The darkest dystopian I’ve ever read, hands down, goes to The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’ve read (and watched) A LOT of dystopias. More than a decade has passed since I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, yet I still remember how devastated I felt while reading it. Even if you haven’t read the book and only know The Handmaid’s Tale from the Hulu series, you’ve seen how terrible the future Margaret Atwood envisioned is. Part of its darkness lies in how real it feels, how possible, even more so now than when I first read it. And yet, even in this darkest of dystopias, there’s a little bit of hope, a glimmer that positive change can happen. Maybe that’s why, despite how grim the future looks right now, I’m still drawn to dystopias. They imagine a terrible future, but also suggest ways of avoiding that future.
If you feel the same about The Handmaid’s Tale, check out these five feminist dystopian reads. They’re sure to leave you both terrified about the future and driven to do something about it.
Of all my recommendations, this is the fastest read. It’s such a page turner; I just had to find out if Lauren makes it, and if the religion she creates — Earthseed — succeeds. Environmental and economic catastrophe have caused an apocalypse scenario in the U.S., and raiders force Lauren to leave her home when they attack the utopian commune she calls home and kill almost everyone she knows. Despite being young, she was the only one to warn the others that their safety was at risk. You should also pick up book 2 in this series, Parable of the Talents. In Parable of the Talents, a man runs for president with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” I’m serious. And do you think his policies help to do that? You can probably make a good guess. It’s even more horrifying than Parable of the Sower.
Of all the books on this list, this one is most like The Handmaid’s Tale. A future matriarchal society keeps an ancient text called the Book of the Unnamed Midwife, a midwife’s diary entries after she survived a virus that decimated earth’s population in a very similar future to today. Chaos ensues among those who remain, and women are considered commodities. They’re raped, beaten, and enslaved. In such a scenario, reproductive rights are meaningless. But, a midwife posing as a man can help give back some of those rights. This is a super dark dystopian, so be prepared. Maybe not a good beach read (though that’s where I read it!).
Another by Atwood! This is the first in the MaddAddam trilogy, and the entire trilogy is excellent. The future in Oryx and Crake is vibrant, textured, and corrupt. I used to call this the most likely dystopian future, but all of them seem likely nowadays. Even though the world verges on economic and environmental collapse, the rich few live it up at the expense of the poor majority. Jimmy grows up as one of these rich few in a gated commune, the son of a scientist. But he befriends Crake, a genius, who sees a lot more than Jimmy, and wants to change the world, whatever the cost. And between them is Oryx, a woman both have fallen in love with. There’s really no way I can do justice to how complicated and rich the world and characters Atwood creates in this one are. After you read it, you’ll definitely want to finish the series by reading The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.
This dystopia reminds me most of Orwell’s 1984, with a feminist slant. The Authority has gathered the remaining people in Britain and placed them in towns that look more like concentration camps. The unnamed protagonist escapes and hikes to an all-female farm 40 miles away, where she converts into one of the Sisters who live there, and for the rest of the novel she refers to herself as Sister. The Sisterhood is planning a rebellion, and all the women are training. This is going to seem like an odd thing to say, but this may be the only dystopian novel where I might actually prefer to live under the dystopian government versus the matriarchal sisterhood! Seems like such a weird thing to say, but this is one scary sisterhood. If you read/have read this one, let me know if you agree!
As a fantasy novel, this may seem like a weird pick, but it’s such an amazing dystopia. You should read this if you’re looking for something different (and even if you’re not, because it’s amazing. Have I said that already? Amazing amazing amazing). The novel opens with Essun sitting by her dead toddler’s body. Her husband, his father, has recently killed him for having the same magic Essun secretly has as well — the ability to control geologic formations. People with this magic are feared because they have caused apocalypses — or seasons — in the past, but what better motivation to cause another season than your murdered child? And her husband has kidnapped her second child as well. This novel is full of social and political commentary — what happens when a group of people are no longer considered ‘people’? — yet it’s not preachy in the least. Jemisin’s prose is beautiful and her characters and world-building complex. I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s the first in a trilogy, and the third is due out in August.