an abstract collage of women interspersed with images of robots, paint splotches, and handmaidens
Lizzie Gill

The Remarkable Rise of the Feminist Dystopia

A spate of women-authored speculative fiction imagines detailed worlds of widespread infertility, criminalized abortion, and flipped power dynamics.

“Ever since last week,” Cedar explains on the first page of Louise Erdrich’s 2017 book, Future Home of the Living God, “things have changed. Apparently—I mean, nobody knows—our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.”

This passage has returned to me again and again in recent weeks. It’s never felt more obvious that something is very wrong with the shape and trajectory of the world, that time itself is out of joint. Perhaps you felt a similar sense of disorientation recently, watching one brave, intelligent, persuasive woman after another publicly rake through a traumatic moment in her life. Perhaps you felt, like I did, that something you’d previously felt safe taking for granted—that a man credibly accused of sexual assault might not be elevated to a position of profound power over women—was no longer something to trust.

Maybe you watched the president openly mock the testimony of a woman who says she was assaulted. Perhaps you thought about sexual assault—your own, or the ones you know have happened to your friends, your family members. Maybe you’d assumed until now that the world could only be improved; that each generation would get stronger, kinder, and wiser; that women would eventually teach men not to hurt them. You saw progress eking out its path: women listened to, men sent to prison. But then things began to change. And you observed, as Cedar does, that the world feels like it’s running backward. Or sideways. Or in some direction that makes no sense at all.

This feels like a particularly strange moment in history, but it’s one that writers seem to have anticipated: The past two years have seen a spate of works delving into the discombobulation of the present. During the early days of the Trump administration, readers sought out dystopian stories that connected the turbulence and the racism and the alternative facts of the 45th presidency with anxieties the world has had before. Over the last couple of years, though, fiction’s dystopias have changed. They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it.

Some of these novels imagine preposterous scenarios, like women being shocked by Fitbit-like bracelets if they utter more than 100 words a day, or women evolving until they develop the power to physically hurt men at will. But some aren’t preposterous at all, and that’s where it gets more alarming. Writers including Erdrich, Leni Zumas, and Bina Shah are warning readers of what could happen in a near-future world, with sperm counts mysteriously plummeting, global temperatures and STD rates rising, and a pivotal anti-abortion vote poised to tip the balance of the Supreme Court. Dystopian fiction isn’t soothing anymore. It’s too close for comfort.

The novel that’s received the most attention over the past two years from women readers troubled by the news was actually published 33 years ago, smack in the middle of the Reagan administration. In 1985, as America lurched socially to the right in what was seen as a rebuke of the sexual revolution, Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative vision of a repressive theocratic state in America enabled by mass infertility and nuclear fallout.

Decades later, when readers returned to the book in the wake of Trump’s election (and as a TV adaptation debuted on Hulu), it didn’t matter that the book’s most lurid imaginings (state-sanctioned rapes ripped from the Bible, sexual and reproductive slavery for the few remaining fertile women) weren’t close to what was happening in a contemporary American reality.  The book resonated so acutely because many younger women who’d grown up mostly assuming that things could only get better for gender equality were seeing hard proof of the opposite.

There were moments when life seemed to be doing its utmost to imitate Atwood. When Oklahoma lawmakers tried to pass a bill requiring women to get written permission from their sexual partner before having abortions. When the Trump administration sanctioned children and babies being literally ripped from their parents’ arms, and when the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the policy of family separation was actually “very biblical” because it was enforcing existing laws.

But for the most part, women connected with The Handmaid’s Tale in this moment because the path of history seemed to be suddenly pointing the wrong way. That’s why protesters in white bonnets and crimson gowns have become the uncanny visual motif of women demonstrating in the Trump era. (Not to mention the fact that the president, a man who seemed to characterize himself as having been open to the possibility of terminating a girlfriend’s pregnancy in the past, now feels compelled to outlaw abortion altogether.)

Many of the recent speculative-fiction books by women have drawn inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale, or at least its model for how Gilead might come to pass. Shah’s 2018 novel, Before She Sleeps, is set in a near-future Middle Eastern city, in a world that’s been similarly decimated by nuclear war and disease (in this case, a strain of HPV that kills infected women within months). Surviving fertile women are forced into polygamous marriages with multiple men. In Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, society breaks down after women start bearing children with birth defects, babies that seem to resemble earlier species of humankind. The government declares a state of emergency, martial law is installed, and pregnant women are quickly forced into state custody.

Of all the potential precipitating factors for totalitarian government, women writers have always found intriguing terrain in infertility. The prospective end of humanity is calamitous enough to imagine drastic ends being justified. And men have proved themselves so willing over millennia to demand total control over what women do with their bodies that the prospect of them going to extreme measures is more than conceivable. (Last month, the former Trump administration staffer Jason Miller was accused of putting an abortifacient in his mistress’s drink without her knowledge—a plot so dystopian that it was featured in a recent episode of Black Mirror.)

The theme of infertility charged The Handmaid’s Tale, and P. D. James’s 1992 novel, Children of Men, set in the then-terrifying future of 2021 amid collapsing global birth rates. Then there was Hillary Jordan’s 2011 novel, When She Woke, which also imagines an STD epidemic leaving most people infertile (one consequence of which is that Roe v. Wade is overturned). Erdrich first began working on Future Home of the Living God in 2002, when—during the buildup to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—she felt that progress was reversing. She picked up the novel again in 2016, when “photographs of white men in dark suits deciding crucial issues of women’s health” compelled her to believe that the issues it considered were more urgent than ever.

In Future Home of the Living God, Cedar, the narrator, is a pregnant woman of American Indian heritage who was adopted by a white couple, and who seeks out her birth mother to try to learn more about her genetic history. As her pregnancy develops, she becomes more and more vulnerable: physically incapacitated by her changing body and targeted by a dictatorial state that’s rounding up pregnant women. Cedar’s pregnancy conveys how reproduction is often used in dystopian fiction—as a metaphor for a loss of control.

But Erdrich also communicates Cedar’s contradictory emotions when it comes to her baby. She’s terrified by the state of the world around her: Climate change has made winters a thing of the past, and animals are evolving rapidly into strange, alarming forms. The prospect of mankind making its world unlivable is a potent theme in the novel, particularly in the context of recent news that the Trump administration predicts a seven-degree rise in global temperatures by the end of this century. Climate change isn’t just an abstract element in dystopian fiction by women: It informs everything, particularly the subject of reproduction itself.

But Cedar is also unpredictably thrilled by her pregnancy, and by the prospect of motherhood. Erdrich hits on the paradox of female fertility: The ability to reproduce is both a lifeline and a life sentence. As Moira Weigel wrote in a review of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “The one thing that gives you value in society is the very thing for which you are hated.”

Anxieties about reproduction can be metaphorical in speculative fiction; they can also be blazingly literal. The book I’ve thought about more than any other since Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement in June is Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, published earlier this year. The story is set in an America that’s almost entirely the same as the one we live in now, with one exception: Abortion has been criminalized.

The quiet ordinariness of Red Clocks is its most powerful trait. It doesn’t need to dream up spectacular global catastrophes to imagine women’s rights being stripped from them, swiftly and methodically. Instead, the four women featured in the novel wake up one November morning with a president-elect they hadn’t voted for. Zumas first began work on the book in 2010, while preoccupied with her own fertility, and disturbed by the efforts of Mike Pence, then an Indiana congressman, to co-sponsor federal legislation recognizing human zygotes as legal persons.

In Red Clocks, women’s health clinics begin to close immediately after the election. Anyone wanting an abortion is required to wait 10 days and watch online tutorials about “fetal pain thresholds and celebrities whose mothers had planned to abort them.” The president proposes a Personhood Amendment, which “gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception.” It passes in 39 states, and suddenly abortion is illegal across the country. Girls as young as 13 are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and incarcerated.

There’s no mass epidemic of infertility in Red Clocks, no impending threat to the existence of humankind. Male politicians simply take away women’s rights because they don’t think women should have them. They’re incapable of summoning the empathy to imagine what an unwanted pregnancy might feel like, incapable of imagining that women’s desires regarding their own bodies should take precedence over men’s opinions. Red Clocks is plausible because men’s opinions on abortion and assault and female bodily autonomy have always counted more than women’s. You don’t need to see elderly white senators on television, lining up to apologize to a man who’s been accused of sexual assault, to grasp how much.

Zumas mostly ignores men in Red Clocks. Her book is steeped in how different women think and feel, from the four different women whose narration forms the novel to the supporting characters on the periphery. But you know that Red Clocks couldn’t exist without the men whose actions have formed its eerily familiar world. Vox, a 2018 novel by Christina Dalcher, takes a different approach: It tries to imagine how men are taught to believe that women are second-class citizens. Vox’s premise is that a new conservative Christian government in the United States has banned women from speaking more than 100 words a day, in order to enforce male supremacy within every subsection of society. Women are fitted with high-tech bracelets that deliver electric shocks if they breach their limits (the shocks grow increasingly severe the more the women transgress).

The setup is at least a little ludicrous, and Dalcher never puts in real effort to imagine how such an egregious system might have been implemented. She’s more interested in the silencing of women as an allegory. Dalcher began working on the book after rereading The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 and watching the women’s marches after the Trump inauguration. Jean, her narrator, is a neurolinguist who was working on pioneering experiments regarding speech disorders until the new administration mandated that women stay home. Jean’s frustration at being unable to voice her true, complex thoughts and feelings is palpable, and it strikes a chord with some of the disempowerment many women might currently feel. But Vox’s most interesting element is the way it tries to imagine how easily men could be compelled to deprive even the women they love of their basic rights.

Vox begins to lose potency once it shifts from a thoughtful account of Jean’s reality to an action thriller. (The Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, interestingly enough, suffered from the same faults in its second season.) Shah’s Before She Sleeps also shifts early on from a radical thought experiment about a repressive futuristic regime in the Middle East to a conventional romance, and thwarts its potential in the process. The question of how other countries might regress in the face of disease, infertility, or climate change is a fascinating one. Much speculative fiction by women is rooted in the U.S. and its own distinctive cultural anxieties. Both Zumas and Erdrich, like Atwood before them, define America as a country to be fled from, while Canada and Mexico remain progressive havens that are maddeningly out of reach.

The conventional thinking on dystopian fiction is that it serves as both a comfort and a warning. Speculative stories point to how much worse things could be, but also how much worse they could get. They remind readers of the stunning breadth of human frailty. We see the world distorted, sometimes beyond recognition, and it prompts us to look at our own reality from different angles. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood told me in 2017, is just a mashup of elements taken from different moments in history. Nothing was invented. Nothing was inconceivable, because everything had already happened in one country or another.

But The Power, Naomi Alderman’s striking 2017 novel, does something totally different. It turns the hierarchy of the world upside down and, in doing so, helps you see it in total clarity. Alderman’s conceit is that women in an era much like this one suddenly develop a “skein,” a strip of striated muscle that allows them to generate electricity at will. For the first time in history, women have the physical power to hurt, incapacitate, and kill men. “It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would,” one character thinks. “What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

The thing that viral Twitter threads and charts and testimonials have spent the past two years trying to communicate—the power differentials built into sexual assault—Alderman illuminates almost effortlessly. The genius of The Power is that it conveys how entirely the world is built on male power and male privilege, to the extent that societal structures topple as soon as women are given the advantage. In Riyadh, after two young girls are murdered by their uncles for practicing the power, women take to the streets by the thousands, while the male police forces are too afraid to arrest them. In Moldova, women who’ve been prisoners of sex traffickers are suddenly free. “The change has happened too fast for the men to learn the new tricks they need,” Alderman writes. “It is a gift.”

For the women in Alderman’s book, gaining the power means realizing, almost for the first time, how powerless they’d previously been. Allie, a teenager abused by her foster father, is able to fight back. She flees the house, pauses momentarily to wonder whether she should steal a knife to protect herself, and then “remembers—and the thought makes her laugh—that aside from cutting her dinner she really has no need for a knife, no need at all.” When she hitchhikes, cars refuse to stop. The male drivers, she realizes, are afraid of her.

Alderman’s world feels liberating. It’s not meant to be. The Power is built around the argument that women are no less corruptible than men—that given the opportunity, they’d abuse physical power just as frequently. It’s an opinion Alderman shares with Atwood, her mentor, who made clear in The Handmaid’s Tale that there will always be women willing to hurt other women in exchange for a modicum of power of their own. Erdrich, too, writes female characters who commit egregious acts into Future Home of the Living God. “You have to ask, are women better than men?” Alderman told The New York Times. “They’re not. People are people. You don’t have to think that all men are horrible to know there are some men who abuse their strength. Why wouldn’t the same hold true for women?”

Even so, what distinguishes The Power from other recent works is its thrilling view of a world so totally upended and so full of possibility, rather than a fictional universe that feels plausibly like a news broadcast from the future. The current spate of speculative works by and about women is surely a response to a present that itself feels grossly distorted. The process of examining how—and why—our own reality became so troubling is a valuable one, even if only for readers who were already compelled to undertake it. But being absorbed in a world, fleetingly, where women don’t have to be afraid is more than a thought experiment. It’s a profound, powerful relief.