The World Has Always Been a Dystopia for Women: A Survey of Feminist Dystopias

Books discussed in this essay: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); When She Woke (Hillary Jordan; 2011); “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (M. Rickert; collected in Brave New Worlds, 2011); Daughters of the North (Sarah Hall; 2007). Major spoilers abound.

The dystopian novel is one with an agenda. It magnifies an issue in our society so that we can better examine it. The dystopian society–typically set in a future or alternate world–centers around that one issue, which is exaggerated often to the point of unbelievability. But this distortion is necessary so that we can clearly understand the impact.

A clear example is the popular Hunger Games trilogy, which focuses on the very current topic of income inequality. In one memorable scene, the elite of the Capitol gorge on rich food and then make themselves vomit so they can eat still more, while the citizens of the Districts go hungry. The scene is extreme, but that extremeness prompts the reader to think about the issue of food security and waste in our present unequal world.

cropped-margaret-atwoods-the-hand-007-1Feminist dystopias focus on women’s rights, which usually revolve around the thorny subject of reproduction. Becoming pregnant is one of the most private experiences a woman can have, but pregnancy and babies are among the most public of issues a society addresses. The society’s future is bound up in babies: how many, how healthy, are they the kind of babies we want? Since men have always been in charge of society, the issue of paternity–tied up in inheritance, class structure, and all manner of complexities–is also of foremost concern. It’s easy to determine who the mother of any child is, but only the mother knows who the father is (and sometimes not even then).

Society (and men) want to regulate when and how women become pregnant, whether they carry their babies to term, and who is fathering them. As a result, women’s bodies are considered public property, subject to legislation and regulation. Women themselves become objects rather than human beings, property that can be bought, sold, and bartered. Feminism often boils down to the conflict between society’s need to manage reproduction and a woman’s right to recognition as a person and to control her most personal possession–her own body.

The-Handmaids-Tale-Atwood-MargaretThe alpha feminist dystopia, and still the foremost classic, is The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s seminal novel, fertility has decreased dramatically due to environmental degradation. Those women who are still fertile have been enslaved solely for the purpose of carrying the babies of the elite ruling class. Women have been deprived of all their rights, denied access to money and property, and separated from their families–all justified by the religious authority of this future society’s theocratic rulers. A “handmaiden” is literally required to have sex with her male owner while lying on top of his wife, so that the wife symbolically becomes impregnated with the oh-so-valuable baby.

Obviously, Atwood is exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there is no denying the impact of this image. Her imagined society, Gilead, is an extreme but logical extension of ongoing attempts to control women and their reproduction based on religion. Atwood’s goal is not to get us to believe this could actually happen. Her goal is to get us recognize the insidiousness of religion in controlling people’s lives and to feel the utter deprivation of a woman denied control over her own body, to the point where it is considered the extension of the body of another woman and the property of a man.

Even more than thirty years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s warning bell resonates with readers. In looking at the pattern of laws enacted in recent years in the United States to restrict and control pregnant women, it can often feel like we are already living in a version of Gilead. That’s why this story endures, and why it’s important to keep reading and rereading it.

WhenSheWokeJordan’s When She Woke is a direct descendant of The Handmaid’s Tale. This retelling of The Scarlet Letter takes place in a near-future, fundamentalist Christian dystopia where abortion has been outlawed as a result of widespread infertility. Those who are convicted of having abortions awake to find that their skin has been dyed a bright red color. These “Chromes” are released into society, where they face being ostracized, assaulted, and possibly murdered. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke exaggerates the current trend of restricting and all but criminalizing the rights of pregnant women in the name of religion.

Rickert’s chilling short story “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (collected in the John Joseph Adams-edited anthology Brave New Worlds) also envisions an America in which abortion has been outlawed. In this dystopia, women convicted of having abortions when they were still legal are publicly executed. The punishments meted out in these two dystopias for the crime of abortion may seem outlandish, but these authors are simply following the path of current legislation, where women considering having abortions are forced to undergo invasive procedures, inaccurate “counseling,” and other hoops designed to circumvent their ability to choose for themselves whether to be pregnant.

51UwPtWxeLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Hall’s Daughters of the North (originally published in the United Kingdom as The Carhullan Army) examines the other side of the issue: the actions societies take when they need to reduce the number of babies being born. The end result still curtails women’s reproductive choice by directly controlling their bodies. In a future world decimated by economic and environmental disasters, where resources have become scarce, couples must apply for licenses to have children. All fertile women are required to have IUDs, and compliance may be checked at any time by any enforcement officer, in public, in a manner that is essentially sexual violence or near rape. The protagonist chooses to rebel, joining a commune of women who are training as guerilla fighters to resist this authoritarian regime.

bd00d1efdb871b1977feb1ac2f387126Human history has always been a dystopia for women, who as a group have never achieved full ownership of either their bodies or their lives. Women in Western democracies only gained the right to vote–an acknowledgement that women were actually people–during the last century. Sexual slavery, suttee, honor killings, genital mutilation, foot-binding — these are only a few of the horrors inflicted on women (and are still in practice in many places today).

The struggle for women’s rights and freedom still rages in every part of the world, even in the supposedly developed West. In the United States alone, states have enacted over 200 laws restricting reproductive rights since 2010, a dramatic up-surge. Feminist dystopias remind us not to get comfortable or let our guards down, or we could all too easily lose those rights we struggled so long to obtain. A true feminist utopia, in which women are considered full people whose bodies belong only to them, still exists solely in the imagination of science fiction.

Is Margaret Atwood a Science Fiction Writer?

Margaret Atwood says “now is not the time for realistic fiction,” but is her writing science fiction? She would deny it, preferring the more nebulous term, “speculative fiction.” Regardless, in many of her novels, even her more mainstream ones, she deals with what-if’s and what-might-be’s, rather than what is.

On the subject, Atwood says:

“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”

Atwood is generally considered a literary writer by critics who wouldn’t dream of dipping into the genre ghetto, but she gets away with writing fiction that could easily be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

handmaidscoverConsider, for instance, Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award the very first time it was given out. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women. Its dystopian, futuristic setting place it squarely in the science fiction tradition.

I think The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept.

the_blind_assassin_by_ekonkThe Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize, is not as straightforward in terms of genre, but it does contain science fiction elements. Its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters and develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Regardless, Atwood is comfortable using tropes of the genre in exciting and unusual ways when it suits her.

maddaddam1__140604211942With her more recent MaddAddam trilogyAtwood has a harder time making the case that she is not in fact writing science fiction. The dystopian future she imagines relies on the products of genetic engineering. A genuine mad scientist applies his eugenics research to create a race of people, then releases a bio-engineered virus to bring about the apocalypse. Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, is another dystopia that was originally published in installments on the Internet.

I enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Atwood’s fiction may transcend labels, but she speaks to those of us who love science fiction and its speculations on what might be.

Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

This essay briefly discusses The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); The Children of Men (P.D. James; 1992); Oryx and Crake (Atwood; 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood; 2009); The Gate to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988); Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976); Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). There are no spoilers beyond very brief summaries.

I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99-percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian, and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not contain an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

From the movie version of The Children of Men.
From the movie version of The Children of Men; forced fertility testing is very dystopian.

Compare that with The Children of Men (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

atwood1
Apocalypse + dystopia taste great together.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. The Gate to Women’s Country is a dystopia masquerading as utopia, a common trope. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.
Looks nice, doesn’t it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.

If it’s a true post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.

First Impressions: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood; 2009) in October 2009. I will be discussing The Year of the Flood in future essays. Spoilers.

6080337This companion novel to Oryx and Crake relates from a different perspective the events of an engineered pandemic that wipes out humanity.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel to Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, but rather a companion to it. It takes place at the same time and depicts the same events, with many of the same characters, but from a very different perspective. Atwood’s vision of our future is of a bleak, corporatized monoculture, where everything has been made into a commodity, and human emotions all but done away with. Guarded, gated corporate-states churn out useless genetically engineered animals and unnecessary drugs while the poor eke out an existence in the vast malls and slums of the “pleeblands.” Then, a bioengineered virus pretty much wipes out humanity overnight, leaving only a few survivors to relate the two tales. Eventually, the two storylines merge, shedding light on the abrupt end of Oryx and Crake. Although it is not strictly necessary, I believe it would help the reader understand The Year of the Flood after already having read Oryx and Crake.

The narrative alternates between the points of view of the two main characters, Toby and Ren. Each woman is telling her story post-apocalypse, first relating a little of how she managed to survive, then flashing back to the events of her life before the virus swept through. Both begin their stories as members of the anti-consumerist cult God’s Gardeners (which also appeared in Oryx and Crake), but each has to leave the group for different reasons, and their storylines separate. Each section, alternating Toby and Ren, begins with a sermon given by Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners, followed by a hymn commemorating one of the cult’s saint days (there is one for every day). These sermons let the reader know the fate of the group after Toby and Ren leaves and the apocalypse, which they call the “Waterless Flood,” occurs. Eventually, Toby’s and Ren’s stories catch up to the present and converge as the two separated characters come together again.

Toby and Ren are both victims of the commoditized, dysfunctional world they inhabit. They are each left without means of support after their fathers die in spectacularly unpleasant circumstances and they are abruptly on their own. They start out as victims: Toby of a psychotic rapist who continues to pursue her after her escape into God’s Gardeners; Ren of her mother’s capriciousness, until she winds up working in a sex club. After the Waterless Flood, they must each overcome their victimhood and become self-sufficient. They discover how to be themselves. In fact, the apocalypse might have been the best thing to ever happen to them, as it releases them from their societally imposed prisons.

The Year of the Flood ends much as Oryx and Crake did, with the focal characters encountering a mysterious group in the deserted forest. As in Oryx and Crake, the ending is very abrupt and a trifle unsatisfying, which leads me to believe that Atwood — although disavowing her role as a science fiction writer — is writing in the great tradition of the science fiction trilogy. If so, I eagerly await the last installment. (She was–the final installment is MaddAddam, published in 2013 and my least favorite of the trilogy.)

First Impressions: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood; 2003) in July 2008. I will be discussing Oryx and Crake in future essays. Spoilers.

51VLtCYOxKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In a dystopian exaggeration of current American society, an insane genius crafts a solution to the problem of humanity.

The premise of this novel, and the details of the future world it depicts, are so outlandish that you must either accept them immediately or stop reading. I accepted them. I was instantly subsumed in the fascinating, disturbing world that Atwood has created.

The novel opens in a post-apocalyptic shore-side wilderness where the only survivor (presumably), Snowman, is barely surviving. He sleeps in a tree and spends his days in a hallucinatory stupor. The only breaks in the monotony are visits from children who turn out to be genetically engineered post-humans, with glowing green eyes and the ability to eat leaves.

Gradually, Snowman — whose pre-apocalypse name is Jimmy — reveals the events leading up to the disaster as he remembers them. He grew up in a corporate compound separated by walls and guards from the “pleeblands,” where the poor lived in crowded, polluted slums. His father worked for a powerful company conducting research in genetic engineering to come up with new products designed to relieve food shortages, prolong life, and preserve beauty, resulting in such bizarre creations as the pigoon and the rakunk. As a teenager, Snowman befriends a brilliant but anti-social young man who calls himself Crake, whose genius enables him to attend a prestigious and luxurious university and then get a high-profile job conducting top-secret eugenics research. Crake brings his old friend into the compound where he works, and there Snowman learns that Crake has engineered a new race of people who don’t have many of the “problems” we do.

Also there is Oryx, the beautiful, victimized woman who both men love. Yes, this is a grand story about the downfall of the human race, but it is also the oldest story of all: a love triangle.

This book kept me fascinated and disturbed until the very end. There were so many outlandish details, but at the heart it explores some fundamental issues: the unchecked power of people wielding science, without regard for consequences; the calamitous effects of environmental abuse; the potential within us to destroy ourselves; the follies of playing god. The only criticism I have is that the ending is a bit unsatisfying. It just leaves us hanging. But overall, Atwood is a terrific writer exploring the science fiction themes of apocalypse and dystopia, and Oryx and Crakeis a terrific contribution to this genre.