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  • Want to Write Feminist Dystopian Fiction? Here’s What You Need
Want to Write Feminist Dystopian Fiction? Here’s What You Need
Written by
She Writes
July 2019
Written by
She Writes
July 2019

This guest post was written by Siobhan Adcock, author of The Completionist

"Adcock, a natural storyteller, writes flawed and believable characters... Adcock has created a captivating, if grim, future." 

—Publishers Weekly

The rise of feminist dystopian fiction in recent years seems to have taken no one by surprise, least of all perhaps American women. We have the fastest-growing maternal mortality rate in the developed world, the worst maternity leave policies in the world, and fully 75% of American women have lost income or work because of a lack of affordable child care. Add to these issues the ongoing threat of violence against women, the normalization of sexual assault and harassment, and the rollback of reproductive freedoms, and it’s clear that while feminist dystopian writing is technically “speculative fiction,” the challenges American women currently face are anything but imagined. Feminist dystopian fiction is not just a trend, it’s a way of reckoning.

Women writers both established and up-and-coming have contributed to an exciting and vital body of feminist dystopian work that continues to grow. But what makes the best of these novels so powerful? As the author of a feminist dystopian novel myself (in a sad stroke of irony, I sent the first draft to my agent on Election Day 2016, thinking eh, this one might not sell if today goes like it should), I’ve had the opportunity and the pleasure to read and study both the masterworks (The Handmaid’s Tale, Octavia Butler’s Parables) and the great new works (The Farm by Joanne Ramos, The Power by Naomi Alderman) in the genre. Here’s what I’ve observed are the essential ingredients that make up the best feminist dystopian fiction.

Awareness of the stakes—not just national but global.

As some critics have pointed out, the feminist dystopian novels everybody seems to keep hearing about are mostly by and about white American women, whereas, as Before She Sleeps author Bina Shah put it, “What’s going on now in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan is worse than what’s happening in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Margaret Atwood has herself been quite vocal about the fact that every seemingly-unimaginable horror inflicted on women in her fictional Gilead was something that had already actually happened somewhere. Women’s rage, women’s suffering, and women’s struggles are all global, and not limited to the infuriating particularities of the American news cycle. Although admittedly, the news gives us fresh material pretty much on the daily.

A compelling “what if.”

What if X didn’t exist? What if humankind could no longer Y? What if Z went to its next logical extreme? Like the best speculative fiction, the best feminist dystopian fiction solves for variables. And the variables in question don’t even need to invent an entirely new sociopolitical order to be revealing, compelling—or alarming. Leni Zumas pointed out that the “what if” that drives her novel Red Clocks (what if abortion really did become illegal in the U.S.) isn’t so much dystopian as what she calls “paratopian:” a future that is happening right now, all around us. Feminist dystopian fiction gives women authors the unique opportunity to shape an imagined future in order to expose the truth about our present.

Allies (both false and true).

Perhaps this is unusual (I haven’t found many other examples, at any rate), but my own feminist dystopian novel The Completionist is written from the perspective of a young man, not a young woman. One of the questions I wanted to ask (and try to answer) in my book was how men—everyday, flawed, loved men—can acknowledge and ally themselves with women’s struggles. I think the best works of feminist dystopian fiction not only reveal that women are often complicit in the repression of other women (Atwood’s army of Aunts springs to mind, but also the violent and dangerous world of women that Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power imagines), but also that men can and must be allies in creating change.

A way forward.

Dystopian fiction, for all its bleakness, is ultimately about hope. It dramatizes the fact that human beings are driven, even in the cruelest of worlds, to find a way out of no way—to retain and protect what keeps us essentially human. Because even if the future does reveal itself as terrifying, we have to face it together.  

Siobhan Adcock received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines. She has worked as a writer and editor for Epicurious, Gourmet.com, and iVillage.comamong other digital publishers. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

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