It goes without saying that Margaret Atwood’s 1985 masterpiece The Handmaid's Tale is a must-read, whether you have or haven't watched the new television series of the same name..
An eloquent dystopian thriller, the hugely-influential novel portrays a world where women are stripped of their basic rights under the Republic of Gilead, an oppressive religious regime that’s replaced the democratic government in the United States. Women are solely used as bodies for procreation or homemaking; they are restricted from reading, using money, or having a career outside the home. The titular Handmaid is Offred (literally 'Of Fred'), one of the many women who are used by rich men exclusively for breeding.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:
If you've already read the 32-year-old novel, you’re likely hungry for a powerfully feminist, terrifyingly dystopian reading list to satiate you (or keep you up at night) while you hungrily await the next season of The Handmaid's Tale.
Look no further: here’s 9 feminist novels that’ll fill the void of wondering just how bad it could actually get, should some kind of society-shattering apocalypse hit us. Or, if democracy is overthrown and a dictatorship begins its reign over everyone’s bodies. Which is more terrifying? You’re about to find out...
When She Woke – Hillary Jordan (2011)
When She Woke is a gripping reimagining of The Scarlet Letter. Religious fundamentalists have overturned Roe v. Wade, so women are completely stripped of their reproductive choices and rights. To make matters even more complex, an STI outbreak has rendered majority of women infertile.
Protagonist Hannah is one of the few fertile women, and falls pregnant after an affair. She terminates her pregnancy, and is consequentially charged with murder. The punishment for abortion in this not-so-distant fictional future is being “chromed” – the offender’s skin colour is dyed red, to broadcast their heinous crime. Hannah must escape the clutches of an oppressive government, and attempts to flee across the border to save her own life.
The Power – Naomi Alderman (2016)
The Power explores the idea of a global gender-swap of power and privilege - men are afraid of women, rather than women being afraid of men.
In Alderman’s novel, teenage women are to be feared, as they possess a newly-borne fatal power: 14 and 15-year-old girls are able to murder and harm, by releasing dangerous jolts of electricity from their fingertips. Learning how to harness the power, women assume some sort of divine intervention has saved them from their previous oppression by men – and they make the best of it. Men run scared; they cross the street to avoid women, and attend segregated schools for their own safety.
This visceral, page-turning thriller looks at the most dramatic cultural shift of gendered power, and gives poignant analysis of gender inequality and oppression.
(This book actually has praise from Margaret Atwood on its front cover, which is clearly a good sign.)
Hexenhaus – Nikki McWatters (2016)
While this book isn’t about women being affected by a fictional dystopian society, it sure is about young women being demonised and scared for their lives due to societal hysteria throughout history.
The story follows three women accused of witchcraft: Veronica and her brother flee for their lives after their father is burned at the stake in 1628, a Scottish maid called Katherine is led towards political rebellion in the 18th century after her parents are murdered, and Paisley, in modern Australia, is dealing with small-town gossip due to her mum’s ‘new-age’ shop.
A ‘hexenhaus’ was a prison for witches, and the interconnected supernatural stories of these three women are well-researched and incredibly compelling reading. The overarching theme is ‘mass hysteria’, and how it has historically always led to the oppression of women.
Unwind – Neal Shusterman (2007)
The only book on this list to have a male-identifying author, Unwind is a regularly-recommended read in the world of feminist dystopian literature.
Unwind is the first instalment of Shusterman's 'dystology' series. The second civil war has occurred in the US (like you didn’t see that coming!), and the two different sides of the abortion debate have struck a deal. Abortion IS illegal, but when the child is thirteen, the parents have the choice to ‘unwind’ them – the unwanted teenager is killed, their body parts salvaged and transplanted into an adult who needs it.
Three teens, all in differing circumstances but all facing the terrible fate of an unwinding, flee for their lives. They just need to make it to their 18th birthday, when they can no longer be unwound.
The Glass Arrow – Kristen Simmons (2015)
The Glass Arrow explores the idea of women solely being ‘breeding machines’, and follows 15-year-old protagonist Aya, who lives with a group of women on the run from the people who want to auction off their breeding rights to rich men.
Aya and her group live a free existence in the mountains, hiding in order to retain their bodily autonomy. But sadly, not for long – she’s caught by a group of businessmen on a hunting expedition, and her fight for survival becomes even more difficult.
The Orchid Nursery – Louise Katz (2014)
The Orchid Nursery is a gorgeously-written, but bone-chilling tale of a dystopia where women’s purity is valued above all else. Women are dehumanised, sexualised, and raised to follow scriptures that demand servitude to men. Women long to be given the greatest honour: being chosen to be ‘Perfected’ and become a ‘womanidol’ of The Orchid Nursery.
Virtuous protagonist Mica is a dedicated believer, but when her rebellious friend Pearl goes missing, Mica is concerned she has abdicated and feels obligated to find her. A story of seemingly accidental self-discovery, The Orchid Nursery is a truly terrifying tale of religion, sexual politics, and the absolute extremes of misogyny and control.
Who Fears Death - Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
Okorafor’s novel is a stunning spiritual tale of a young woman named Onyesonwu (which translates to Who Fears Death) who lives in Saharan Africa, which is plagued post-apocalypse by widespread rape and genocide.
A child of rape, Onye is rejected by her community for being an Ewu – a ‘half-breed’. But Onye begins to manifest remarkable powers, and the novel follows her journey as a powerful, flawed, confused, magical young woman who is being hunted.
Bumped - Megan McCafferty (2011)
A story of sisterhood and trust, set in a dystopia where teenage girls are exclusively used for breeding. A virus has rendered everyone above the age of 18 infertile, so teenage girls are the most prized members of society.
Twin sisters Melody and Harmony have come from different worlds - Harmony was brought up in a religious sect, and is unwaveringly judgmental of her sister 'pregging for profit'. Melody has scored an enviable conception contract with a couple, and is now searching for the perfect fertile partner to 'bump' with - and seemingly finds him.
The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993)
A Young Adult dystopian fiction novel that was written years before the term ‘YA dystopian fiction’ was even coined, The Parable of the Sower is highly-regarded as a pioneering novel for the genre.
Set in a 2020s dystopia created by climate change, pollution, and racial tensions, the story follows young woman of colour Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives in the remnants of a gated community in LA. The country is in chaos; poverty, race wars and violence reign.
After her family is murdered and home destroyed, Lauren becomes a refugee and travels north with a group of other survivors.
Lauren has a genetic condition called ‘hyperempathy’, so is able to physically feel the visceral pain of the people suffering around her. Because of this, she creates a higher belief system which she names Earthseed – she believes it to be the next stage of humankind. She begins the first Earthseed commune to weather the tough times and prepare for the next step – travelling beyond Earth.
P.S. A very alarming fact: the petrifying President in this series, who oversees the country’s destruction due to global warming, economic inertia and violent race wars, uses a very familiar slogan – ‘Make America Great Again’. And this book was published in 1993.
The Handmaid’s Tale 2 airs on SBS and SBS On Demand 8.30pm, from Thursday April 26.
Catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale and binge season one on SBS On Demand now!