Books

Speculation about procreation: feminist fiction predicts a scary future

Could one of these intriguing and entertaining novels be the next 'Handmaid's Tale'?

01 July 2018 - 00:00 By Kate Sidley
An art installation, designed by Paula Scher and Abbott Miller, celebrating the TV show 'The Handmaid's Tale', which is based on Margaret Atwood's 30-year-old novel.
An art installation, designed by Paula Scher and Abbott Miller, celebrating the TV show 'The Handmaid's Tale', which is based on Margaret Atwood's 30-year-old novel.
Image: Getty Images

On the day of Donald Trump's inauguration a sign was spotted: Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again. It refers, of course, to The Handmaid's Tale, probably the best-known example of what's often called feminist speculative fiction.

The 30-year-old book, and its recent television drama, feel uncannily timely in the age of Trump and #MeToo. There's much that feels current or at least possible - a version of "fake news" used to seize power; the patriarchal, misogynistic, religious fundamentalist state; attempts to control women's bodies and particularly their fertility.

Power and procreation are at the heart of a wave of speculative fiction concerned with the experience and position of women in society, stories that question or subvert social norms and uncoil thought experiments around sex and gender. Many of them doff their caps to Atwood's fictional setting, Gilead, while casting an eye on Trump's America.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas is disturbing in its believability. The premise is, sadly, not far-fetched: abortion is illegal under the Personhood Amendment, with a harsh punishment for any woman who has or performs one, or crosses the "pink wall" to Canada.

Under the Every Child Needs Two policy, a single woman may not adopt or have fertility treatment. The infertile can adopt the unwanted; the maths and morality square up nicely, right?

'Red Clocks'  is imaginative, accessible, funny — and darkly frightening in its eerie plausibility

Zumas' book follows the stories of four very different women in a small Oregon town as they navigate these new rules, as well as some of the old familiar questions of womanhood and motherhood. The set-up is ordinary, but this little tweak of reactionary social engineering makes it all very different. The book is imaginative, accessible, funny — and darkly frightening in its eerie plausibility.

Reproduction is at the fore in Louise Erdrich's Future Home of the Living God. Evolution is reversing rapidly, with women giving birth to earlier human forms. There's the predictable slide through control of the media to martial law. A policy of "gravid female detention" requires pregnant women to turn themselves in for monitoring.

In Helen Sedgwick's The Growing Season, technology has made the womb essentially obsolete. Thanks to Full Life's efficient egg-harvesting and handy wearable pouch, now anyone can have a baby, totally risk-free.

Women can fit their child bearing around their careers, men (or grandparents or gay people) can wear the pouches. Traditional roles are being eroded. It all sounds hunky dory. And hey, what could go wrong with outsourcing a biological function to technology and a corporation?

In The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch's audacious and challenging reimagining of the story of Joan of Arc, a space station populated by sexless, hairless, mutated humans orbits and feeds off an Earth devastated by human action and solar storms.

Their charismatic dictator is Jean de Men (he might sound familiar - "His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshipped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger") who undertakes horrific attempts at human reproduction.

In Naomi Alderman's blockbuster The Power young women develop the ability to discharge an electric shock that can injure or even kill, turning on its head the adage that while men fear women will laugh at them, women fear men will kill them.

The power spreads as young women awaken it in older women. When women who were trafficked into sexual slavery turn on their traffickers, who isn't delighted to see the patriarchy get a good kicking? But as the power is used and abused in the personal and the political realm, it's not quite so simple.

Imagining alternative worlds is a subversive and a political act. This wave of speculative fiction challenges, intrigues and entertains readers with its "what if?" scenarios and compelling stories, but it offers little in the way of hope or answers.


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