Recently, dystopian fiction has gone from being a genre of possibilities for civilization to a genre of probabilities for it. Orwellian language is used by political leaders in the media, calling lies “alternative facts” and truth “fake news.” Protesters all over the world have donned the iconic Handmaiden’s outfit from Margaret Atwood’s famous novel and television series to decry assaults on women’s reproductive rights. And it seems every week brings new catastrophic predictions from climate scientists, turning our newspapers themselves into grim prophecies of an uncertain future. The line between the dystopias we imagine and the real world we inhabit is blurring.
Perhaps because of this convergence, dystopian literature seems to be more popular than ever right now. Feminist dystopias, in particular, are having a moment, as writers acknowledge that women likely have the most to lose in any coming collapse of civilization. In most of these stories, there is one consistent theme: women are the victims. Even when female protagonists go through a hero’s journey and end up with power by the story’s end, they start without agency and they need to discover it.
Why is this? In stories like the Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the essential role women’s bodies play in procreation that makes them vulnerable to exploitation and enslavement. In other cases, the woman-as-victim trope may simply reflect the physical reality that men generally have larger and stronger bodies than women. But more important, I think, is the fact that men currently occupy most positions of power, like political office and law enforcement, making it all the more likely that they would seize that power and strengthen it in the event of a cataclysmic disaster or unravelling of civilization.
Because of that reality, it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, could shift the balance of power between the sexes, which is probably why so few authors choose to imagine women in positions of power in dystopian futures.
Two recent books flip the narrative on its head, however. The first is The Power, by Naomi Alderman, and the second is The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch. Both novels imagine a world where women gain a new, supernatural ability that gives them an edge over men. It’s telling that in both these novels, it’s a new, made up power that finally flips the dynamics of gender relations. A future where women have power is so hard to imagine a supernatural element is required to effect it.
In Alderman’s book, a dormant muscle in women’s bodies suddenly wakes up in teenage girls, imbuing them with the power to give off electric shocks through their hands. This muscle gradually becomes activated in all women, worldwide. As women and girls everywhere begin to experiment with their new skill, the ability to hurt men, either as an act of self-defense, aggression or control, becomes the focus of their power and, by extension, of society.
Men, traditionally the hunters, quickly become the hunted. Women, previously victimized in myriad ways, suddenly have agency and the ability to deliver themselves from horrific circumstances once beyond their control. This isn’t only exciting for the women in this story; men who are aware of the injustice women face are also excited to see them liberated.
Without giving the whole book away, Alderman shows us that power isn’t freedom, or that it isn’t just freedom. It is complex, insidious and troublesome. She also shows us that the responsibility that comes with power–whether it’s physical, social, or governmental–is infinitely corruptible. We sometimes assume that with more women in leadership roles, we would see a fairer distribution of wealth, racial equality and human rights, but The Power shows us the flaw in that assumption.
The book also reveals our deep-seated tendency to explain biologically based power imbalances as a direct result of evolution. “Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it?” asks the editor in a postscript, response to the theory that women didn’t always have their power. “Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women — with babies to protect from harm — have had to become aggressive and violent.”
Yuknavitch’s book is a complex reimagining of the story of Joan of Arc set on a post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged Earth on which the human race has devolved into pale, sexless, hairless creatures. Everyone’s reproductive organs have literally shriveled up, rendering propagation of the species impossible.
The book begins with the narrator, artist Christine, speaking to us from CIEL, a colony of space stations orbiting just above the Earth. Led by celebrity-turned-cult-leader Jean de Men, CIEL is a colony for the rich and privileged, the fortunate few who have escaped the radioactive Earth below and now mine what’s left of it for survival. CIEL operates as a police state, where de Men secretly experiments on inhabitants to restart procreation and people are euthanized at age 50 so their bodies can be harvested for water.
While Christine plots a rebellion against de Men, she narrates the story of a girl on Earth named Joan, who discovers a power inside her allowing her to communicate with and channel the energy of the Earth, bestowing on her the power both to give life and to destroy it. After Joan comes into her power, she becomes a child warrior, inciting the rebel movement Christine is now involved in, as part of the never-ending wars that now consume the planet.
As their violent, at times highly sexualized, stories begin to intertwine, the power of these two women becomes a force which may ultimately lead to renewal.
In the end, the way Joan responds to her new power is a stark contrast to what we see in the women of Alderman’s book. Joan is humbled by it, whereas the women in The Power become drunk with it. But the twist at the very end of The Book of Joan turns our perception of these differing feminine approaches to power on its head. As Jean de Men is killed, his body is fully revealed and with it, evidence of botched gender reassignment surgery. De Men started out as a woman, showing that the allure of power tempts both sexes to abuse it.
What makes these books compelling isn’t just the shift in narrative from victimhood to agency. Rather, it’s the deep dive these writers are able to take into the characters’ psyches, once they’re removed from the pigeonhole of victimhood. Women are forces of creation, always, as the child-bearers of our species, but when women become forces of destruction as well, we can see a struggle and a journey that doesn’t exist for men, simply because women are the child bearers of our species.
In The Book of Joan Christine ponders, “I had been thinking about her as a hero. Joan. The way we’ve all been trained to understanding that word and idea. Bound to a story that is not only man-made, but man-centered. How does that change when the terms of the story come from a woman who is unlike any other in human history? A body tethered, not to god or some pinnacle of thought or faith, but to energy and matter? To the planet.”
This thought of Christine’s is the crux of why both of these books matter. Women are so often defined in relation to men and the patriarchal structures they create. By untethering women from men, connecting them instead to the energy of their bodies and the Earth, we get an unburdened glimpse into raw human behaviour, for better or worse.
*This essay originally appeared in Broadview magazine in April 2019.