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The Rise of the Feminist Dystopia Novel and What to Read

By September 14, 201934 Comments

How much social, environmental or psychological change needs to happen within the general populace or society for it to be considered a dystopia?

Why the rise of feminist centered dystopia geared towards the female(trans, non-binary, cis or other) experience?

“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. That’s what they say, right?” 

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Dystopias are not a new thing. Since the start of science fiction, probably right around the time of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin or maybe Flatland by Edwin Abbot, writers have taken to asking the question, “What if?” A by extension of “What if” is “What if we take everything good and make it worse?” Naturally, dystopic novels arose. What has changed over time is what is considered dystopic. It has become what the cultural topic du jour.

In the 1930s and 1940s, with the rise of industrialism and the shift from farming to city life the topic was, “What if industrialism runs amok?” In the 1950s and 1960s, and speaking only from the perspective of US history concerning dystopia, we have social conditioning, communism, and the political state. This saw novels like: 1984 by George Orwell(must be noted that Orwell was British, but 1984 was/is popular in the US), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess(also British). The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise of dystopia works dealing with science and genetic enhancement: The Running Man by Stephen King, Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Count Zero by William Gibson, and A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick. All of these books followed the societal consciousness of some important topic. In recent years, specifically the new century, dystopia has become huge. What was once the one-off science fiction novel, now has most authors trying it at least once. Look at Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Colson Whitehead is usually a literary fiction writer, and it was considered a big deal(harrumph) that he would deign to venture into something like a post-apocalyptic plague narrative.

“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”

― Naomi Alderman, The Power

This brings us to the new century of YA and feministic distopias. Zumas of Red Clock fame remarked a year ago on dystopian versus what she calls “paratopian.” “Dystopia feels so solidly separate from us,” she remarked. “Paratopian” is something that could happen next week. It is dystopia close to the bone. It is not a shock that woman focussed narrative is coming to the cultural forefront. The #metoo movement, the referendum on abortion rights and women’s health in general, and sexual harassment and how women’s sexuality is viewed in culture have put the feministic movement into the cultural forefront. Especially with the popularity of The Handmaids Tale written by Margaret Atwood, Often considered as one of the pioneers of this type of dystopic fiction. Our “paratopian” fictional story one week, can become the new normal the next week. It is both an exciting time for literature and paralyzingly scary time for women.

“One of them says,

‘Why did they do it?’
And the other answers,

‘Because they could.’
That is the only

answer there ever is.” 
― Naomi Alderman, The Power

YA dystopia has also seen a considerable surge in popular culture recently. Although different than feminists dystopia, YA also has a lot of the same elements. Frequently the lead protagonist of the story is a female character dealing with incredible odds. Sometimes the narrative of the story includes how difficult it is for a female gendered person to exist in whatever dystopian society is created by the author. Usually echoing real-life scenarios. An article on this very topic from Refinery29 put it best, “What distinguishes feminist dystopias like Vox from YA dystopias – like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games – are the underlying anxieties they’re plucking. The wave of YA dystopias was spurred largely by 9/11, and explore, more broadly, a country torn apart by income inequality, war, and insidious fear. Feminist dystopias are more specific in their fixations. These novels are thought experiments riffing on the relationship between gender roles and the government. They’re also geared toward an older audience: Whereas the heroines in YA dystopias are often girls missing their mothers, the protagonists of feminist dystopias are often mothers themselves, fearing for their daughters.Vox is a prime example of this, and I have called it out below as a must-read. In Vox, a mother fears for her daughter and her daughter’s future. If Hunger Games were written from the feminist dystopia point of view, it would probably have been written from Katness’s mom watching her daughter be towed away for the bread and circuses of District 1. It probably would have been equally as good, just different.

I have put together a list of feminist dystopias that are worth the read. They all have something to bring to the proverbial table.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant because, in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

The tale of Offred was beloved even before the television series. Come for the excellent writing, but stay for the intense story of women not being in control of their own bodies and by extension their own destinies.

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The wait is over.

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her – freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story 15 years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

‘Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.’ Margaret Atwood

The world finally has a sequel coming Sept 2019.

‘The Farm’ by Joanne Ramos

Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages–and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money–more than you’ve ever dreamed of–to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your überwealthy clients.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter’s well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on delivery–or worse.

Heartbreaking, suspenseful, provocative, The Farm pushes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit to the extremes, and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love.

Another new title although reviews are in for this one, and it looks very promising.

Hazards of Time Travel, by Joyce Carol Oates

Relief is happiness for those who, otherwise, would have no happiness.

An ingenious, dystopian novel of one young woman’s resistance against the constraints of an oppressive society, from the inventive imagination of Joyce Carol Oates

“Time travel” — and its hazards—are made literal in this astonishing new novel in which a recklessly idealistic girl dares to test the perimeters of her tightly controlled (future) world and is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America — “Wainscotia, Wisconsin”—that existed eighty years before.  Cast adrift in time in this idyllic Midwestern town she is set upon a course of “rehabilitation”—but cannot resist falling in love with a fellow exile and questioning the constrains of the Wainscotia world with results that are both devastating and liberating.  

Arresting and visionary, Hazards of Time Travel  is both a novel of harrowing discovery and an exquisitely wrought love story that may be Joyce Carol Oates’s most unexpected novel so far.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Love…also taught me that loss is a thing that builds around you. That what feels like safety is often just absence of current harm, and those two things are not the same.

The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Virgin Suicides in this dystopic feminist revenge fantasy about three sisters on an isolated island, raised to fear men

King has tenderly staked out a territory for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia, and Sky. He has lain the barbed wire; he has anchored the buoys in the water; he has marked out a clear message: Do not enter. Or viewed from another angle: Not safe to leave. Here women are protected from the chaos and violence of men on the mainland. The cult-like rituals and therapies they endure fortify them from the spreading toxicity of a degrading world.

But when their father, the only man they’ve ever seen, disappears, they retreat further inward until the day three strange men wash ashore. Over the span of one blistering hot week, a psychological cat-and-mouse game plays out. Sexual tensions and sibling rivalries flare as the sisters confront the amorphous threat the strangers represent. Can they survive the men?

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.

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

Then I saw it tilt its head ever so slightly to the side, all by itself. There was a moment of coldness, like the entire room had dropped twenty degrees. I tried to take a breath, but I couldn’t move. Then it was gone.

Set in a dangerous near future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. It is a sweeping debut that illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

The Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don’t know what is happening.

Louise Erdrich, the New York Times bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of LaRose and The Round House, paints a startling portrait of a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event.

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. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.

Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As 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. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.

A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

They won’t kill us for the same reason they won’t sanction abortions. We’ve turned into necessary evils, objects to be fucked and not heard.

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

My review can be found here. A Review Longer Than 100 Words for “Vox” by Christina Dalcher

Leni Zumas’ The Red Clocks

She knew—it was her job as a teacher of history to know—how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight, against the will of most of the people.

Five women. One question. What is a woman for?

In this ferociously imaginative novel, 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. 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

In The Power the world is a recognisable 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 agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.

This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday TimesYoung Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer, 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. 



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