After The Handmaid’s Tale: 7 Recent, Essential Feminist Dystopias

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

No one wants to live in a dystopia, but we’re certainly living in the golden age of feminist dystopian novels. That fact probably (definitely) doesn’t speak well of the real world that’s given birth to all of these extraordinary and disturbing novels, but even the grimmest story can give us a hope of finding our way out of the darkness way out of the darkness—even if only by offering a clear view of the road we’re on.

Though it wasn’t the first book of its kind, more than thirty years after it was first published, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is still unquestionably the most iconic example of the form of the form, so much so that later works are inevitably compared to the 1985 novel (later a film and currently an award-winning TV series). Given its enduring success, and with so many of its descendants firing readers’ darkest imaginations, it was both a big surprise and only logical when, just last week, Atwood announced plans for a followup to her genre-defining work. Arriving next fall, The Testaments will pick up the story where The Handmaid’s Tale left off, revealing what happened to Offred through the eyes and testimonies of three women of Gilead.

Of course, in the years between the release of The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, many other novelists have trod similar ground, exploring the worst of present-day society through a speculative lens—and some of the best of them have been published over just the past two years. Here are seven successors to The Handmaid’s Tale, each essential in its own way—even if they’re all frequently a little too real.

The Power, by Naomi Alderman
As women enter puberty in Naomi Alderman’s breakout 2017 novel, they begin to develop a power that allows them to deliver something like an electric shock. It’s new and mysterious, and it changes the balance of power the world over, almost overnight. Margaret Atwood served as Alderman’s mentor on the novel, so the legacy of The Handmaid’s Tale is understandably even more pronounced within its pages then the mere genre similarities would suggest. After their powers manifest, women all over the world start fighting back at their male oppressors, and, for a time, the book feels less like a dystopia than a fantasy. Before long, however, the men become frightened, and begin to fight back, even as some women abuse their newfound gifts. At its core, this novel is as a thrilling story as it is a compelling thought experiment, exploring what would happen if and when the tables were turned and women held all the power.

Hazards of Time Travel, by Joyce Carol Oates
With a literary legacy in league with Atwood’s, Joyce Carol Oates this year makes an unexpected detour into the dystopian with her latest novel, about a young woman in the very near future whose willingness to question an intellectually repressive government sees her exiled to the past via time travel technology. Specifically, she is sent to Wisconsin in the late 1950s, a time and place in which examples of female deference to authority were easy to find, and those who acted out were quickly pushed back into live. Oates’ novel is ultimately about the past’s hold on our present and future, and the ways in which that grip can make progress fleeting.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
Modern-day China’s one-child policy, a perhaps well-intended means of controlling population growth, has had unintended consequences. Combined with a strong cultural preference for male children as heirs, it has created tens of millions of heterosexual men with no prospects for marriage. That gender disparity is only expected to grow. Maggie Shen King centers her take on the future around the fallout from this policy on a single family—May-ling and her three husbands, one of whom is gay, and another of whom has kept his disability a closely-guarded secret. It’s a clever reversal on the form, both an odd sort of romance and a pointed look at gender norms—particularly in China—in a future when women have become prized commodities.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison
Though very different in tone and plot, Meg Elison’s 2016 novel is also of a piece with An Excess Male: they’re both stories about an overabundance of men. In the wake of a devastating plague, an unnamed (or many-named) midwife wanders for years from her home in San Francisco, across a western United States in which there are 10 men for every woman. Childbirth has become deadly for mother and child, and the resulting chaos has created a landscape in which gender norms are even more rigidly enforced—and one in which men are desperate to take control of the remaining women. The protagonist—the strong-willed, middle-aged, bisexual midwife—offers a hint of hope in a grim future.

Before She Sleeps, by Bina Shah
In contrast to the two aforementioned novels, Pakistani writer Bina Shah’s newest approaches gender roles from a South Asian perspective, imagining a future city in which generations of gender selection, war, and disease have drastically reduced the population of women in proportion to men. Shah uses this scenario to point a magnifying glass at modern cultural practices like veiling, gender seclusion, and reproductive control, placing them in a future when female scarcity has replaced religious authority as an excuse for male control.

Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
There’s not a lot of science fiction at work in Zumas’ speculative novel, which is what makes it so very disturbing. Based on modern-day, real-world proposals, Red Clocks images a United States in the aftermath of a Personhood Amendment to the Constitution that outlaws abortion entirely and grants embryos full citizenship (sound familiar?). This plausible future/present is explored through the experiences of four women: a high-school teacher trying to have a baby, a mother of two in a disintegrating marriage, a young woman who accidentally becomes pregnant and has nowhere to turn, and an herbalist who is arrested for her work. Zumas approaches these intersecting stories with humanity and a sharp eye toward the pressures facing by women in America.

Vox, by Christina Dalcher
Dr. Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist, wakes up to a world in which women are permitted to speak no more than 100 words per day on pain of electric shock. As dystopian science fiction goes, the concept sounds a bit extreme, but author Dalcher is using it as a vehicle to talk about the silencing of women’s voices—a much more down-to-earth phenomenon. The book begins grimly, but becomes a satisfying thriller after men show up at Dr. McClellan’s door begging for her help and expertise. At great risk, Jean seizes the opportunity to reclaim her own voice and help boost those of other women.

Preorder Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, available in September 2019.

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George R. R. Martin Might Never Finish A Song of Ice and Fire, and That’s OK

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

We put a tremendous amount of stock in endings. The concluding paragraph or a novel, or the final novel in a sequence of a dozen books, can secure an experience in our minds, or taint the hundreds or thousands of pages that came before. The logic is perverse: the longer the series—the more words preceding the last one—the more weight we give to that wrap-up. When Robert Jordan passed just prior to the completion of his then 11-book saga The Wheel of Time, the discussion was overwhelmingly about what would happen next: who would end his story, and how? Terry Brooks is nearing on the chronological conclusion of his decades-long Shannara series, a last volume that will have to support the 30 or so that preceded it.

It takes great courage to bring a series to an end… which brings us to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Out this week is Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones, the first of two volumes in George R. R. Martin’s faux-history of the dragonlords of House Targaryen, ancestors to its last survivor, young Queen Daenerys. It begins with Aegon the Conqueror and the forging of the Iron Throne, and carries through subsequent generations, and the family’s battles to keep it. It’s backstory that’s only been glimpsed before, and some of the most intriguing Westeros has to offer, set in the days when dragons ruled the skies.

It’s also a reminder that Martin’s world is a whole lot larger than the events of the book series proper, and that we may be putting too much weight on our desire to see it brought to conclusion. Yes, we’ve all been waiting seven years for book six, let alone the concluding seventh volume.Certainly, we want to know what happens. But does the ending define this particular saga? Does it matter at all who sits the Iron Throne, or whether a Stark rules in Winterfell?

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings ended with a definitive, world-changing battle, one that drew a clear line between what came before and what would come after for the world, but it’s impossible to imagine a similarly conclusive ending for Westeros and Essos. Martin’s world, not unlike our own, just doesn’t seem to work that way: there’s no grand villain to defeat in order that virtue may reign—the so-called heroes of the series may have better hearts, but each has been tainted by violence and compromise. It’s a world that seems to defy conclusions (certainly the Targaryens thought that their reign was an end to history), but admits only of cycles of war interspersed with intervals of peace. Like seasons.

It’s impossible to know what Martin has in mind for the end of his series, though it’s fun to guess (even if you’ve seen some of it already played out on television). The books take some of their inspiration from the real-life Wars of the Roses, so that conflict might offer clues. The winners there (spoilers for English history), the Tudors, lasted for just over a century before handing power over to the Scottish House of Stuart. A hundred years (and change) isn’t a bad run by any means, and those years were consequential for England, Ireland, and much of the rest of the world, but it’s a mere breathe in the grand scope of human history. The point being: Martin may ultimately craft a brilliant, revelatory ending, but the history of Westeros isn’t much less complex than our own, and we’re seeing more of it all the time—and it’s not hard to imagine more beyond that.

With Fire & Blood, we’re finally getting a full accounting of the deeds of the Targaryen dynasty, all of which has only been alluded to before. And it’s every bit as cool as what we’re reading about in the present-day of the series proper. Martin’s earlier prequel better makes the point, though: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collects Martin’s three novellas of Dunk and Egg, Dunk being future Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Duncan the Tall, and Egg being future king Aegon V of House Targaryen. The characters have a tangential impact on the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, but their stories make for good reads even without the connection. Martin’s world-class worldbuilding means that there are stories even in the nooks and crannies of Westeros. Who needs an ending when there are so many other tales to be told?

This is all complicated by the existence of the Game of Thrones TV series. Though a relatively straight adaption of the novels initially, the show has increasingly become something of a parallel universe following the bassline of Martin’s novels, but increasingly charting its own course. We’ll be getting an ending there, though only Marin knows how it will track with whatever climactic conclusion he has in mind. And even then, the ending isn’t the end: come summer 2019, HBO will immediately pivot to a still-mysterious prequel series, another grand tale of Westeros.

Martin has also brought epic fantasy to the forefront of pop culture like never before. Much of fantasy over the past decades has been chasing Tolkien, but the popularity of Martin’s series has created a market for new types of fantasy, rife with ambiguity. It has helped pave the way or boost the popularity of fantasy authors present and future, who all seem to be in conversation with Martin in one way or another: the squabbling gods of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, the bird’s eye epic of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty, the dense politics of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky, the myth-making of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle (similarly plagued by demands for a conclusion); these are just a few examples of the variety of fantasy worlds that have flourished in recent years. Those books don’t owe their existences to A Game of Thrones, of course, but just as the Lord of the Rings films reminded the mainstream that Elves and Orcs are cool, drawing them back to bookstores for more, so too has the popularity of Martin (on the page and onscreen) encouraged readers to look around for more worlds to explore.

We hunger for endings, but maybe it’s time to rethink our reliance on conclusions. Though we have confidence The Winds of Winter will eventually arrive, in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin may still ultimately leave us without a choice in that regard. That would be a little heartbreaking, I’ll admit, but will the lands of Westeros and Essos be any less rich if we don’t find out who wins this particular round of jockeying for the throne? That world is getting bigger all the time, and maybe it’s for us to stop demanding to see the ends of it, and see what we can see.

Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones is available now.

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