Over the past few decades, the literary world has seen a surge in the production of dystopian fiction, so much so that is has become iconic in 21st century popular culture. Though the origins of the dystopian novel can date back to the 19th century, with many considering E.M. Foster as its pioneer, dystopian fiction is a genre that has continued to evolve. In the noughties, for instance, the literary category was dominated by the emergence of a number of young adult dystopian series such as Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner and Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. However, in more recent years, dystopian fiction seems to have embarked upon a new, predominantly female trajectory.
The recent television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, seems to be the stimulant behind this literary movement of female dystopias, which includes Naomi Alderman’s, The Power, Christina Dalcher’s Vox, Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, to name but a few. However, while dystopian fiction traditionally offers the reader an existence very unlike their own, the themes explored in recent female dystopian novels appear to echo reality in a way that is disturbingly close for comfort.
Yet, perhaps this explains the recent surge in the popularity of this genre; the worlds that are imagined appear to resonate strongly with 21st century audiences, who, at a time when we expect greater gender equality, are witnessing our reality become corrupted by misogyny. We have witnessed a man publicly accused of sexual misconduct rise to the position of president and precede to mock the testimonies of other assault victims, as with the recent Brett Kavanaugh case. We have seen the rights of woman impacted with the introduction of new anti-abortion legislation across a number of US states, whilst, in the UK, the Westminster scandal has highlighted the shocking levels of misogyny within parliament. That the costume worn by the handmaids of Atwood’s tale – a white bonnet and crimson cloak -has become a symbol of protest at feminist demonstrations across the globe, is telling of just how closely readers associate the dystopian worlds of this fiction with their own.
The themes of reproductive rights, sexual assault and imbalances of power indeed prevail throughout female dystopian fiction. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the misogynistic totalitarian state of Gilead, in which Handmaids are coerced into sexual slavery in an attempt to repopulate a society that has been ravaged by desperately low reproduction rates. In Vox, Christina Dalcher explores the issue of female silence, by imagining a world in which the government has decreed that every female in America is limited to 100 spoken words a day and is punished with an electric shock should this be exceeded. Alderman, however, in her novel, The Power, overturns masculine authority, by giving the women of her tale a genetic mutation which allows them to release electrical shocks from their fingertips. This inversion of physical power allows women to seize political control and social authority, yet, their consequent actions render them as susceptible to cruelty and violence as the male population of the tale.
So, does this rise of the female dystopian novel contribute to the reduction of patriarchal dominance in our world? Indeed, the dystopian form allows readers to imagine the gender hierarchy at its most extreme, certainly allowing us to pause and reflect on our own realities. However, while these texts certainly interrogate issues surrounding inequality, authority and consent, what these female dystopias do not seem to offer is a platform for change. The Handmaids Tale, for example, exhibits women taking part in the disempowerment and dehumanisation of their own gender, despite their shared oppression, whilst Alderman suggests that women are no different from men in their misuse of physical power. There appears a recurring struggle throughout female dystopian fiction to imagine a reality untouched by the gender dichotomy.
Perhaps, therefore, we also require a rise in female utopian fiction, alongside this proliferation of the female dystopia, to present us with the potential for a brighter future which might affect change in the real world and offer us more tangible solutions to this ever-present issue of gender.