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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