What lies beneath the brave new world of feminist dystopian sci-fi?

From the Bailey-prize-winning The Power to the bleakly compelling The Handmaid’s Tale, Leading writers explain why the genre is thriving

On an Earth blasted by the hot winds of a changed climate 200 years from now, who will be in charge? Will men be riding by in Mad Max steam-punk chariots, as their beleaguered wives drag children and sacks of provisions home along dusty tracks? Or will a liberated generation of Lycra-clad superwomen be running the world?

Much of the established political order has come under exceptional scrutiny, from the future of Europe to Trump’s America. Now a matching literary revolution is under way: a new breed of women’s “speculative” fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies, is riding the radical tide.

With Naomi Alderman’s The Power winning the Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction earlier this month, Ada Palmer’s novel Too Like the Lightning, the first of a much-vaunted dystopian series, out next month, and Elisabeth Moss winning plaudits for her television performance in Margaret Atwood’s bleak classic of the genre, The Handmaid’s Tale, it looks as if something truly disruptive is afoot.

For the leading British writer Sarah Hall, acclaimed for her 2007 novel The Carhullan Army, in which her heroine rebels within a collapsed society, this kind of fiction has fresh urgency. The time for mere “consciousness-raising” is over, she believes. “I do want to do more dystopian literature,” she told the Observer.

“It is really exciting at the moment because the question has moved on. We need to ask how we take the fight to them. The Carhullan Army was about that. There is a lot going on, but personally I am not so interested in creating the more superhuman kind of imaginings, or in doing some female version of the X-Men.”

When the Guardian reviewed The Carhullan Army it dismissed women’s dystopian fiction as a “low-key subgenre”. Not any more. Feminist dystopias, long established in a shady nook of the publishing industry, are now out there shaping the zeitgeist.

These works are no longer oddities found lurking next to the teen vampire shelves of the bookshop or tucked by the academic essays, they are bathed in full cultural sunlight. Alderman, who has three other novels to her name, is enjoying her first big hit with The Power, which imagines a future where women have the ability to administer electric shocks at will.

So it seems while third-wave feminism continues to trumpet its case and female prime ministers are no longer anomalous, there is a growing thirst for imagined universes in which things work differently, if not better.

Like Alderman, Tricia Sullivan has created a future in which her heroine uses a special power to alter the lives of others. In Sweet Dreams, to be published in September, Charlie is able to shape the dreams of others.

Sullivan, an Arthur C Clarke Award-winning author of nine science fiction novels and a postgraduate student at the Astrophysics Research Institute in Liverpool, has set her story in London in 2022, but others are placing their dystopias at greater distance.

One productive seam is to put your characters in alternative worlds, as Jeanette Winterson did in her 2007 novel, The Stone Gods. Palmer’s new Terra Ignota trilogy takes place in 2454 when the earth appears to have entered a golden age following a bitter conflict.

“What I hope that female readers specifically will see in Too Like the Lightning is that we have failed the endgame of feminism,” Palmer said.

“It is set in a world in which we have achieved only superficial equality and it is, I hope, a good argument for why we need to keep working on this. Some people say feminism is finished because we have achieved our goals.

“No, it is not. There is a lot more work to be done. We don’t even understand all the gendered behaviour that we unconsciously pass on nor really gauge how complicated all this is.”

Palmer is a Harvard-educated historian who teaches at Chicago University. Her new novel has already been shortlisted for the Hugo awards. She sees her fiction as the way to put forward ideas that cannot be communicated inside academia.

“Sci-fi lets you look at a society where things are done in other ways; ways too complicated to expound on in an essay. How could you generate a superficially gender-equal, godless society and then expose its failures? It is just too complex.”

The speculative feminist utopia constructed by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman in her provocative 1915 novel, Herland, is often cited as the first of its kind. But for Alderman, just hailed by the Bailey’s judges for creating her own “classic of the future”, the birth of modern women’s dystopian literature might well be located in the fertile mind of Ursula Le Guin.

Her dystopian novel The Left Hand of Darkness arrived on the crest of the new feminism wave in 1969, and told of the lonely existence of a man who travels to a planet called Gethen, where inhabitants have no fixed gender.

Now Palmer’s Terra Ignota is to revisit this blurred gender scenario. “I do change the gendered pronouns around and the reader often does not catch that many people are assigned different sexes as they go along,” said Palmer.

“Some have said they were shocked when they realised someone had a different gender to the one they had imagined. And then they were shocked that they had been shocked. Different readers have different reactions and so they learn something interesting about themselves.”

Other cornerstones of the genre being built upon by writers such as Alderman, Hall, Sullivan and Palmer, include Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which set up two contrasting futures, one a liberal ideal, the other a capitalist, sexist nightmare.

Pamela Sargent’s 1986 book The Shore of Women is also a key text, as are the extensive writings of Octavia E Butler. The Passion of New Eve, written by Angela Carter in 1977, and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man also still have their devotees.

Unsurprisingly Alderman, who is mentored by Atwood, believes it is the Canadian novelist who now leads the pack. She puts her talent partly down to a childhood spent in the Quebec woods.

“Of course, not every author of feminist science fiction was taught how to make a fire in the wilderness by her (or his) parents,” Alderman has written, going on to argue that such a training does help you question the certainties of the industrialised world.

Despite these literary achievements, women’s speculative futures have been seen as a mere division of male dystopian fiction, a long and worthy tradition started by Thomas More’s 1516 work, Utopia (a kind of philosophical treatise meets spoof travelogue), and then punctuated by influential works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949 and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in 1962.

Palmer suggests that today’s male dystopias retain characteristic differences to those from female authors.

“Perhaps the ones by women have less often featured an isolated hero, while a woman author might tend to write more about a network of people, often with more complex roles,” she said. And a political context is unavoidable for a woman writer, she believes.

Naomi Alderman wins the Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction for The Power.
Naomi Alderman wins the Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction for The Power. Photograph: Vianney Le Caer/REX/Shutterstock

“It is not so much that we are setting out to write politically, as that our work is evaluated more politically. Men can sometimes ignore these issues when they write more easily. They can just adopt default social positions, whereas a female author is expected to engage.”

Palmer says she knew gender issues would be at the core of her new story from the start. “I felt no pressure, but I knew I would have a readership in which it would loom large.”

The reason for the renaissance of this feminist form is hard to pin down. Is it because so much has already been won, or because so much is at threat? For Hall, the apparent victories of sexual liberation are beside the point.

“There have been advances, but they aren’t as many as I would like to see. And for me whether a woman should wear a burqa or whether it is OK to wear hotpants is not the most crucial thing. It is an intellectual revolution that I am interested in.”

Yet it is a woman’s body that is the battleground in Hall’s brutal Theatre 6. It is set in a near future in which Britain has outlawed abortions at the possible expense of the mother’s life.

Alderman believes the financial downturn may have something to do with the resurgence of the genre. She points out that in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, four women from parallel worlds compare how their lives might have gone under different systems. The worst oppression occurs in the world with the worst economy. Women are made most vulnerable, it implies, when societies falter.

Sarah Hall’s heroine rebels within a collapsed society in The Carhullan Army.
Sarah Hall’s heroine rebels within a collapsed society in The Carhullan Army. Photograph: Si Barber

Key texts in a disruptive genre

Herland: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel may have got there early, but her world run by women now has uncomfortable taints of racism that place it in its own time.

The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K Le Guin’s 1969 dystopian novel was a central text for feminists and tells of a man from Earth who travels to another planet, Gethen, with people of no ascribed gender. Intrigued at first, he becomes isolated and melancholy.

Woman on the Edge of Time: A 1976 novel by Marge Piercy which sets up two contrasting futures, one a liberal ideal and the other a capitalist, sexist nightmare.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s much-admired 1985 novel is a bleak portrayal of life after a fundamentalist religious sect takes over New England and subjugates women.

  • This article was amended on 28 June 2017 to attribute a quote to Naomi Alderman which had originally been misattributed to Margaret Atwood.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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