The most chilling scenes in the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale don’t depict violence, punishment or foiled escape attempts. No, the parts of the wildly addictive television series that make hearts race are the flashbacks. Given today’s real-world political climate, it feels eerily ironic to watch June’s rights gradually stripped by an extreme, right-wing regime – one where women are forced to become reproductive slaves – in the months leading up to the takeover of the United States.
It’s not surprising this type of script is resonating with audiences. We’ve watched as the #MeToo movement uncovered the abuse of power and toxic masculinity that poisoned Hollywood and other industries for decades. We’ve watched politicians in the US repeatedly try to enact laws that take away a woman’s right to control her own body. We’ve watched Donald Trump. And while women march in the streets and flock to Congress in record numbers, a new spate of novels are envisioning a female’s place in make-believe future worlds. Here are three brain-bending feminist dystopian novels to devour while you count down to the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman
In today’s world, women are disproportionately the victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, a truth rooted in one simple fact: men are usually physically stronger than women. But what if it was the opposite? In the talked-about novel The Power by Naomi Alderman (who has been mentored by Atwood), women have the ability to shoot “electrostatic power” from their collarbones, allowing them to kill, torture and physically threaten men. As a result, women quickly become the dominant gender, leading to a global revolution as the patriarchy is upended.
There’s a deeply satisfying scene early in the novel when one character, Roxy, first discovers her secret weapon. When a man with a knife accosts her, she instinctually unleashes a painful electrical shock in his direction. Able to live their lives largely without fear of physical violence or rape, boundless new possibilities are opened up for women. But while one would hope the female population would set about shaping a better, more balanced world, unfortunately this fearlessness slowly morphs into abuse of power. Alderman allows the female reader to imagine the bliss of a world without threat of physical violence for just a moment and then explores how we too could be corrupted by infinite power if we had it.
In February, it was announced The Power is being adapted into a TV series for Amazon. The screenplay is being written by Alderman and produced by a team including talent from The Handmaid’s Tale and Broadchurch. Set to air in 2020, The Power has been green-lighted for 10 episodes – although it’ll likely run for much longer than one season. Upon the announcement of the news, Alderman expressed her excitement. “We’re going to make something revolutionary, and, dare I say it,” she added, “electrifying.”
Vox: A Novel, by Christina Dalcher
Imagine your Fitbit has been replaced by a device that counts your words, not your steps. Now, imagine receiving a painful electric shock if the number goes over 100 in a day. That’s the horrific reality for women living in the dystopian future of Christina Dalcher’s debut novel, Vox.
Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, in Vox America’s democracy has been replaced by an extreme authoritarian regime – one where women’s voices have literally been silenced. The change began gradually at first and Dalcher is adept at painting very relatable pre-apocalypse scenes. Early on, the protagonist Jean – a scientist and mother-of-four – attempts to renew her passport and apply for one for her five-year-old daughter Sonia. Both requests are revoked.
In Dalcher’s world women are not allowed to read most books, have jobs, use the internet, or do anything without a husband or male relative’s permission. But the 100-words-a-day limit is the most damaging and devastating restriction of all, particularly for the effect it has on young girls. Jean can only despair as her daughter barely uses 40 of her permitted 100 words and is growing up without developing a proper vocabulary or the confidence to say what she thinks.
In a too-close-to-home nod to Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, Dalcher’s world is hemmed in by immigration control. “At the beginning, a few people managed to get out,” Jean recalls. “Some people crossed the border into Canada … [but] it didn’t take long for authorities to set up checkpoints, and the wall separating Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas from Mexico itself had already been built, so the egress stopped fairly quickly.”
But thankfully Vox is not all doom and gloom. Jean is given the opportunity to return to her job to conduct brain research that could save the life of the President’s brother. She uses it as an opportunity to resist the oppressive regime in a suspenseful story that will have you rooting for her every step – and every word.
Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
In Leni Zumas’ poetic, funny and fierce novel about the politics of the female body and motherhood, Ro is living in a world where abortion and IVF are illegal in fifty US states. The new law believes a fertilised egg has the constitutional right to life from the moment of conception. The amendment also outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus because it says the embryos cannot give their consent to be moved.
But this future regime goes one step further. In order to “restore dignity, strength and prosperity to American families,” the government will soon forbid unmarried people to adopt under an act called “Every Child Needs Two”. Set in an isolated fishing town in the north-western American state of Oregon, Red Clocks moves between the perspectives of Ro and three other women who become intertwined as they navigate a new world with little choices.
Ro – a single high school teacher in her forties – is desperate to be a mother but her attempts to fall pregnant with donor sperm have not worked. As the new law looms, her window to adopt is rapidly closing. One of Ro’s students, 16-year-old Matilda, finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and plans to break the law by sneaking over the border to Canada to have an abortion. Then there’s Gin, an eccentric herbalist who tries to empower the town’s women by concocting potions to help them fall pregnant or induce miscarriages. In a modern-day witch hunt, she’s caught and put on trial.
Red Clocks explores the differences between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, women who have children and women who do not, women who want children and those who don’t. But ultimately, the book reminds us of what women can achieve in spite of injustices – especially when they unite.