Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future
March 25, 2017 3:47 AM   Subscribe

Writers of feminist dystopian fiction are alert to the realities that grind down women’s lives, that make the unthinkable suddenly thinkable.
By Naomi Alderman, writer of The Power.

The politics of fear are always the same. They are easily recognisable in retrospect. They are easy to acquiesce in at the time. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, one popular placard read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”. There’s no gain the women’s movement has made that can’t be taken away – a fact that will sound terrifying to some and a gleeful plan of action to others.

Bonus link: The Handmaid’s Tale official trailer (coming to Hulu in April).
posted by moody cow (27 comments total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
Great article. Thanks for posting.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:55 AM on March 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mentions some books I haven't read. Also, every time I read about Ishi, I want to cry :(
posted by triage_lazarus at 6:03 AM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

Also from the Guardian today: "The everyday trauma of childbirth made me stop at one child." Snippet:
As one mother told me, it is the ones who don’t go mad who are weird. For when the world as you know it has vanished, is it really madness to try to escape? I “checked out” in some profound way, became instead a machine for caring, with a beady focus on detail. It’s a survival tactic employed by the kidnapped, the incarcerated. Do not reflect on what you have lost. The loss is so great and sudden it cannot be properly comprehended. Find a way to exist through time, to keep the time passing, to fulfil the obligations. Your mind, your soul, they can go where they will, and something of them will return. Just don’t drop your baby.
There is a balm in Gilead, it seems.

Alderman: What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is that everything that happens in it is plausible. In fact, everything – like the stratagem of the handmaids – has happened somewhere before. Everything in it has been praised by someone as the right, the good, the best, the only way to live.

Meanwhile, over on FanFare, a discussion of Margaret Atrwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:03 AM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

I have read most of the books mentioned in the article, but not all of them, and it may be time for a reread as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:10 AM on March 25, 2017

By Naomi Alderman, writer of The Power.
Make that MeFi's own Naomi Alderman.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:11 AM on March 25, 2017 [19 favorites]

I pretty regularly have a little cry about Ishi, triage_lazarus. I interviewed Le Guin a couple of years ago and told her that my mother had explained Ishi's story to me when I was a child and that I think some Jewish people have a particular affinity with the story. "Of course," she said, "Jewish people know about genocide."

Now I've made myself cry again.
posted by naomialderman at 7:46 AM on March 25, 2017 [26 favorites]

That's a fine essay. I'll quote the conclusion in the hope of enticing others to read it:
And as to whether The Power is a dystopia? Well, as nothing happens to a man in it that’s not happening to a woman right now, if my novel is a dystopia, we’re living in a dystopia today.
posted by languagehat at 8:15 AM on March 25, 2017 [20 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. It's really thoughtful and eloquent in its connections.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 9:02 AM on March 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Swastika Night-- published in 1937 about a Europe where the Nazis won. Women are horribly low status and abused. The book also predicted the Holocaust.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:38 AM on March 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you like your feminist dystopias dystopic - Raccoona Sheldon* wrote The Screwfly Solution.

* Another pen name for Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree Jr, who is mentioned in the FPP.
posted by lalochezia at 10:02 AM on March 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

Woman on the Edge of Time is magnificent.
posted by doctornemo at 10:22 AM on March 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Often overlooked but worth reading: Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue series from the 1980s. The idea of passing women from one "guardian" to another their entire life -- women are never legal adults in the eyes of the law in this series -- is already the norm in at least one country. There's an Economist piece this week detailing what happens to Saudi women when their legal guardianship passes from ex-husband to teenage brother.
posted by sobell at 10:30 AM on March 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

Thanks to naomialderman for a very fine essay. I was particularly pleased to see her single out 'The Matter of Seggri', which I think is one of Le Guin's best stories. To me, it's about the price that men pay for hyper-competitive masculinity, but the beauty of the story is that you can read it in so many different ways.

It’s called “The Matter of Seggri” and it draws – as so much of her work does – on her deep sympathy with the position of the anthropologist, there to observe and understand, not judge and solve.

This is true, but Le Guin also questions whether the anthropologist can ever really 'understand' another culture. Many of her stories (e.g. 'Solitude') revolve around a well-meaning participant-observer whose understanding is fatally limited by their own cultural assumptions.
posted by verstegan at 10:30 AM on March 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Atwood grew up spending a large portion of each year in the Quebec woods.... Atwood’s early life included springs, summers and early autumns in a log cabin in the woods with no electricity, paddling canoes across clear forest lakes and cooking on an open fire.

To be fair, this is not an uncommon childhood experience in Canada, especially not back when Atwood was a child.

posted by eviemath at 11:22 AM on March 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Hope I'm not shilling too hard when I recommend grabbing Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower for $1 at Humble Bundle.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 11:28 AM on March 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

(I just wanted to mention that The Power is, bar none, the best book I read that came out in the past year. This is not meant to denigrate other excellent books like The Obelisk Gate, A Closed And Common Orbit, or The Spider's War, but to emphasize how amazing I thought The Power was. I believe it comes out in the U.S. in October, but the UK version can also be acquired earlier through, for example, The Book Depository, which offers free delivery worldwide.)
posted by kyrademon at 11:29 AM on March 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

This was a good read with a good reading list tucked inside. Thanks for posting!

I know Atwood specifically is getting talked about a lot right now (and with good reason), but man, I find her an upsetting/disturbing/triggery enough read when I can hold myself at a distance. I don't even want to know what rereading The Handmaid's Tale now - after watching women's healthcare clinics get completely shut down, while watching legislation to make my life illegal stumbling through despite public opposition, with a probably-serial-rapist as US president and everything else that's going on to erode women's and minority rights - would do to me.

Though I do have to note. Conversations about Atwood's work prior to now have always seemed to be anchored by people who find her work too implausible; but what has always frightened me about it is she describes things that have historically happened, that were happening at the time of publication, that continue to happen now. This applies not just to Handmaid's, but the less well-regarded Oryx & Crake books; so many of the things people have picked out as examples of, "Well, this is kind of ridiculous" are fish-in-water instances of utterly obvious if you aren't one of the fish swimming in that particular water. This seems to be shifting as we finally accept, as a culture, that whoops, oh no, Atwood's nightmares kind of are plausible, after all.

Le Guin, by contrast, is someone I am turning to again and again as a deep and profound comfort in troubled times. Not that she hasn't written plenty of horrifying imaginary history herself, but given her whole thing is looking beyond and deeply into cultures real or imagined, the diversity of people living and doing the sorts of things that make living worthwhile in her work is a cure for cultural suffocation.
posted by byanyothername at 11:38 AM on March 25, 2017 [23 favorites]

Atwood's father was a forest entomologist, so her family spent more time in these areas than even most Canadians.
posted by brujita at 12:08 PM on March 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm so annoyed The Power isn't out here yet.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:09 PM on March 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd like to add The Maerlande Chronicles by Elisabeth Vonarburg to our growing bibliography here. Fantastic book, not read nearly enough in the English-speaking world even though a great translation has been available for a while now.
posted by kyrademon at 4:42 PM on March 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

byanyothername: what has always frightened me about it is she describes things that have historically happened, that were happening at the time of publication, that continue to happen now.

This is exactly why I find the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale so troubling. Roughly 200 years after the events in the rest of the novel, we find a male academic questioning the importance, sophistication, and veracity of Offred's account and dismissing the seriousness of Gilead since it lasted for 'only' 100 years.

The professor expounding on Offred's journal evokes all sorts of academic and/or progressive men - the type who would be offended to be called sexist, but who nevertheless takes the time to make sexist jokes before accusing Offred of exaggerating her sufferings, asking that listeners not judge the oppressive patriarchy of Gilead too harshly, prizing a few pages of a man's accounts over Offred's collection of tapes, and finding a man to be the true hero of Offred's tales.

The epilogue suggests a society where a woman's expertise with respect to her own life is secondary to some man's expertise on her life, irrespective of the gulf of time and experience that separates them. A society that dismisses women's voices and sufferings is one that nurtures another Gilead in its bosom.
posted by palindromic at 6:31 PM on March 25, 2017 [40 favorites]

Also, not yet mentioned but well worth a read, Sheri S Tepper's The Gate To Women's Country.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:49 PM on March 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

palindromic, thank you for that elaboration on the epilogue. I teach this novel to teenagers (what a blessed job) and don't often focus on the epilogue - rather just helping them focus on the complexity and nuance of Atwood's creation of Gilead. So my understanding of the epilogue has always been incredibly simplistic ("look... it's not all bad! Gilead doesn't last forever") and you've pointed out some of that complexity in the rampant sexism still in existence 200 years after Gilead.

I apologised to my students last year that their novel was about to come true again.
posted by chronic sublime at 5:27 AM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

A relevant essay from Sunny Moraine at tor.com: Imagine and Survive: Resistance Through Speculative Fiction:
George Orwell’s 1984 is experiencing a massive resurgence in interest. I see it all over lists of books recommended for understanding and preparing—for what, exactly? For the coming totalitarian state, for the enslavement of humanity, for the end of the world as we know it, or whatever else the people currently in power have as the ultimate goal of their sinister Master Plan (spoiler alert: they probably don’t actually have one). Less frequently do I see Octavia Butler, with Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents; likewise Margaret Atwood, with The Handmaid’s Tale and her Maddaddam Trilogy. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I haven’t heard all that much about The Hunger Games in more serious intellectual circles, which seems odd to me, because I would expect that a future wherein young people are forced to slaughter each other for the entertainment of a remote elite might resonate.

Though of course, that’s just a story for teenage girls, and everyone knows stories for teenage girls don’t have anything useful to say about fascism or totalitarianism.

Or resistance.
posted by palindromic at 8:41 AM on March 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

Terrific comment, palindromic. (Please post it over in the Handmaid's Tale book discussion thread?)
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:35 PM on March 27, 2017

I finished "The Power" this morning. Definitely a fascinating read. TW: does have a fair amount of violence, including sexual violence. Hopefully it will turn up on Fanfare sometime.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:16 AM on March 28, 2017

The Power has been shortlisted for the Bailey's Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize (and soon to be known as something else altogether). Congratulations, naomialderman, it's well deserved. I had a few criticisms when I was reading it, but it's a book that keeps coming back to my mind.
posted by tavegyl at 6:39 PM on April 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

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