Maybe you’re a long-time fan of Margaret Atwood or perhaps you’ve just discovered her work thanks to the acclaimed adaptation of her 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, winner of the 2017 Emmy for outstanding drama series.
There’s a huge tradition of women writing dystopian fiction, dating back – arguably – to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And as our list shows, it’s a genre of fiction that has captured the imaginations of writers from a vast array of backgrounds.
So if you’re looking for your next dystopic fix then have a read of our list and find some inspiration.
Teenage girls discover they have the power to administer electric shocks through their hands in Alderman’s Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning novel. Through them, older women also learn to channel The Power and pretty soon men find themselves as the weaker sex. Maybe that’s not your idea of a dystopia, but things quickly get dark.
Following The Handmaid’s Tale with this novel is a logical choice: Atwood began mentoring Alderman in 2013, and The Power is duly dedicated to Atwood and her husband. And although she became famous for Disobedience, which is set in north London surburbia, Alderman’s dystopian chops are sound – she’s written a popular zombie-based running app called, appropriately, Run, Zombie, Run.
Nalo Hopkinson, Atwood’s fellow Canadian (although Hopkinson was born in Jamaica), published Brown Girl in the Ring in 1998 to great acclaim and receipt of several awards.
In it, downtown Toronto has been abandoned by the elite, fallen into disrepair and is blighted by violence. The city’s overlord, Rudy Sheldon, is tasked with harvesting a human heart. In the midst of this drama is Ti-Jeanne, the book’s heroine, who has recently moved back into her grandmother’s home. This is an unusual sci-fi novel as it combines elements of spirituality and magic along with the obligatory sci-fi tropes, like new technologies. And the language crackles with life, as Hopkinson contrasts the language of those living in the ghetto with the suburban escapees.
Before Margaret Atwood, there was Marge Piercy – a Michigan-born poet, novelist and activist, as well as an academic. Her work spans genres, including historical fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Prize-winning sci fi book He, She & It, but her most famous novel is probably Woman on the Edge of Time.
Published in 1976, it mixes time travel, feminist issues, treatment of mental health and more, with William Gibson crediting it as the origin of cyberpunk. The novel’s protagonist, Connie Ramos, has been unjustly committed to a mental institution. While there she has a glimpse of a future where there is true racial and gender equality, but at the same time she can also see another outcome, where there is no difference between humanity and commodity.
It is 2025 and, as a drug ravaged population rampages outside, Californians have huddled into protected communities, in this cult classic by African-American author Octavia Butler.
At the centre of the story is Lauren Oya Olamina, a young woman with a condition called ‘hyperempathy’, which means she feels sensations, including pain, just by witnessing them. Lauren’s experiences lead her to develop her own belief system called Earthseed, gathering followers as the novel progresses. Like all good dystopian fiction, Parable of the Sower is driven by current concerns – in this case climate change, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, attacks on minorities, the increasing dominance of global corporations (it’s hard to believe it was written in the early 1990s).
Butler, who died in 2006, is about to become a lot more famous with news that the acclaimed American director Ava DuVernay is adapting another of her novels, Dawn. So why not get on the bandwagon early by reading a few of her many books?
This young Chinese author shot to fame last year when Folding Beijing won the Hugo Award for best novelette, beating Stephen King’s Obits, among others. In the world Hao has created, sunlight is rationed – the largest part of the day is enjoyed by a small but wealthy minority, while the rest of the population gets by as best they can. Poor people must also fight to educate their children, queuing up for days at a time for a chance to win a place at a school. Amid the misery, a humble waste processor called Lao Dao agrees to take on the risky mission of smuggling messages in return for a significant sum of money, which he has no chance of earning otherwise.
You can read Hao’s story in the Chinese SF anthology Invisible Planets, edited and translated by Ken Liu, or the whole thing is available free online.
The Bitch Planet comic series made its debut in 2015. It is set in the near future in a time when women who disobey their patriarchal overlords are sent to a prison in outer-space. As the latest group of inmates arrives they must put aside their differences to fight the system and the mean prison wardens, and make their escape.
OK, it’s not exactly like The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s a lot of fun, with The Guardian describing it as ‘a refreshing foray into the feminist exploitation genre’ (the publishers went for the more catchy ‘think Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds’).
Written in 2009, this story is set in the near future and looks at the consequences of a UFO sighting on a small farming village that has been forgotten in China’s mass move to urbanisation. The book’s protagonist, Kwok Yun, quickly finds that with her newfound celebrity comes the unwanted attention of government spies. The village, too, is transformed, as ancient rice fields are paved over to create tourist facilities and visitors descend to see a monument to the UFO. Is this a dystopian future, or a satire of present day China? Read it yourself and decide. Or watch – Guo has adapted her story into a film, which you can see for free as part of China Changing Festival.