The world is going up in flames. In some places, quite literally. Human-induced climate change is wreaking havoc across the planet on a scale we can’t even fully predict yet. Riding on fevered cries of nationalism and xenophobic sealing of borders, far-right politicians hold sway in what were confidently considered the greatest democracies until just a few years ago. Dissent and civil liberties, particularly for minority groups, are being clamped down on. And through it all, technological behemoths gleefully accumulate and concentrate power, data, and control over human consumption and behaviour.
“It’s like something out of a dystopian novel”, we’ve been repeating to each other, until the word loses most of its potency. Reality seems just as – if not more – bizarre, cruel and discombobulating.
Yet, or perhaps exactly for that reason, we can’t seem to get enough of dystopian fiction, which is having a moment in the sun like never before. And now, one of the most enduring and popular stories from the genre has returned, 34 years after readers first hungrily lapped it up.
Details are slowly starting to trickle in about The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated and closely guarded sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that has come to epitomise feminist dystopian fiction. Set 15 years after the final scene of Atwood’s best-selling original, the sequel is told through the testaments of three female narrators from the totalitarian state of Gilead. The novel may not be out yet but it’s already in the running for the 2019 Booker Prize.
The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, was by no means the only dystopian novel of its era to highlight the horrors of a gendered society, sitting in the company of works by science fiction titans such as Ursula K Le Guin and Octavia Butler, among others. But its alarming similarities with present-day United States under Donald Trump (whose presidency has pushed readers to dystopian fiction in droves; sales of Orwell’s 1984, for example, spiked dramatically right after Trump’s election win) meant that the novel, set in a future where women’s sexuality, reproductive rights, and their very existence are brutally monitored and controlled, has become a symbol for a misogynistic present. Its power also lies in Atwood’s rule that she “would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools”.
Of course a large part of the book’s recent resurgence – it has sold over 8 million copies since it was first published – is also thanks to its extremely popular TV adaptation. While mostly remaining loyal to the book (which leaves Offred’s fate a mystery in its closing pages) in its first season, including its crucial humanising core, the show subsequently went into a freefall, almost relishing in inflicting ceaseless cruelty and violence on its protagonist. As increasing numbers of disconcerted viewers turned away from their screens, it begged asking if dystopia is the only lens through which fiction can present the nastiness of the world. What, for example, does a feminist utopia look like?
Over a century ago, American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland imagined a land inhabited only by women, free from crime, violence, war, hunger or conflict. In the novel, men died out 2,000 years ago and women have since reproduced parthenogenetically or asexually, only giving birth to daughters. First written in 1916 in serialised form in a magazine that Gilman was editing at the time, Herland was resurrected as a novel in 1976. It’s told from the perspective of a sociologist, one of three men to set out in search of this all-female society; and as they stumble upon and are easily captured by the women of Herland, readers are offered a view of Gilman’s vision of a land devoid of men. It seems pretty damn great.
Learning and education are placed at the highest pedestal in Herland. Even when faced by the male intruders and their multiple attempts at escape or aggression, its inhabitants are peaceful and understanding – the men are given comfortable accommodation and food, and are taught the language and ways of Herland. A nurturing motherhood is at the core of Gilman’s imagined world, where individual parenting has been replaced by a collective raising by, and of, women.
Marked by the time that it was written in, the novel has received a fair share of criticism for its explicit anti-abortion stance, gender essentialism and ominous eugenic hints of “improving” race. Yet, it stands out for a radically clear vision and rich imagination that was built upon by later generations of writers.
Iconic as the novel is, to say that Herland was the first fictional representation of a female utopia would be to ignore a delightfully satirical work born in early 20th century Bengal. Written by the renowned Muslim social reformer, political activist and feminist thinker Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, known popularly as Begum Rokeya, Sultana’s Dream, published in 1905, is an inversion of the gendered world that Hossain knew and fought against. In Ladyland, women run everything and men are relegated to “their proper place where they ought to be”: the zenana. With the men in purdah, women are free to pursue science, horticulture (Ladyland is a verdant feast for the eyes and soul) and to get things done much more efficiently (the women actually work instead of just talking about it and smoking cheroots all day).
Similar to Gilman’s utopia, Ladyland is free from crime and requires no magistrates or policemen. Instead, its inhabitants develop technology to harness solar power, draw water from the atmosphere (preventing thunderstorms and floods in the process), and fly in electricity-powered aircrafts that defy gravity through the use of ”hydrogen balls”. The story’s narrator eventually wakes up to find she was dreaming but Hossain’s gleeful fictional righting of the gross inequality she witnessed in her own life is an infectious joy, best experienced through a splendidly illustrated 2015 edition by Tara Books.
Despite these early forays, more widespread explorations of feminist utopias did not come into existence until the 1970s, during the second wave of the feminist movement, when they proliferated mostly in the United States. “Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable,” author Marge Piercy wrote in 2016, looking back 40 years after the publication of her book, Woman on the Edge of Time.
In Piercy’s powerful novel, a woman forcefully incarcerated in a mental institution is able to communicate with an androgynous figure from the year 2137. This world of the future is the fruition of the goals of the radical movements of the 70s – a just society where divisions of race, class, and most distinctly, gender are removed; personal freedoms and ecologically sound ways of life hold pride of place instead. Conflicts are resolved peacefully, gender-neutral pronouns (“per”) are used for all human beings and babies develop outside the womb, to be raised by three parents. Slowly though, Piercy’s absorbing novel reveals that this is not the only possible future and our protagonist struggles to ensure that it is this path and not a hyper-capitalist, segregated dystopia that humanity follows.
The possibilities of alternative futures are taken one step further in Joanna Russ’s imaginative The Female Man, published in 1975. Not strictly utopian in its entirety, the novel does, however, offer a peek into one. Four women from parallel worlds find their existences intersecting as they compare – and are startled by the differences in – their lives. While Joanna is from a world similar to 1970s Earth, she meets Jeannine whose world has never seen the end of the Great Depression, Jael who lives in a dystopian land where men and women are engaged in a decades-long war with each other, and Janet who belongs to the futuristic utopian world of Whileaway, which, similar to Herland, is inhabited only by women, all the men having been wiped out by a plague 800 years ago.
This utopia is imbued with the vision of the environmental movement – the women, despite great technological prowess, live in an agrarian society. Forming same-sex relationships, they procreate parthenogenetically. Forever altered by their interaction, the four women in Russ’s novel part ways with a radically different understanding of a female existence.
An ecofeminist lesbian theme also runs vividly through Sally Miller Gearhart’s speculative ficton novel The Wanderground, which through short narratives tells the story of the “hill women” in a future version of the United States where they live as one with nature and each other, until the world of men threatens to overwhelm them.
United in envisaging a world that was strongly influenced by the politics of their times, the feminist utopias of the 1970s gave way as the idealist world that once seemed within reach faded away. “When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in,” Marge Piercy explained.
What they left in their wake is a plethora of sharp, brilliant, but ultimately dystopian explorations in fiction. Yet, according to Atwood, the two aren’t all that distinct. “Every dystopia contains a little utopia and vice versa,” she says, preferring the term “ustopia” to describe her most famous novel. But what shape can that imagining take in our current moment, well into an increasingly punishing 21st century – a watershed for how we look at gender and power?
In Naomi Alderman’s bestselling 2017 speculative novel The Power, young women developing the ability to administer electric shocks that can injure, torture, and even kill men, suddenly flipping the hierarchy of gendered power. It’s a giddy reversal that paves the path for a potential non-violent, green, empathetic utopia shaped by women, as imagined by novelists all those decades ago. Instead, Alderman’s chilling novel morphs into an exploration of the hunger for revenge and the inexorable appeal of structural power. “You don’t have to think that all men are horrible to know there are some men who abuse their strength,” Alderman said in an interview. “Why wouldn’t the same hold true for women?”
Perhaps Atwood has a point.