At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the characters steps up into the back of a van and an unknown fate. Since 1985, readers have been left wondering whether the van took her to freedom or to work in the Colonies or to the Wall, and over the years, Atwood has not commented much on what she intended. As the TV adaptation of her novel concludes its third season—to mixed reviews and discomfort with its continued brutality—many have asked whether this was the direction she intended the story to go. Those who have asked that question will have their answers when they read The Testaments.
In the Germany of Juli Zeh’s novel, Europe’s coalition continues to deteriorate. First Brexit. Then Frexit. And soon, with daily news that feels like an assault, businesswoman Britta makes the decision to stop paying attention to the news in order to focus on her family, herself, and her job. She runs a clinic that specializes in helping those who are close to suicide. And yet, despite the good work that the clinic is doing, it becomes apparent that Britta is involved in nefarious activities that are bringing real harm to those outside the clinic. What is the connection between the wave of terrorism that has people afraid to go into public spaces and the humanitarian work that Britta performs? Zeh has concocted a thriller that also operates as social satire that presents to readers a world in which empathy no longer exists.
The Memory Police
“Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here,” my mother used to tell me when I was still a child,” thus begins Yogo Agawa’s novel about an authoritarian government’s ability to control its population’s memories. When items are removed from the society—for example, stamps or certain gems—the government not only forbids anyone talking about these items, it takes it further by ordering everyone to banish these objects from their memories. Those who refuse to allow their minds to be disciplined in such ways are visited by the “Memory Police.” Where Orwell imagined a world in which a society would be forced to use language invented by Big Brother, Ogawa’s vision takes in the ways that we have already surrendered our privacy and asks where all of that could go next.
Who Fears Death
In Okarafor’s vision of the future, earth’s residents are not certain of the history that has produced the bleak world they have inherited, except for what is told to them by the Great Book. Onyesonwu learns the secret of her parentage, a secret that has condemned her to slavery. But when she uncovers the secret, it unlocks in her a desire to journey to the secret’s source. This is a quest tale, a story that is infused with myth and animated by the actions of a young woman growing into her power. A book for anyone who believes that a fate is not a destiny.
The history of the twentieth century was dominated by totalitarian regimes that exacted obedience and limited the creative output of their citizens. Among them: Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Hitler’s Germany, Ceaușescu’s Romania, and Stalin’s U.S.S.R. In Ice Trilogy, Vladimir Sorokin has written three science fiction novels that parody life in the Soviet Union and Russia from 1908 until present day. The story begins with the falling to earth of a meteorite that sends out a message to 23,000 “Brothers and Sisters of the Light,” whose eventual goal will be the complete destruction of the world. Warning: this may be the most bizarre series of stories that you have ever read.
Gold Fame Citrus
Claire Vaye Watkins
The lack of rain has turned Southern California into desert that cannot support the lives of its inhabitants. The government sets up internment camps for survivors. The other states don’t want California’s “climate refugees,” and vigilante groups and armed militias work to keep residents from escaping. Luz and Ray avoid the detention camps, and fashion a life out of scavenging and the rationed colas that have taken the place of drinking water. But when they find a child in need of care, the little girl’s stories motivate the couple to search for a place where they can live, if they can survive the bandits, the armed militias, the lack of food, and the merciless sun while they search for a new home.
The Salt Line
Holly Goddard Jones
Climate change has made vast portions of the United States uninhabitable. While some areas of the country have sunk below rising seas, huge swaths of land are infested with a tick whose bites kill in moments. The government has established “the salt line,” the border that marks the areas lost to the ticks. For a price, thrill seekers can be taken on expensive journeys beyond the salt line, where they can hike in spectacular wilderness no longer accessible to human beings. But when this group of strangers set off beyond the salt line, what they encounter there tests them in ways they could never have foreseen.
Parable of the Sower
Octavia E. Butler
Lauren Oya Olamina is the daughter of a minister who lives in a gated community in a future California. Environmental change has made water scarce where she lives, and new street drugs provoke those who take it to do destructive, horrible things. Lauren has lived a safe life, which is good, because as Lauren matures, it becomes obvious that she is a “seer,” and the revelations that come to her warn her that all is about to disintegrate all around her. Will Lauren’s abilities keep her safe? Or will she be able to convince other people of what she knows? Butler had intended this novel to be the first of a series, but her unexpected death means that this stellar book never had a sequel.
The average person speaks 16,000 words per day. Imagine a world where everything that you say is monitored. Now imagine that if you exceed the 100 words per day that you are allowed to speak, you are jolted by a painful shock. Sign language is monitored through cameras. Then women are told that they may not work outside the home. Girls born after the decree are forbidden to learn how to read or write. Dr. Jean McClellan refused to believe her friends when they tried to warn her that the men running for office planned to silence women, but now, her previous silence has turned into a forced position. The first time that she witnesses her pre-school daughter receive the painful shock is the day she decides to fight back.
In this future Sweden, women and men who are over the age of fifty and childless are deemed “dispensable.” They are placed in communities where they live care-free lives, except that in exchange, their bodies will be used for organ harvests and medical experiments. Many of the members of the Unit are those who chose the “life of the mind,” artists and intellectuals who opted not to have children in order to be free to pursue their life’s work. When Dorrit enters the Unit, she finds a community after years of loneliness. But how can she reconcile her desire to live with the obligations she has to her society?
The Girl in the Road
Meena and Mariama are two women living at the end of the 21st Century. But unlike other visions of the future, the one projected by Byrne is not post-apocalyptic. It is a world, however, full of the wonders—and horrors—of future technology, which both women will utilize in their journeys. Mariama begins her story in Ethiopia, where she joins a band of smugglers as they cross the African continent. Meena starts from India, where her discovery of snake bites on her chest one morning forces her to head to the Trail, a bridge of technological wonder that spans the Indian Ocean. What each of them will find on their journeys reveal a future in which redemption may not be possible.
The Children of Men
P. D. James
In James’ vision of a future Britain, no baby has been born on earth in twenty years. A massive research effort is on to find the cause—and a cure—for world-wide infertility. But as the earth’s population continues to age and there are no children to guarantee the survival of humanity, people lose hope. Into this vacuum come the power-hungry, who promise a glittering future to those who are willing to give up all of their rights to new authoritarian governments. Those who are designated—the Sojourners, who are refugees—do all of the labor in Britain, which means that those who do not work find destructive ways to entertain themselves. Will scientists find a cure before chaos takes over?
During the war that took place in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs set up “rape camps,” where Bosnian women were held captive and repeatedly raped by Serb soldiers. Slavenka Drakulic tells the story of one of these women, the eponymous “S.” who emerges from one of these camps pregnant by one of her rapists. While other novels on this list are set in possible futures, Drakulic fictionalizes the real-life experiences of thousands of women for whom the worst nightmares of dystopian fiction were daily occurrences. This powerful novel presents a view of war that is never included in heroic narratives.
It was Jeremy Bentham, the British Utilitarian philosopher, who first conceived of the Panopticon. He thought that it would be the most humane of prisons, one in which prisoners would be held in glass cages and observed 24/7 without the violence and iron bars that characterized prisons of his time. In Jenni Fagan’s novel, readers meet Anais Hendricks, a teenager who has been kicked from one foster home placement to another—23 in total—before readers meet her as she sits in the back of a police car. Anais cannot remember what has happened, but authorities send her to The Panopticon, a home for young offenders. There, Anais finally finds a sort of family, something she has never had before. But what price will her captors ask her to exact from her?
The Big Lie
One of the details of the German Nazi regime that is often overlooked is the emphasis that the fascists placed on the perfection of bodies and athletic prowess. In England in 2014, a nation that lost World War II to the Nazis and has lived under its doctrines ever since, Jessika Keller is a star. A champion ice skater and a smart, accomplished student, she has excelled in the various societies at her school that reward students for their performances. But when Jessika becomes aware that her not-so-perfect best friend, Clementine, has attracted the wrong kind of attention from school officials, she will be forced to make a choice between love and being loyal to the State.
Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro who the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, and if you are familiar with him because of The Remains of the Day, then this novel may begin in familiar territory. At first, the three characters—Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy—students at the exclusive boarding school, Hailsham, appear to be the children of the drawing room characters he wrote about in his previous novels of English manners and manors. But as the children grow into adults, they discover that part of their identity has been kept from them, and that identity means that they will never get to be in control of their own lives or bodies. A tale that will haunt readers long after they’ve closed the last pages.
The Handmaid's Tale (Movie Tie-in)
When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale back in 1985, her vision of a world in which women had lost control of their own bodies, many readers thought her dystopian vision of America was frightening, but unlikely to come to pass. But of course, enslaved women who were subjected to sexual violence had been reality for the African-American women who had been held in bondage for the first two centuries of the American colonies and states’ existence. And sexual slavery and rape have been used as weapons of war and as part of totalitarian regimes’ modus operandi in the Twentieth Century and beyond.
We’ve put together a list of books in which other writers have envisioned worlds—past, present, and future—in which women (and men) are confronted with systems that seek to control them. Some of these writers envision a post-apocalyptic future in which every person must protect themselves. Or they write about what life was like in regimes that left their horrific mark on world history.
And yet, despite the darkness of the subject matter, these stories point toward the resilience and the courage of those who resist.
Featured image: Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) © Hulu