. But she also wants to know if there’s a connection between dark Nazi experiments on others like her and her own mother’s death eight years earlier. At the same time that Sam is sleuthing, she’s falling hard for Will. And soon, she’ll have to choose between keeping her secrets hidden and keeping Will safe. Book 1 of The Ripple Series by bestselling YA author Cidney Swanson.
What are your thoughts on female-centered dystopias? If you’ve written one, share your tips and experiences with the KWL community!
This is a great list of dystopian fiction and I’ve read a fair few (the rest will be going on my TBR list). It’s such a thought provoking topic especially when authors take us close to the line on what really could happen. I think that’s why we enjoy reading them so much, and in my case writing them too!
Thanks Claire, great to hear it gave you some ideas for your next reads! I completely agree, some dystopias blur the line between fact and fiction so well that you really feel as though it could happen. Margaret Atwood does not refer to The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel as Sci-Fi, instead she calls it ‘speculative fiction’. It really is!
It is interesting. Many science fictions in the chinese market are geared to more positive world outlooks, goodtopias 🙂 and not gender based. The handmaids tale is fueled through the usa market or anglophone and especially female readers. But it is not as resonant in certain other markets. In the end, no author can appease the entire readership. The goal is to appease enough to pay the bills. 🙂 … I argue rogue one is another example, even though it is in literary form a screenplay, and it is not a clearly defined dystopia, it has the same dystopian aura to it.